Wasteful Packaging: Three Ways It Hurts the Environment

August 14, 2013

I received the following comment on an old blog post recently. The comment in question is in response to a post showing some excessive packaging and calling on companies to do a better job of reducing packaging waste.

“You choose whether it [the box] is wasteful or not. If you throw it out, you are being wasteful. If you re-use it, nobody is wasteful. Who is going to re-use a tiny box? Probably nobody. The larger box lends itself to more uses. Following my logic, the only way him sending you a larger box is wasteful is if you had intentions to throw the box away no matter what. Now THAT is wasteful” – B.

The post in question was written before I started my writing responsibilities here at Packsize, but I wanted to respond to the comment here because I think B. brings up a question that deserves a response.

So, is a box not wasteful as long as people are reusing and recycling it? The short answer is no. The problem with this logic is that it assumes that a box only contributes to pollution once it’s been placed in a landfill—which is not an uncommon belief. There are many people who don’t realize there are some hidden, but very significant, costs that come with sending you an oversized box that are easily avoided.

Let’s say you’re going to ship a set of Libbey Glasses. We have a set that we package at trade shows with packaging measuring 6.3″ on all dimensions, which means that the smallest possible box for it would measure 6.3″ x 6.3″ x 6.3″.

This is the closest box I could find. It's not likely to actually be 6 cubic inches in real life.

This is the closest box I could find. It doesn’t  actually  have 6.3 (or 6) inch dimensions  in real life.

Now, if you don’t use On Demand Packaging, you might use a box that measures 8″ x 8″ x 8″. There may be boxes that fit the glasses better, but in order to keep your box inventory from growing too large and complicated, you keep a limited number of box sizes, and this is the closest fit of any of the boxes you carry. But that’s okay, right? That extra 1.7″ on each side won’t make much of difference to the environment, right?


Here are three reasons why:

1. The box will  use more materials. The right-sized box will require at least 238 in2 of cardboard to make (since that’s the surface area of the box), while the other box will use 384 in2. That’s a 60 percent increase! And let’s not even get started on fillers like packing peanuts and air pillows. These materials take a very long time to decompose, have low recycling rates, and are much more hazardous to the environment than corrugated cardboard.

2. The box will take up more space. Really, that extra 1.7″  makes this box take up much, much more space than it needs to. In fact, this slightly larger box will be over 50 percent air! Don’t believe me? Do the math and compare the volume of a 6.3 in3 box to an 8 in3 box:

6.3″ X 6.3″ X 6.3″ = 250 in3

8″ X 8″ X 8″ = 512 in3

This extra space means that less packages can fit on a delivery truck, meaning that more trucks are needed to send the same number of packages, meaning that more CO2 will be released into the atmosphere.

3. The items are more likely to be damaged. Because of that extra space, your glasses will jump around the box a little more, increasing the chance that they’ll be damaged on delivery. If this happens, the items will have to be returned and replacements will be shipped—effectively doubling the carbon footprint of this one delivery. Ouch.

So you see, there are many ways that our packaging can damage the environment other than just taking up space in a landfill. That being said, I would like to make a note on B.’s original point that we are being wasteful only when we throw out packaging rather than reuse or recycle it. While we firmly believe that everyone should recycle, not everyone in the US does—13 percent of us don’t have access to curbside recycling programs. And even though 75 percent of all waste is recyclable, only 30 percent of it gets recycled. Although we can and should encourage more recycling, the easiest way to reduce waste is create less stuff that can be tossed in the first place.

If you would like to learn more about how you can cut down on your company’s wasteful packaging, contact us.

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