The pandemic set off a surge in online shopping — and with it an avalanche of cardboard boxes and home deliveries. Now a crop of start-ups is focused on making e-commerce more sustainable by reimagining the disposable box, delivery conventions and mailing schedules.
The efforts are part of a larger shift within the retail industry to eliminate single-use cardboard and plastic as consumers increasingly weigh the environmental impacts of fast and easy shipping. Brands such as Clorox, Häagen Dazs and Seventh Generation are moving toward glass, aluminum and stainless-steel packaging that can be returned, cleaned and refilled for subsequent uses, with the help of Loop, a program introduced two years ago at the World Economic Forum.
Sustainability experts say much of the pollution associated with online shopping occurs during “last mile” delivery, that final stretch from warehouse to doorstep. But they say packaging is perhaps an easier — and more tangible — problem to solve. Consumers’ increased reliance on online shopping during the pandemic also put a spotlight on discarded cardboard piling up in recycling bins across the country. Corrugated box shipments rose 9 percent early in the pandemic as Americans stocked up on household paper, cleaning supplies and food, and they have remained elevated in the months since, according to industry data.
“There are trade-offs to shopping online and in stores,” said Scott Matthews, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has been studying the environmental effects of retail practices since the early 2000s. “But packaging will always be a problem that needs to be addressed.”
Faust got the idea for Olive while he was taking out the trash one night.
“After 30 minutes of breaking down boxes and multiple trips down the driveway, it dawned on me that this is crazy,” said Faust, 41, who co-founded Jet.com and five years ago sold it to Walmart for $3.3 billion. “Twenty-five years into online shopping, and this is what status-quo delivery looks like.”
He came up with a blueprint for a company that would not only reduce the amount of waste being shipped to customers’ homes but also streamline deliveries so that orders from multiple retailers are dropped off in a batch, instead of piecemeal. More than 100 apparel retailers — including Anthropologie, Finish Line, Ralph Lauren and Saks Fifth Avenue — have signed on for the service, which is backed by venture capital.
“The real power comes in the last mile to the consumer’s doorstep, where so much of the emissions in the post-purchase supply chain come from, largely because it’s an average of one box per stop on the delivery route,” Faust said. “That’s where we have the biggest impact.”
Shoppers buy items as they normally would, using the company’s app or a Google Chrome plug-in. When it’s time to check out, Olive has the order routed to one of its two warehouses, in Southern California or northern New Jersey. From there, workers unpack individual orders, recycle packing materials and place items in a reusable bag that is delivered once a week.
The service’s benefits, Faust says, are twofold: It ensures more packaging materials are recycled properly at Olive’s facilities while eliminating multiple delivery trips throughout the week. To return an item, the shopper places it back in the shipping tote for the U.S. Postal Service to pick up. Consumers can also collapse the bag and mail it back to Olive. The service is free for consumers; Olive makes money by taking a roughly 10 percent share of each retail order.
Faust says consumers are willing to wait a few extra days for their orders if it means dealing with less waste, though analysts say that could be a difficult proposition given that services such as Amazon Prime have conditioned shoppers to expect just about anything to arrive within a day or two.
To that end, Faust says he is focused on apparel orders, which tend to be fragmented because consumers buy from a range of sites, all with their own delivery timetables and conventions. The segment also has the highest return rates in e-commerce, making it a particularly good fit for reusable packaging.
“With apparel, there aren’t preconceived notions of when should some things show up like there is when you shop on Amazon,” he said, adding that the company plans to eventually expand into other categories, such as cosmetics, and add more advanced tracking and delivery information. “Even when you’re buying from the same retailer, one shirt might come right away. Another might take a week. Waiting an extra two or three days for us to bring everything to you — we think the majority of customers will prefer to take that delay for waste-free delivery and doorstep returns.”
The more efficient online shopping becomes, the better environmental option it becomes to in-store shopping, said Matthews of Carnegie Mellon.
Delivery trucks can make more concentrated deliveries instead of boomeranging around town, he said, resulting in lower greenhouse gas emissions. Plus, a delivery truck that makes dozens of stops an hour is more efficient than individual shoppers driving to several stores for a handful of items at a time, he said.
Retailers have also become more careful about packaging and box size, which has helped curtail waste. Amazon, which accounts for nearly 40 percent of the country’s online sales, said it has reduced packaging by 33 percent since 2015, eliminating more than 900,000 tons of packaging material, equivalent to 1.6 billion shipping boxes. (Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
“Twenty years ago, if you ordered a book, it’d arrive in a big box with [Styrofoam] peanuts or bubble wrap,” Matthews said. “Nowadays it comes in very streamlined packaging, maybe even in a padded envelope, which means you don’t fill up trucks as fast.”
When the pandemic hit last year, high-end shoe company Charix moved all of its business online. Sales boomed sixfold — but so did returns and exchanges.
“We quickly realized e-commerce is very different from traditional retail,” said Suley Ozbey, who founded the D.C.-based company in 2015. “We’d get shoes back in boxes that we couldn’t use again, and it was piling up,” he said. “Our neighbors were complaining that we were taking up all of the dumpsters and we felt like, oh no, we’re throwing away many good boxes.”
He began looking for alternatives and found Boox, which offers brightly colored reusable plastic mailing boxes with a velcro-like fastener and don’t require packing tape. Ozbey pays about $2 per Boox, vs. about 75 cents for a cardboard box, but said the investment has been worthwhile. Each plastic container can be used up to a dozen times before it’s recycled.
“There’s no clutter, there’s no trash,” he said.
Boox, started six months ago by restauranteur-turned-entrepreneur Matthew Semmelhack, sells its reusable plastic mailing boxes to more than 30 specialty retailers, including Ren Skincare, Boyish Jeans and Curio Spice Co. It is nearing 50,000 shipments a month, with half of those boxes being returned by consumers.
“The folding cardboard box was invented 120 years ago and hasn’t changed much since then,” said Semmelhack, 38, who lives in Petaluma, Calif. “But the way we receive packages and products has changed wildly over the last 10 or 20 years. And now with the pandemic, the number of products coming to our door has skyrocketed.”
Each box can be reused about a dozen times, he said. Once returned, they’re quarantined for a week then cleaned using organic soap and water before being redeployed for more deliveries. Once the box is done for good, Semmelhack said the company works with a manufacturer that can break down the corrugated polypropylene into plastic flakes and be turned into more boxes more efficiently than cardboard recycling.
Customers can return or exchange their products in the same box, or they can flatten it into an envelope and return it by mail to Boox for reuse.
“The grand vision is to never throw a box away and never make a new one,” Semmelhack said. “But first we need to show that behavioral change is possible.”