Delivery industry insiders describe difficulty of recycling, going green

Updated 2017-02-16 08:53:53 Global Times

Due to the rapid expansion of e-commerce in China, how to deal with the waste left behind by the packing and delivery process has become a significant problem.

An October 2016 State Post Bureau (SPB) report showed that more than 31 billion parcels were delivered in China in 2015 and a total of 9.9 billion cardboard boxes, 3.1 billion woven bags and 8.3 billion plastic bags were used, the Xinhua News Agency reported on February 8.

Nearly 17 billion meters of tape was used for packaging that year - equal to 425 times the length of the equator, Xinhua said.

"Overpacking is an inevitable result of the expanding e-commerce sector which pursues fast and safe express delivery," Liu Jianguo, a professor at the School of Environment at Tsinghua University, told the Global Times on Tuesday.

Mountain of trash

Every 20 billion parcels sent creates 4 million tons of waste, the People's Daily reported in April 2016. Most of the waste ends up in furnaces and is used for electricity generation.

"The recycling of delivery packages in China, including metal, glass and paper, is less than 20 percent, and that of protective packaging and plastic tape is nearly zero," Zhu Lei, deputy director of the Qingdao Research Center under the Beijing Institute of Graphic Communication, was quoted as saying by news portal caixin.com in November 2016.

Yang Xiaoyang, a 25-year-old graduate student from East China's Shandong Province, told the Global Times on Monday that she uses delivery packaging as garbage bags and undamaged delivery boxes for storage.

"But most of the boxes get damaged and dirty during the delivery so I have to throw them away," Yang said.

As for protective packaging such as polystyrene and inflatable bags that are stuffed in boxes, Yang said she did not know "how to deal with them and can only dump them."

The delivery industry used about 3 billion pieces of protective packaging in 2015, according to the SPB report.

The SPB launched a plan to promote green packaging in the delivery industry in August 2016, claiming it will build a recycling system and eliminate all harmful materials from packaging by 2020.

A significant chunk of the plastic packaging used for delivery in China is made from chemical industry waste materials and household refuse, which means it may contain harmful materials like certain plasticizers and fire retardants. These substances cannot be recycled and they do not degrade, China Central Television (CCTV) reported in May 2016.

Tong Wenhong, CEO of Cainiao, an express delivery platform under e-commerce giant the Alibaba Group, noted that costs remain an obstacle to promoting green packaging.

"The average price of a nondegradable plastic bag is 0.08 yuan (.01), and that of a degradable one is three to four times higher," Tong was quoted as saying in February by Banyue Tan (Bimonthly Talks), a journal published by Xinhua.

The Cainiao launched a green promotion project in June 2016, vowing to replace 50 percent of its packaging with green materials by 2020.

However, Liu warned that "if packaging costs rise, delivery prices will increase and no delivery firm is willing to see this happen as it usually means a reduction in competitiveness."

Liu said that "national regulations are needed to motivate companies and better manage recycling."

Recycling rarity

The China Express Association, a delivery company group, says one-third of the country's urban waste comes from packaging, caixin.com reported.

Hu Xingdou, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, pointed out that waste utilization is still low in China due to a lack of a standard classification and recycling system.

China's average utilization rate of waste paper was 44.7 percent in 2013 and that of waste plastics was 23.2 percent, caixin.com reported, citing a report conducted by the Renmin University of China.

Tang Yanju, secretary of the waste paper branch of the China Resource Recycling Association, added that few sanitation companies are willing to recycle paper due to low profitability and a lack of government subsidies.

The cost of recycling a ton of waste paper is 900 yuan in Beijing, while the cost of burying waste - which the government pays companies to do - is 1,530 yuan per ton in the city. About 70 percent of Beijing' waste is simply buried in Beijing every year, caixin.com reported

About 15 million people worked in the recycling industry in 2016, a drop of 3 million since 2014, according to caixin.com.

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