Logistics Turning ‘Green’

By Huang Jiangqin

“Green” has become a highlight of this year’s Double 11 shopping spree, an online shopping festival in China. Various major e-commerce platforms, brands, and logistics companies have been promoting services featuring eco-friendly logistics, green consumption, and simple and recyclable packages to facilitate the green transformation of the logistics industry.

The recyclable shipping boxes of JD Logistics.

On November 15, Cainiao Network, the logistics arm of Alibaba Group, released a report on the Double 11 green logistics efforts of Tmall, Alibaba Group’s major online shopping platform. The report showed that Cainiao Network managed to trim an average of 15 percent off the materials used to make each package. The improvement required seven technological approaches adapted to Cainiao’s green supply chain, namely, electronic express sheets, a packing algorithm, delivery in original boxes, green packaging, intelligent planning of delivery routes, green distribution and delivery, and intelligent sorting. During the Double 11 shopping festival, over 150,000 kinds of products were delivered by the green supply chain, realizing a whole carbon-reduction cycle from storage to delivery and finally to recycling.

Shanghai-based YTO Express proposed an initiative to avoid over-packaging, excessive use of packing tape, the usage of disposable plastic woven bags, and unnecessary packing of paper boxes and plastic bags.

JD Logistics, a Chinese logistics services provider, pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 200,000 tons during the Double 11 festival and rolled out further carbon-reduction measures including trimming the weight of packages and using original packaging.

Plastic reduction, on the other hand, could be realized in the processes of both packaging and delivery. During the Double 11 this year, all physical stores of Intime Department Store, a Chinese retailer, started using “green delivery bags,” a new kind of degradable plastic bag employing “PBAT+PLA+MD” materials. In compost conditions, the plastic fully decomposes into water, carbon dioxide, and methane as fast as six months if temperature and moisture are ideal.

Industry Consensus

Fourteen years have passed since the Double 11shopping festival first launched in 2009. During the online event each November, packages quickly pile up in logistics outlets and parcel couriers endure the busiest stretch of the year. Indeed, e-commerce stimulates consumption remarkably, but the resulting surge of discarded plastic and paper boxes exerts greater pressure on pollution control.

Research from China Environmental United Certification Center under China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment shows that waste produced by the logistics industry increases by over 9 million tons each year, 1.8 million tons of which are plastic waste, and the numbers are still growing.

Before this year’s Double 11, three departments of National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) including the Department of Resource Conservation and Environmental Protection held meetings with e-commerce companies like Alibaba and JD.com as well as logistics providers such as China Post and SF Express on controlling packaging pollution. The meetings stressed that even though Double 11 is such an important time for online retail, all relevant companies must do more to reduce plastic pollution and avoid over-packaging.

Reducing plastic pollution and packaging waste has become a topic of national and social concern. Wen Zongguo, a professor at the School of the Environment of Tsinghua University, said that policies on green packaging are increasing and that organizations issuing related policies or regulations are becoming more diverse.

In 2021, the NDRC issued Opinions on Further Enhancing Pollution Control of Plastics, which stipulated that by 2025, non-degradable plastic bags, tape, and disposable woven plastic bags would be banned in all postal delivery outlets nationwide.

According to The Plan of Action (2020-2025) on Governance of Plastic Pollution (Consultation Paper) issued by the People’s Government of Beijing Municipality, by the end of 2025, non-degradable plastic tape will be banned from all logistics outlets in the city. The document also clarified different responsibilities for specific organizations.

At its 2022 fourth quarter press conference, the State Post Bureau made it clear that by the end of 2025, all postal delivery outlets would ban usage of non-degradable plastic bags, tape, and disposable plastic woven bags.

Reducing plastic packaging and facilitating green logistics have become the consensus of the logistics industry. On September 28, 2021, 18 logistics companies including China Post EMS, SF Express, and ZTO Express signed and released Self-regulation Convention on Sustainable Packaging and Plastic Reduction in China’s Express Industry.

The document includes 11 initiatives requiring all signatory companies to standardize management of packaging, avoid environmentally damaging packaging materials, reduce usage of plastic packaging, and encourage reuse and recycling of plastic packaging products to build a plastic recycling economy and achieve sustainable development.

The logistics industry’s first code of practice on green packaging, the document is an effective guideline for enhancing plastic pollution control in parcel delivery.

E-commerce platforms, on the upstream demand side, exert a decisive impact on downstream logistics service providers. To facilitate green packaging, e-commerce platforms need to play an active role in the management of the green supply chain. During the Double 11 this year, Cainiao Network cooperated with Tmall Supermarket and various online stores to send products in their original packages. Logistics service providers also tried to reuse the old bags and boxes this year, so around 70 percent of products were delivered without using new paper boxes.

