Making packaging greener: what does the future hold?

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Green packaging is essential for building green logistics and a green supply chain. And it requires scientific research, a regulatory framework, and good business practices.

Since 2009, the Chinese government has rolled out a series of laws and official documents on express delivery and packaging, including a top-level blueprint titled “Accelerating the Green Transformation of Express Packaging by the State Council in 2020”.

However, the green transformation of express packaging in China still faces multiple challenges — the first and foremost being the low efficiency of biodegradable materials. Professor Wen Zongguo from Tsinghua University points out that the current verification for green packaging mainly relies on biodegradable materials. But the efficiency of such materials in reducing environmental pollution is low, with less than 3 percent having an actual impact.

Overpacking is also a major issue. Although official documents stipulate that there should be no secondary packaging of e-commerce packages, this means only that delivery companies will not repackage parcels again. The main users of packages, small and medium e-commerce businesses, are outside the regulatory framework. The imbalance between the emphasis put on large delivery companies and the neglect of small e-commerce merchants and platforms needs to be addressed in the future.

Another issue is that the recycling of used packages lacks accuracy and efficiency. Professor Wen explains that the current policies singularly emphasize the number of recycling devices but ignore the accuracy of device placement. In practice, large numbers of recycling devices are put in insignificant waste generation locations such as express outlets and sorting points. Additionally, plastic packages are highly changeable in form and easily mixed with other materials, making it difficult to enter the existing recycling system.

So what can be done to transform delivery packaging in the future? Wen puts forward three points. “First, identify the characteristics of how packaging waste is generated; second, select the most suitable method for recycling and quantify the environmental impact of the entire packaging chain; third, identify the responsible parties throughout the packaging chain.”

In terms of business practice, circular packaging is one important answer for the green transformation of the packaging industry.

At the design level, Guo Xin, director of research and development at Yongkang Zhilu Technology, says that safety, convenience, sanitation, and recyclability are important principles for improving user experience and efficiency. Also, companies need to consider the environmental impact of the design and production stages. Talking about the future iteration of circular packaging, Guo emphasized the importance of informatization and the construction of an information platform to track packages

In terms of standardization, Duan Yanjian, a project leader at JD Logistics, pointed out that different delivery companies have different standards for circular packages in terms of color, layout, and size, which will hinder sharing and unification across the industry.

On the consumer end, the lack of awareness of consumer participation, the lack of terminal infrastructure, and the low turnover rate are all problems that JD Logistics faced in its early exploration of the application of circular packages. “Building a recycling system for circular packages is a decisive factor in realizing their large-scale applications, and systemization cannot be achieved by one industry or company alone. It required downstream collaboration, as well as relevant policy support and incentives.”

Fuhai is a company focusing on the large-scale recycling of circular packages in Shanghai. Its president, Yan Haiying, said that before a certain scale of recycling is achieved, the cost brought about by low density is a challenge that companies like hers have to face. Yan also believes that the circular recycling system of express packages is a part of infrastructure construction, and suggests that “government authorities take the lead in organizing recycling infrastructure work”.