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China has 940 million people online, and the country loves online shopping. Over time, that makes up a lot of packaging waste. Photo: Xinhua

Plastic waste from e-commerce packaging is a big problem in China, so Shanghai is trying to fight it

  • Shanghai is phasing out non-biodegradable packaging for e-commerce deliveries in post offices, but private companies aren’t covered
  • China is on track to have packaging waste as heavy as more than 400 aircraft carriers by 2025

China generates the most plastic waste in the world. But at least one city is taking a dramatic step to help the fight against single-use packaging. Shanghai recently unveiled an ambitious plan to have no plastic in landfills by 2022.

New regulations from the Shanghai Development and Reform Commission and other municipal departments aim to reduce waste from e-commerce packaging. The city’s post offices are tasked with reducing the use of non-biodegradable plastics in express delivery, with plans to ban non-biodegradable plastic tape by 2023.

China is the biggest contributor to plastic waste in the world.

Shanghai’s new rules target more than just e-commerce waste, though. They also restrict or forbid the production, sale and use of certain plastic products in hotels, food delivery and other areas within the next five years. Plastic bags, disposable food containers, plastic cotton buds and cosmetic products with plastic beads are all banned.

Shanghai’s new initiative aligns with the national government’s broader fight against plastic that was unveiled in January and goes into effect this year. China aims to phase out the use of plastic bags and other single-use plastic products by 2025.
As of right now, the country is on track to have 41.3 million tonnes of waste from packaging material by 2025, according to a report released from Greenpeace and other NGOs last year. That’s roughly the weight of 413 modern aircraft carriers.
Illustration: Abacus

In 2018 alone, China used 9.4 million tonnes of packaging materials, the report said. One major contributor to this is shopping festivals like Singles’ Day, China’s biggest online shopping day organised by the likes of e-commerce giant Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post.

Singles’ Day, the shopping event that makes Black Friday look like a yard sale

Shoppers and environmentalists alike have criticised the excessive use of plastic wrapping that e-commerce sellers use to protect shipments. But Shanghai’s new initiative only applies to the post office but not private delivery services such as Alibaba’s Cainiao, or STO Express.


For private companies, Shanghai hopes to encourage the use of green packaging and better recycling practices. Some e-commerce players such as JD and electronics seller Suning are already trying to go green by offering reusable packaging.

The world’s biggest shopping event has a massive waste problem

China’s efforts to curb plastic waste ramped up in 2018 when it banned the practice of importing it from other countries. But government initiatives targeting excessive packaging have been around at least since 2012.

The national government’s latest initiative targeting plastic waste will start being phased in this year. By the end of the year, some bans on the production and sale of disposable foamed plastic tableware, straws and plastic cotton buds will already be in effect.