Nearly 4 billion packages were shipped during China’s Singles’ Day shopping extravaganza which concluded last week, setting a new record for the country’s e-commerce sector.
But as more and more people flock to online shopping because of its convenience, new questions are being raised about the amount of packaging waste and pollution generated as a result.
“After the short dip in package volumes during the peak of the pandemic, China’s delivery sector resumed rapid growth midyear with annual package volume expected to surpass 70 billion,” said Tang Damin, Beijing-based plastics campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia. “If there is no fundamental change in the express packaging model, the total amount of packaging waste could increase significantly from last year.”
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China’s postal and express delivery companies shipped around 3.96 billion packages during the Singles’ Day period, which ran from November 1 to 11, taking the number of packages shipped in China so far this year beyond 70 billion, according to a statement by the State Post Bureau, China’s delivery service regulator, on Tuesday.
The bureau estimated that around 80 billion packages will be delivered by the end of this year, at least a 25 per cent increase over the 63.52 billion packages shipped in China during the whole of 2019.
And although China’s leading e-commerce players have been improving their recycling efforts, it is estimated that 20 per cent of the packages delivered this year are plastic, said Zhang Deyuan, deputy director of an institute under the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China’s top economic planner, in a recent interview with state media China Youth Daily.
In 2018, China’s express delivery industry generated over 9.4 million tons of packaging materials, weighing the equivalent of 130 million adults, and a total of 851,800 tons were plastic, according to a Greenpeace report published during last year’s Singles’ Day.
Packaging waste normally includes plastic wrappers, tape, cardboard boxes, bags or envelopes. According to the Greenpeace report, 80 per cent of China’s paper express packaging materials can be recycled. But due to high recycling costs, and low recycling profits, about 99 per cent of China’s plastic packaging waste could not be effectively recycled, according to the 2019 report. The problem has not escaped the attention of industry regulators.
A document issued by NDRC in January this year included online shopping and food delivery under its regulatory umbrella for the first time, and ordered delivery services in major cities to ban the use of nondegradable, single-use packaging by 2022. The NDRC also wants this ban extended to the whole country by 2025. So far, over 20 of China’s 31 provinces and municipalities have already updated their policies to control plastic waste – responding quickly as green issues have risen up Beijing’s policy agenda.
Chinese President Xi Jinping announced at a United Nations meeting on September 22 that carbon emissions will peak in 2030, and that the country will be “carbon neutral” by 2060. China’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) – to be finalised early next year – is expected to highlight environmental protection by issuing more rigorous policy measures, according to state-owned Xinhua News Agency.
Before this year’s Singles’ Day, Alibaba Group Holding’s logistics service Cainiao had set up approximately 80,000 recycling stations across China to encourage consumers to recycle their packaging waste. Nearly 50 per cent of the paper packaging in Cainiao’s warehouses is plastic tape-free, and almost 100 per cent of the packages shipped are biodegradable, according to Cainiao’s spokeswoman.
Alibaba’s online grocery service Tmall Supermarket also stepped up its sustainability efforts by using four million reusable boxes for orders made on its platform this year, according to Cainiao.
Meanwhile, the logistics arm of e-commerce giant JD.com, which saw its parcel delivery orders increase by 164 per cent during the 2020 Singles’ Day, said it has helped reduce delivery waste by 100,000 tons with recyclable delivery boxes used 6.5 million times during the shopping festival, the company told the Post.
But even as China’s delivery and e-commerce companies up their game on recycling, environmentalists are still questioning if their efforts are enough to offset the surge in online shopping – and packaging – during and after the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s not enough to only cut the use of plastic,” said Greenpeace’s Tang. “[We need] clarification on what methods can be used to replace single-use plastic packaging … and so far I haven’t seen a convincing answer to this question from the governmental or company level.”
Single-use plastics – especially small items like straws, bags, and cutlery – are traditionally hard to recycle because they fall into the crevices of recycling machinery and therefore are often not accepted by recycling centres.
“We need [more] data collection and transparency. Only by establishing a reliable data reporting mechanism can the government and the public truly know how effective these policies are.”
Alibaba is the parent company of the South China Morning Post.
Additional reporting by Minghe Hu.