Shipped packs often 'anti-green'

Internet purchases often lead to greater packaging waste, observes Fritz Yambrach, a professor of packaging science at RIT.

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“Similar to mail-order catalog sales, the product distribution system for Internet sales normally requires more packaging material because the wholesale-retail system is circumvented,” says Yambrach, associate professor of packaging at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY.

“These companies have to allow for worse-case scenario, so they must provide about twice as much packaging as is needed,” he tells Packaging Insights.

This struck a loud chord with me.

I periodically send and receive shipped products prompted by transactions via the Internet, such as through Ebay. Such sites likely cause vast amounts of shipments made business-to-person and person-to-person. It’s likely that a large percentage of the people packaging for such transactions possess rudimentary packaging skills, and I suspect there’s a strong tendency to overpackage.

For example, I recently purchased a used eyepiece (EP) for my telescope at an on-line astronomy auction site. My little 1.5’’ in dia by 2’’-long EP was secured in several levels of protective and superfluous amounts of packaging that I can only describe as awesomely wasteful.

From multiple air-filled film wraps to case to void-fill pieces to outer case, my modest little EP had five layers of protection, easily two layers too many. It impressed me so much that at the time I took a picture of this exemplary piece of overpackaging (see image). I’d bet it’s representative of Yambrach’s observations. Unfortunately, the amount of overpackaging will only proliferate with the amount of online sales growing.

And it is, according to Richard Feinberg, director of Purdue University's Center for Customer Driven Quality, interviewed in an article in CRM Daily (Customer Relationship Management). Feinberg predicts that Internet sales will rise again this year. Of the $220 billion in holiday sales projected for retailers in 2004, about 6 percent will be spent online. Overall, retail sales will be up 4-7 percent in 2004 over 2003, predicts Feinberg.

What can be done?

As a fan of flexible packaging for its utility, Yambrach suggests encapsulated air films as a possible solution for efficiency mailed shipments.

I also don’t mind receiving packages cushioned using biodegradable corn-based packing “peanuts,” which I can toss behind the garage (mine, not my neighbor’s) after I’ve opened the shipped package. I noticed that after several weeks, the peanuts disappeared, as if by magic.

When I related this to Yambrach, he laughed aloud, wondering if mice were making off with it. That certainly gave me food for thought. And maybe them, too.

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