Easier Said Than Done

Although logistics companies have been stressing their efforts on sustainable packaging, following all of the rules intended to reduce plastic packaging and promote recycling and usage of degradable materials may still be difficult.

During this year’s Double 11, “over-packaged” parcels were still seen in many distribution outlets in Beijing’s Haidian District and Xicheng District. Some were wrapped in layers of plastic bags or sealed with thick plastic tape.

Li Ming (a pseudonym), a courier who delivers parcels in the Zhongguancun area of Haidian District, revealed that he “did not receive any notice to reduce usage of plastic bags and tape.”

Packaging a parcel generally involves tape, seal-capping and packaging bags made of film, air cushions, and plastic woven fabric. Since plastic bags are provided for free and are more flexible, packing workers usually reach for them first. “We have to use a lot of tape and cushioning to protect the products or we’ll get complaints about product damage,” said Li.

According to statistics from the State Post Bureau, the number of parcel deliveries in China exceeded 60 billion in 2019, and each parcel used 0.8 meters of tape on average. The 48 billion meters of tape used on all the 60 billion parcels would wrap around the equator nearly 1,200 times. In addition to the shocking numbers, the main material of tape is polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which takes almost a century to decompose.

Plastic bags are classified as residual waste, which means that such materials are not collected and recycled by organizations like logistics companies.

According to a parcel courier in Beijing’s Xicheng District, recycling the packaging is completely up to the customer. “Our company has no workers assigned to package recycling because it costs time and money,” he said.

In 2019, Greenpeace and several organizations working on environmental protection jointly released a report on characteristics and management of packaging waste in China. The report indicated that such waste is hard to recycle and that the cost of recycling is high compared to the profit margin. Therefore, 99 percent (weight ratio) of plastic packaging waste from logistics delivery is treated alongside household waste.

Degradable plastic bags are not yet widely used in the logistics industry. Another parcel courier in Xicheng District reveals that he prefers to use regular plastic bags when packing items. “Degradable bags are generally thin and tear easily,” he explained. “I received complaints from customers when degradable bags break.” So he only uses biodegradable plastic bags on small and light items when he runs out of regular bags.

At a November 15 seminar to discuss recycling delivery packages and promoting sustainable packaging, Wen Zongguo noted that multiple challenges remain for the logistics industry in fields including green packaging certification and applying biodegradable plastic materials to reduce the impact on the environment. “The industry needs to consider the impact of the whole delivery process on the environment and raise awareness on scientific environmental protection,” said Wen.

Scaled Application of Recyclable Packages

A highlight of this year’s Double 11, package recycling is a significant step towards a green transformation of the logistics industry.

To encourage package recycling, JD Logistics continued its measures to recycle paper boxes. Online shoppers could leave the packages directly at the logistics outlets after receiving purchased products. Such action was rewarded when customers received “carbon points” on the Cainiao mobile application which could be exchanged for gifts like eggs. The Cainiao Network estimated that a total of 6 million packages were recycled during this year’s shopping festival.

Meanwhile, some logistics companies are reinforcing efforts to develop recyclable packaging materials. Deppon Express has developed and put into use many environmentally-friendly products including recyclable bags, recyclable cases, intelligent recyclable boxes, and tape-less paper boxes. According to Deppon, disposable packaging is a big chunk of the budget for every logistics company. Therefore, using recyclable packaging materials benefits not only the environment but also the companies themselves.

However, recyclable packaging still faces many restrictions. The recyclable “π-BOX” developed by SF Express and Deppon Express’ environmentally-friendly sealing cases solely target customers who sign for packages face-to-face. The delivery addresses of such customers are usually shopping malls or central business districts where couriers can collect the packaging from customers directly and bring it back to the logistics outlet. If the customers do not sign for their parcels face-to-face, it’s much harder for the courier to get the packaging back.

And if such recyclable packages are sent from eastern China to remote western regions, the cost to recycle empty boxes surges because of the cost of long-distance transportation and resource management.

Duan Yanjian oversees the Green Logistics program for JD Logistics. “Currently, recycling of delivery packages is limited to within the same city or region, particularly developed areas such as the Yangtze River Delta and the Pearl River Delta,” said Duan.

Technology is working to help solve the problem. Fuhai Recycle Box Inc. and Hongbulin, an e-commerce platform promoting a recycling lifestyle, jointly launched “smart recyclable packaging” in Shanghai on November 5. Customers can scan the codes on the packages with their mobile phones to unlock parcels. The packaging boxes are subsequently collected by couriers or customers can choose to return them to recycling stations.

Yan Haiying, president of Fuhai Recycle Box Inc., believes that standardization is essential for scaled application of recyclable packages. Yan pointed out that the first step is to realize standardization and package-sharing. “In addition to standardizing the sizes of shipping boxes, we need to cancel customization of packages to realize package circulation among various logistics companies,” said Yan.

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