Ideas Packaging

Pre-Cycling for eCommerce: Future of Recycling

Pre-Cycling for eCommerce offers an opportunity for retailers to take the lead in improving recycling, and in turn reducing levels of landfill.

Recycling is both an opportunity and a problem for the eCom sustainability movement, with pre-cycling for eCommerce offering a potential solution. People have become accustomed to the process of recycling; however, there are significant issues with recycling at home. 

Recycling in eCommerce

Consumers have become very good at recycling. Sydney Morning Herald reports that in 2019, 37 million tonnes, or 58%, of waste dutifully sorted for recycling. 

Pre-Cycling for eCommerce recycled cardboard
Pre-Cycling vs Recycling for eCommerce

Sounds great in theory. The multiple layers of polybags, protective bubble wraps and polystyrene found in eCommerce packaging are, however, often added to recycling bins mistakenly by consumers.

Guilt surrounding single-use waste as a result of online shopping drives people to hope recycling of eCommerce packaging is an option blindly. 

This process has become known as wish-cycling and is a key driver behind the benefit of pre-cycling for eCommerce.

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Wish-Cycling in eCommerce

The term “wish-cycling” is prevalent in eCommerce packaging materials. Efforts to reduce waste result in people adding anything into the recycling bin in the hope they think/wish it might be recyclable.

Polybags, as an example, can often be recycled, but not through the traditional domestic recycling channels. This doesn’t, however, stop us from adding them anyway to recycling. The result of this is contamination of all items, with even the recyclable material then destined for landfill.

The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) reported of the 4.4 million tonnes of packaging waste produced in 2017–18, 44 per cent ended up in a landfill. Around 58 per cent of plastic put in kerbside bins suffered the same fate. 

Many developed countries like Australia, send their recycling to other countries to be processed due to cost. This week, The Sydney Morning Herald reported the issue of “wish-cycling” with 100 waste containers turned back by Indonesia due to contamination.

Sydney Morning Herald Indonesia Return Recycling
Source: Sydney Morning Herald 19th Sept 2019

Pre-Cycling for eCommerce

There are many potential answers for wish-cycling, both with consumer education, and better processing by waste management companies. However, how can eCommerce businesses play their part? Could the concept of pre-cycling provide an answer?

Packaging in eCommerce is a problem. Items are packaged by the factory, with further personalised packaging added by both wholesalers and the eCommerce retailers themselves.  

How many times have you received an item, with multiple layers of both protective and decorative packaging immediately discarded? Even if the various packaging items are recyclable, how many are then contaminated? 

Pre-Cycling for eCommerce recycling bin overflowing with cardboard
Pre-Cycling for eCommerce to reduce packaging waste

What if the eCommerce retailer took it upon themselves to remove and commercially recycle packaging before sending to a customer. This pre-cycling for eCommerce with commercial volumes, plus expertise and understanding, would result in a much higher percentage of packaging recycling.

Supermarket Pre-Cycling 

UK supermarket Sainsbury’s has led the way with this concept, introducing trial pre-cycling areas in stores. The idea is to allow consumers to remove the packaging on goods before leaving the store. Sainsbury then takes full responsibility for ensuring the packaging is recycled.

“For many years, Sainsbury’s has prioritised sustainability and sought innovative solutions to reduce plastic packaging and increase recycling.”

Mike Couple, Chief Executive, Sainsbury Group

Great concept in theory. Difficult, however, to see this catching on at scale within the supermarket industry. The effort to remove and then re-package goods in reusable containers seems unlikely. 

Pre-Cycling at Sainsburys
Supermarket Pre-Cycling at Sainsbury’s

When comparing with supermarkets, the concept of pre-cycling for eCommerce suddenly seems much more straightforward. 

Pre-Cycling eCommerce Use Case

For a multi-brand fashion eCom retailer, millions of items arrive via inbound deliveries from companies across the world. Clothing items remain packed in a variety of cardboard boxes and polybags, before an extra layer of branded packaging is added.

With the level of trade executed by such a business, imagine the impact of implementing pre-cycling for eCommerce by removing and recycling internal packaging.

Various types of polybags and plastic could be commercially recycled, ensuring they don’t end up in a landfill. Such a scheme also removes any chance of contamination of other items through wish-cycling.

Items are then sent out to the customer in sustainable replacement packaging — a win for both the consumer and the environment.

Further Reading: Sustainable Packaging Insights: Eco-Revenue. Read More