Singles’ Day: a burden on the environment

Published November 14, 2019, 11:02 AM

by AJ Siytangco

By EFE-EPA

As Singles’ Day has laid bare, e-commerce is growing at a dizzying speed in China, but this boom has also led to a brutal increase in the volume of packaging and waste, according to an environmental report.

Workers sort packages at the Yuqiao mail processing center on Singles' Day, in Yangzhou City, Jiangsu Province, China, 11 November 2019. (EFE/EPA/MENG DELONG CHINA OUT / MANILA BULLETIN)
Workers sort packages at the Yuqiao mail processing center on Singles’ Day, in Yangzhou City, Jiangsu Province, China, 11 November 2019. (EFE/EPA/MENG DELONG CHINA OUT / MANILA BULLETIN)

And despite this increase, no initiatives or environmental policies have been championed to make the sector sustainable, a joint report by Greenpeace Asia, Break Free from Plastic China and the All-China Environment Federation revealed.

“Every year, people remark on the wastefulness of Singles’ Day, and we still only have suggestions and guidelines.

“That should alarm you. There is no real urgency to address this crisis,” Tang Damin, Beijing-based plastics campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia told Efe.

Environmental NGOs say that plastic packaging is not recycled 95 percent of the time.

Plastic waste gets mixed with solid waste and ends up in landfills 60 percent of the time and incinerators 40 percent of the time.

“About 1.4 billion packages were sent out on 11 November 2018, resulting in a potential 251,000 tons of packaging.

“The carbon footprint of Singles’ Day is huge, considering that a lot of packaging ends up in landfills and incinerators,” Tang added.

This will likely escalate this year since the sales of e-commerce giants such as Alibaba (the main promoter of the shopping spree) was 26 percent higher than last year.

“They are the ones who started this system and profit off of its wastefulness.

“Currently, it looks like the e-commerce giants are marketing ‘green packaging initiatives’ but we’re not seeing any fundamental changes,” Tang said.

The report said that in 2018 packaging materials used by e-commerce and food delivery sectors reached a cumulative 9.4 million tons, 3.5 times the amount of tea that China produced.

Looking forward, a business-as-usual scenario will produce 41.3 million tons by 2025, the experts added.

Taking into account the growth prospects of the sectors, based on an increase in the purchasing power of Chinese people and the rise of e-commerce users, by 2025 41.3 million tons of waste will be produced.

The private sector has said it is putting great efforts in the promotion of responsible packaging.

In 2017, the Alibaba Group parcel company created the Cainiao Green Foundation and allocated $45.2 million to research and initiatives that would leave a smaller environmental footprint.

Sources from the company told Efe that it has implemented new practices such as the use of electronic labels instead of paper and the development of an intelligent packaging algorithm, which classifies products and bundles them so that packaging is more efficient and less wasteful by up to 15 percent.

Alibaba has no calculations on the amount of waste produced on Singles Day.

“But we are undoubtedly aware that we have a responsibility to the environment,” the company said.

Special recycling programs have been implemented to date with an additional 75,000 recycling stations and alliances with major brands for the promotion of biodegradable packaging.

Even so, most of the big brands continue to pack individual pieces in plastics, which in turn come wrapped with the total contents of the package in another plastic bag.

And in restaurants and supermarkets that offer home delivery (a widespread service in China), often free, everything comes packed in unnecessary quantities of packaging.

In the Taobao store (an Alibaba bricks and mortar store) FuLeiXiYa, who sells cosmetic products, explained the store’s packaging process to Efe:

“First I pack the products in a transparent bag. If there are fragile products, I wrap them with bubble wrap,” the source said.

“In the end, I put them in a corrugated cardboard box, which are normally extra thick and extra rigid.

“The packaging of the product affects what the customer thinks when receiving the package, and (if it arrives in a bad state) it can negatively affect the valuations the customers give us.”

According to the source, Alibaba has not issued orders to package products in a more environmentally friendly way.

“We need strict laws. Suggestion and guidelines have proven to not be enough,” the Greenpeace activist said.

“The government has been involved in this industry for a long time.

“Every year, people remark on the wastefulness of Singles’ Day, and we still only have suggestions and guidelines.

“That should alarm you. There is no real urgency to address this crisis,” Tang added.

According to the NGOs, lawmakers need to accelerate legislation to demand and incentivize sustainable packaging.

“Companies must recognize that they are responsible for the complete life cycle of the materials they use.

“This would require a drastic improvement in their operations and consumers must also participate actively seeking information on the sustainability of the express delivery services they use, and making responsible decisions with the environment when shopping online,” Greenpeace China said.

 
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