A new report sheds light on the increasing environmental costs incurred from China's booming express delivery market.
Delivery parcels line a street in Beijing on Nov 12, the day following the annual Singles Day shopping spree. (Photo: chinadaily.com.cn)
Less than 5 percent of cardboard boxes used in express delivery packaging were reused, and nearly all plastic packaging ended up in landfills, according to the report, which surveyed 37 universities and residential communities as well as four e-commerce businesses in 18 provinces or cities from July to September.
The carbon emissions from delivery packaging services amounted to 13 million tons last year, requiring 710 million trees to neutralize, according to the report. Without more environmentally friendly policies, emissions will more than quadruple by 2025.
The report was released jointly by the environmental group Greenpeace East Asia, the All-China Environment Federation and Break Free From Plastic China on Nov 11, the annual Singles Day shopping spree.
China's express delivery industry has grown 41.5 percent annually over the past 30 years. With the country now the world's largest express delivery market, the amount of packaging waste has also surged.
More than 900 tons of delivery packaging materials were used in 2018, compared with 2 tons in 2000, according to the report.
"With the Singles Day shopping carnival in full swing, we should not ignore the huge environmental and resource costs behind the miracle of China's e-commerce and express delivery market," said Tang Damin, a plastic campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia.
Delivery packaging falls into two major categories – paper and plastic, according to the report. Paper-made boxes account for 44 percent of all delivery packaging by number, and plastic bags make up for 34 percent of the total, with the rest being foam boxes, woven bags and other packaging types.
The report said around 80 percent of cardboard boxes were recycled, with 15 percent mixed with waste, and nearly all the plastic packaging ended up burned or in landfills.
Nearly 1.4 billion yuan ($200 million) was spent to incinerate or bury delivery packing waste in 2018. The figure is expected to more than triple by 2025, assuming no improvement in recycling rates.
The State Post Bureau, which supervises the express delivery market, has drawn up tougher regulations targeting green delivery services last month. The bureau required 70 percent of packaging materials used by express firms to be renewable by the end of this year, up from 44 percent at present.
Some improvements have been made by the express delivery industry in reducing packaging waste, according to an industry report released earlier this year.
Ninety six percent of delivery services have adopted digital waybills, and a thinner packaging tape with a width of 45 millimeters – compared with 60 mm in the past - has been widely used in the industry. And some leading e-commerce businesses such as JD and Suning have rolled out their own recycling boxes.
The report added, however, the usage of these boxes has so far been limited in scale.
"E-commerce businesses and express firms should make more effort to reduce single-use delivery packaging to solve the waste problem," said Lu Weizhen from Break Free From Plastic China.
The report calls for more encouragement and mandatory policies to spur market players to reduce packaging and increase the rates of recycling and reuse, as well as improved regulations and the building of a green certification system in the industry.