Lai Yuxi (left) sends a parcel of local farm products wrapped with environment-friendly packaging bag designed by herself in south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region on September 23 (XINHUA)
While online marketplaces in China were busy preparing for an upcoming shopping bonanza with promises of faster delivery to woo buyers, the government started working on addressing the "aftermath" of online sales—hundreds of millions of tons of packaging waste generated across the country each year.
The State Post Bureau (SPB) on November 2 announced specific goals to green the courier sector.
By 2020, half of external packages should be degradable, 90 percent of waybills electronic, and packing material used in parcels cut by 10 percent, the SPB said in a document. Tape and woven bags should be gradually replaced.
"Given the rapidly growing express delivery industry, the impacts of packaging waste on the environment cannot be ignored," the SPB said, noting a courier package regulation system will be built.
The move came amid looming Singles Day sales, seen by many as China's version of the United States' Black Friday. Falling on November 11, the newly created online shopping festival was popularized by e-commerce giant Alibaba Group.
The SPB predicted this year, the shopping spree would boost the number of packages handled between November 11 and 16 to 1.5 billion, up 35 percent from the same period a year ago. The daily volume could hit 340 million, three times the usual level.
Despite taking measures such as hiring more couriers and launching smart warehouses, courier service providers still face the challenge of ensuring on-time delivery. However, what the environment is confronted with is much more serious.
Packages mainly made of paper and plastics have resulted in more consumption of wood and crude oil, according to Yang Jun, Deputy Secretary General of the China Express Association.
Producing a ton of paper boxes takes 17 10-year-old trees, and 3 tons of oil is required to make a ton of plastic bags, data show.
The recycling of packaging waste is another problem. "Currently, there are no effective systems for garbage sorting and recycling," said Zeng Xianlai, an associate researcher at Tsinghua University's School of Environment.
Packaging materials such as tape, protective wrapping and plastic bags are usually sent to landfills, and the main component of such materials, polyvinyl chloride, may take hundreds of years to degrade. Burning these materials also generates pollutants.
Analysts estimate China saw 6 million tons of packaging waste generated last year whose disposal costs exceeded 9 billion yuan ($1.36 billion).
Less than 10 percent of packaging materials are recycled, Zeng said.
"China should speed up green transformation in the courier sector," Yang said, adding that all express delivery companies, online stores and consumers should be involved.
Major e-commerce businesses have moved to ease the environmental concerns.
Suning.com President Hou Enlong said the online platform will use plastic express boxes that can be folded and reused to replace cardboard ones. The company first tried non-folding boxes half a year ago, and 6.5 million cardboard boxes have since been saved. Suning.com plans to increase the total number of the new boxes to 200,000 from the current 50,000 for the delivery of consumer electronics, mother and baby products, and fast-moving consumer goods in 2018.
JD.com and Alibaba's delivery unit Cainiao.com have also implemented similar programs that feature biodegradable materials and less packaging.
But inconvenience in delivery and recycling have to some extent curbed the promotion of more eco-friendly packaging, and sometimes disposable packaging appears to be much more favored by consumers, such as when purchasing fresh products.
Cainiao.com Vice President Shi Miao said online stores could give extra membership points to motivate consumers to choose green packaging.
"In our public welfare program, our clients can exchange their points for planting trees in northwest China's deserts," he said.
Thanks to the initiative, Cainiao.com's green packages have been used 5 million times this year, Shi said.
Analysts say steering toward green packaging is a long-term trend for the courier sector, although it still needs time to achieve complete transformation.
This is an edited excerpt of an article originally published by Xinhua News Agency
Copyedited by Chris Surtees
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