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Free Content Single-use vs. reusable packaging in e-commerce: comparing carbon footprints and identifying break-even points

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The market share of online retail has continued to grow over the past few years, most recently accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Individual shipments give rise to additional shipping packaging. Our carbon footprint comparison shows that reusable packaging is environmentally advantageous if it is reused often enough. To achieve this, however, political and economic incentives seem necessary.

In Germany, the revenue of e-commerce amounted to over 68 billion euros in 2018 with over two billion shipments being delivered. Up to 30 percent of online retail’s carbon footprint comes from the use of shipping packaging. Reusable packaging could make a significant contribution to resource savings and waste avoidance. Few valid findings exist as to the environmental performance of reusable packaging systems in online retail. It is also difficult to ascertain which factors influence these results most (such as material, weight, number of cycles). Against this backdrop, we examined two types of reusable shipping packaging in terms of their CO2eq emissions: a reusable PP box and a reusable shipping bag. Both were then compared with single-use alter - natives. Compared to a single-use LDPE bag, the reusable shipping bag offered an environmental advantage after a few cycles, with the absolute carbon footprint of both bags depending on whether recycled material was used. For the reusable PP box, the break-even point was between 32 and 81 cycles, depending on which assumptions were made. For a broader application of reusable shipping packaging, further challenges arise, such as the cost-efficient design of return logistics or the optimization of the packaging design.

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Keywords: carbon footprint; e-commerce; packaging waste; reusable packaging

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: ├ľkopol Institute for Environmental Strategies | Nernstweg 32-34 | 22765 Hamburg | Germany | +49 40 3910020

Publication date: October 15, 2020

More about this publication?
  • GAIA is a peer-reviewed inter- and transdisciplinary journal for scientists and other interested parties concerned with the causes and analyses of environmental and sustainability problems and their solutions.

    Environmental problems cannot be solved by one academic discipline. The complex natures of these problems require cooperation across disciplinary boundaries. Since 1991, GAIA has offered a well-balanced and practice-oriented forum for transdisciplinary research. GAIA offers first-hand information on state of the art environmental research and on current solutions to environmental problems. Well-known editors, advisors, and authors work to ensure the high quality of the contributions found in GAIA and a unique transdisciplinary dialogue – in a comprehensible style.

    GAIA is an ISI-journal, listed in the Science Citation Index Expanded, Social Science Citation Index and in Current Contents/Social and Behavioral Sciences.

    All contributions undergo a double-blind peer review.

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