Mountains to climb: China’s booming e-commerce market creating waste-management headache, environment at risk

Couriers and online platforms reluctant to engage in recycling due to low profitability; landfills at risk of being overrun

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 March, 2016, 6:50pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 March, 2016, 7:35pm

China’s booming e-commerce market may be fuelling increased domestic consumption but it has also created environmental problems due to large amounts of parcel packaging waste.

Most of the waste is made of plastic that takes centuries to biodegrade at landfills, according to a report from China’s State Post Bureau.

It hardly costs anything to buy material for packaging, but it costs a fortune to recycle
Chinese researcher

Data from the Chinese Institute of Graphic Communication shows there were 20 billion parcels shipped last year by courier services on the mainland. This required the use of 7.5 billion plastic bags, 10 billion cardboard boxes, and 17 billion metres of wrapping tape. The tape alone would be long enough to circle the earth more than 400 times.

However, most of the waste has not been recycled by the responsible e-commerce and delivery service providers, resulting in a huge threat to the environment, said a Chinese researcher who declined to be named.

The waste is increasing in tandem with e-commerce. According to the State Post Bureau, the total number of parcels delivered by courier services in China jumped 48 per cent last year. The growth rate for 2014 was even higher, above 50 per cent.

The bulk of the waste is deposited in landfills without being processed, the researcher said.

“In China, nobody bothers to recycle plastic bags, while cardboard covered in plastic tapes is too expensive to be recycled,” he said.

“It hardly costs anything to buy material for packaging, but it costs a fortune to recycle.”

There are currently no regulations for processing used packaging in China, except for postal receipts (the sticker on the box), the State Post Bureau reported.

The report suggests industry consolidation in the delivery market as a solution to reduce the number of steps a parcel needs to go through as it passes along the chain from seller to buyer.

The bureau said the number of parcels delivered by China’s courier services was already 50 per cent higher in the first two months of this year than in the corresponding period of 2015.

China is one of the world’s largest producers of plastic waste. A study from the University of Georgia last year said that nearly 30 per cent of plastic waste in the world’s seas come from China.