9 Ways to Actually Reduce Your Shipping Packaging Waste

Jamie Wiebe

There’s no denying that getting anything you want at the press of a button is amazingly convenient, but it’s hard to ignore all that shipping packaging waste. In the U.S., about 165 billion packages were shipped last year. To make matters worse, with most online retailers, there’s no telling how much shipping material is actually used to get that item to your door. A little lipstick should be easy to ship, right? But for some reason it arrives in an enormous, car-sized box surrounded by layers of Styrofoam.

While some online retailers—and their love of packing peanuts—are out of your control, you can take steps when you’re shopping online to reduce excessive packaging—or ensure that the boxes that arrive are recycled or sustainable.

Contact Amazon directly

In 2017, Amazon shipped more than 5 billion items through Prime alone. Odds are good some of those packages arrived at your doorstep, and odds are also good those boxes were about the size of your dining room table. If you’re feel like you’re drowning in Prime taped boxes, you can reach out to Amazon to voice your opinion. Blogger Mama Eco put together an easy-fill form to help you request less packaging from Amazon customer service. (Contact customer service if you want to reach out directly.)

There’s evidence the world’s third-largest retailer is hearing increased demand for environmental options. The company recently launched a sustainable packaging program designed to help third-party vendors send more eco-friendly boxes.

… Or choose frustration-free packaging

Ultimately, it’s Amazon’s decision to honor your request for sustainable packaging. But there is one thing you can do to make your delivery less wasteful: choose frustration-free packaging whenever possible. An option for many electronics, home goods, kid’s toys, and other items, available products are typically listed as “frustration free” on the retailer’s site. Opt in, and the package arrives in a minimalist, easy-open box without all the usual plastic clamshells, hard to open twist-ties, and excess wrapping.

This easy-open packaging isn’t just less frustrating for you–it’s less frustrating for the environment. All frustration-free shipments are packaged with recyclable materials (and less of them). And Amazon’s newly launched sustainability program aims to expand frustration-free packaging to its third-party vendors, so you may see more eco-friendly options soon.

Opt for combined orders

Placing a big order? While you’re buying everything from the same site, larger online retailers use multiple fulfillment warehouses around the nation to store, sort, and ship items—meaning those 15 kitchen gadgets you picked up at midnight after binging The Great British Bake Off might come in 15 different packages.

To combat this, several big retailers—Amazon included—have the option to combine your whole order into the fewest boxes possible. It could mean you’ll have to wait an extra day or two to get everything, but it’ll save your doorstep from a cardboard onslaught.

Buy from companies making an effort

Seek out companies who visibly care about sustainable packaging.  REI, for example, has a five-point initiative to lower the footprint of their packaging and shipping.  Sustainably geared personal care company Lush uses packing peanuts made from a starch material that dissolve in water, are bio-degradable, and can even be composted.

Of course, shoppers should always look out for greenwashing. Some retailers now post their sustainability or recycling initiatives on the company website. It’s great if they’re really making an effort, but some companies may claim to be more sustainable than their true practices indicate.

Check out the Sustainable Packaging Coalition

Need help hunting down companies who’ve committed to sustainable shipping? The Sustainable Packaging Coalition seeks to improve five elements of everyday packaging: sourcing responsibly, creating efficient and optimized supply chains, recycling and recovering packaging, using non-toxic supplies, and impacting the globe as minimally as possible.  While membership is optional, members—like Blue Apron, the Campbell Soup Company, and Fitbit—commit to supporting the coalition’s mission of environmentally friendly shipping and packaging.

Pay attention to the brand’s rating

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition isn’t the only company helping you sort through sustainable brands. Good on You and Done Good rate brands on various ethical parameters, including environmental-friendliness and use of recycling.

Sign up for shipment alerts

Failed deliveries directly damage the environment. Sure, we can mentally write off the impact of one shipment. But if a delivery driver has to drive to your home over and over for one order, that’s a lot of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere.

A recent study found that just two delivery attempts increased the emissions per shipment by between 9 and 75 percent. Stopping by the UPS depot to pick up your missed package makes up a huge percentage of that increase–so save yourself the trip while saving the environment. Make sure you’re home.

Sign up for UPS My Choice, FedEx Delivery Manager, and USPS Informed Delivery to know what’s headed to your address.

Recycle and reuse

Life happens. At some point, you’ll end up with a box full of Styrofoam or molded plastic. Or you’ll get a bunch of deliveries at once, leaving you with a room full of boxes you’re not sure you need. When all else fails, the key to ethical consumption: Reuse.

Even gross, earth-unfriendly Styrofoam can be transformed into something useful. Increase plant drainage or stuff a pillow to keep those bad boys away from the earth. Get crafty: Unrecyclable plastic can be used in several creative projects.

Still stumped? If you’re in the UK, Ollie Smith is the CEO of ExpertSure.com, which helps consumers navigate confusing industries, like the sustainability and energy-efficiency markets, recommends checking out the Children’s Scrapstore, which turns scraps into kid-friendly art.

But don’t bury yourself in guilt

Buying your clothes, makeup, furniture, and other goodies from e-commerce retailers may feel like a slight to the planet—but don’t despair. Online shopping may actually be better for the environment than traditional retail. Carnegie Mellon researchers found that consumers that only shop online affect the environment less: their energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions are reduced 35 percent.

Online shopping may help ease your carbon load, but to be truly impactful we need to pay attention at every step of the process.