Staff members of a cross-border e-commerce company package products in Ningbo, east China's Zhejiang Province, Nov. 8, 2017. Cross-border e-commerce companies and courier services in Ningbo are busy preparing for the Singles' Day shopping spree which falls on Nov.11. (Xinhua/Huang Ruipeng)
As the Singles' Day shopping season in November has become a new tradition in China, the massive waste left by its packaging has brought the nation a huge headache.
With 1.5 billion packages expected to be delivered in this year's shopping festival, e-commerce companies are trying as many ways as possible to reduce the amount of waste left behind.
It's a tough job, but the companies have several weapons at their disposal, some of which are inspiring ways to solve the puzzle of packaging sustainability.
With a booming sharing economy, the Chinese people have accepted the idea that everything can be shared, and so can packaging. Recycling express boxes seems to be the most direct solution for e-commerce enterprises who want both sustainable packaging and cost reductions.
JD.com, Suning.com and other e-commerce businesses have introduced plastic boxes that can be recycled and reused.
Suning.com has already put 50,000 plastic boxes in use, and says it plans to use "shared boxes" in 13 Chinese cities, including Beijing, Chengdu and Hangzhou, for Saturday's Singles' Day sales.
Meanwhile, as retrieving used boxes from customers may be inconvenient, companies are considering sharing packaging between logistics firms and suppliers.
"Now we prefer boxes without logos printed on them, so that our logistics partners can reuse them freely," said Duan Yanjian, leader of JD.com's green packaging project.
Duan said his company had also cut down on the size of tapes and express sheets, and put tape-free boxes and biodegradable delivery bags in use. Customers are encouraged to use electronic invoices to avoid paper use.
By using express sheets 30 percent smaller than before, tens of millions of square meters of paper can be saved in a single year, he said.
Sharing of express boxes also helps lower logistics costs. For Suning, a "shared box" costs the company 25 yuan (3.76 U.S. dollars), which cuts the cost for a single delivery to less than 0.03 yuan as it can be reused a thousand times.
GREEN, HIGH-TECH DELIVERY
Yet sustainable packaging is only one aspect of the eco-trend in the industry. New energy vehicles, drones and big data analytics are all buzz words in today's tech world, linked with Chinese efforts to make deliveries greener.
In a number of remote regions of China, drones are increasingly used in delivery. E-commerce giants like Alibaba and JD.com have both drones to deliver packages over water or mountains.
"It improves delivery efficiency and saves energy use by avoiding long detouring into remote areas where only a few deliveries are made," said Zhang Zhitong, a senior researcher with JD.com's data research institute.
Zhang's company is also planning to replace all its vehicles with new energy ones in the next five years.
Meanwhile, instead of human decision-making, Cainiao Network, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba's delivery arm, is relying on algorithms and big data to plan packing, and delivery routes, helping save packaging materials and boosting efficiency.
Test runs in rural areas showed that delivery algorithms saved vehicle use by more than 10 percent, according to Cainiao.
The Chinese government is also clear and determined about goals in greening the courier sector.
A document released by the State Post Bureau and other government departments has made clear that by 2020, half of external packages should be degradable, 90 percent of bills electronic, and packing material for each parcel cut by 10 percent.
Tape and woven bags should be gradually replaced, it said.
The State Post Bureau said a courier package regulation system would be built, and there would be policies to support green packaging in taxation and credit.
Xu Benxin, associate professor with Kunming University of Science and Technology, said shared packaging was an innovative option for environmental protection and resource saving.
He said he expected a "green revolution" in the logistics industry, but it required more government measures to encourage green consumption.
"We also hope green packaging will be a joint drive with the government and other institutions and companies," Duan said.