Smart Talks: My Fight Against Overpackaging -- By Tao Zecheng

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Editor’s note: In August 2023, Caixin Global and Yale Center Beijing jointly launched a Smart Talks on Climate Change program, including an essay competition, to help endow leaders of the next generation aged under 30 with the wherewithal to tackle the problem. We’re publishing the top three essays from the winners of the competition as this year’s program concluded in December.

I bet you’ve shopped online. But have you noticed the packaging materials used for courier deliveries? In 2017, the courier industry was booming. What confused me was that the lipsticks, eyebrow pencils, and other cosmetics my mom bought weren’t that big, but they came wrapped in more than five layers of packaging material and plastic bags.

Overpackaging was by no means an exception. In 2016, the national express delivery industry consumed about 3.2 billion woven bags, 14.7 billion plastic bags and 330 million rolls of adhesive tape, as well as 46 million tons of corrugated cardboard. The packaging materials, often complex in composition, were mainly produced from chemical materials and household garbage, which may include a large number of plasticizers, flame retardants and other toxic substances. These cause serious pollution and exacerbate the greenhouse effect, thus worsening global warming.

One day, I saw a teacher unpacking a parcel in their office and I had the idea of conducting a two-month social experiment as well as an eco-friendly performance art exhibition in my high school. Asking all teachers at my school to collect courier packaging materials from their offices into the installation art area that we have in our school building. I organized the information — what materials were used and how much of each material was used — of 1,389 pieces of courier packages purchased by 57 teachers into a chart and showed it on the campus public television. This attracted students to take a closer look at the severity of overpackaging.

Analyzing the reasons behind excessive packaging was more challenging. In Grade 11, I observed two courier sorting stations near my school and became friends with some couriers. Based on my observations at the sorting stations, compared with couriers’ second-hand packaging, the e-commerce companies’ first-hand packaging was a better fit for the goods. But in reality, overpackaging often occurred in the sorting station, too. After interviews with the couriers, it was concluded that excessive second-hand packaging is the result of “vocational culture”: Once there was a damaged good, customers would inevitably require the couriers to assume full responsibility. Out of self-protection, couriers tended to add more packaging. Even worse, the courier companies did not view packaging materials as a priority in cost accounting.

After majoring in public administration in university, I was enlightened by economic tools and could put forward an all-round solution. We have to start from the beginning of the industry chain in order to really minimize the use and ensure recycling of packaging materials.

First of all, at the start, e-commerce businesses should take the primary packaging responsibility, thus promoting the integration of production and packaging, which can not only safeguard items properly but also reduce the second-hand packaging of goods during the intermediate link. It is also crucial to set up independent packaging standards for e-commerce businesses.

Second, at the next stage, I suggest separating packaging services and express delivery services. When the second-hand packaging is treated as a separate business, and prices are designed to cater to customers’ wrapping needs, couriers can lay more stress on packaging consumption, especially the amount of packaging cost.

Third, at the recycling end, the spontaneous circulation of express packaging should be realized. For recycling of general packaging, a credit system can be designed as an incentive tool to offset a part of the next courier or packaging service; for recycling of special packaging, such as insulation boxes, when a recovery period is established, if overdue, confiscation of the deposit and other modes of punitive measures should be proposed.

In my sophomore year, when hired as advisor for my university’s courier station, I promoted the idea of building an online-to-offline recycling platform with incentives to boost teacher and student participation. Last year, as the leader of one of the 14 teams from China, I participated in the Forum for Global Challenges organized by the World Bank, introducing our efforts to reduce and recover courier packaging.

All in all, the power of individuals is limited, and a carbon-neutral goal cannot be achieved overnight. In seven years of struggling for the environment, I have made many different efforts, from social experiments and performance art exhibitions to field surveys and research at courier stations, proposing solutions using self-taught economics tools to actually applying the solutions to my community, and ultimately bringing my experience and ideas to the world. In the following seven years, fourteen years, or even twenty-one years, I will continue to work hard, and strive to turn green packaging from an ideal into a reality.

Tao Zecheng is a senior at Shanghai Jiaotong University.

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