Ready to add to cart? How online shopping creates a ‘silent plastic problem’

What you need to know: 

  • The ‘excessive’ plastic packaging from online shopping is both a waste and logistics problem. 
  • It only takes an average of 12 minutes for a packaging to transfer from a buyer’s hands to the trash can, according to a New York State analysis on plastic use.
  • As no existing law regulates the e-commerce industry’s amounting waste, environmental groups are worried about the plastic waste uptake from the 12.12 big sale. 

With the pandemic forcing people into the confines of their homes, the Philippines quickly saw an unprecedented boom in the e-commerce industry. Business data platform Statista estimated the country’s e-commerce market size to reach 12 billion US dollars by 2025. 

But as the emerging digital economy is finding new ways to generate more plastic waste, lawmakers and local governments fail to keep up.

With the lack of a regulating law on the e-commerce industry, the responsibility of reducing plastic packaging has been forced on sellers instead. 

“Since walang batas na nagre-regulate sa kanila, most of the time [e-commerce companies] put it on the seller. They say they don’t know the sellers na nagpa-package ng goods, and they can’t do anything about it,” EcoWaste Coalition Policy and Advocacy Officer Patricia Nicdao said. 

For instance, if a buyer resides in Marikina City, one of the first Local Government Units (LGUs) to ban plastics, no law is stopping them from receiving a plastic-ridden package, especially if the seller hails from a city with no plastic ban ordinance. 

The culprit? It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint since parcels are constantly shipped across cities and provinces. 

Although more than 480 local government units (LGUs) have already enforced ordinances banning single-use plastics, there is still no comprehensive plastic ban on a national level, Nicdao said.

Only Republic Act 9003, otherwise known as the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2001, has ruled national policies on waste management. 

“Kahit most of the LGUs magkakaroon ng ban, since [e-commerce] can be a transboundary thing, mahirap talaga siya [ma-regulate] ng ordinances, as much as they help a lot,” Nicdao said. 

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources projected that in 2021, the National Capital Region could generate 3.53 million tons of waste, which is equivalent to 1,412 Olympic-size swimming pools. 

Environmental groups have since urged for a comprehensive national ban on single-use plastics. President Rodrigo Duterte had already eyed the nationwide plastic ban late last year, but bills on single-use plastics have been stalled in Congress since the pandemic. 

As the country reels from the public health crisis, plastic has become a mainstay in hospitals, restaurants and other establishments. In turn, Nicdao said, some lawmakers who used to advocate for the ban pre-pandemic had to change footing. 

With single-use plastics derailed in the priorities of the House of Representatives, Nicdao said the pandemic caused “a huge dent on efforts to reduce single-use plastics in the Philippines.”

The convenience of online shopping — wrapped in layers of plastic packaging — is also masking a ‘silent killer’ for the environment.  

Overpackaging a ‘silent killer’ 

First thing in the morning, Ally* quickly checks her phone to see if the cloth headband she scored from the 11.11 online holiday sale is on the way to her doorstep. Right after receiving the parcel, she cuts through almost three to four layers of plastic as if it were a knee-jerk reaction. 

Before the pandemic, Ally was never into online shopping. But as the stay-at-home order dragged its way until the Christmas season, she had to install on her phone both Shopee and Lazada, which are the Philippines’ two leading e-commerce platforms

“I’m not one to usually spend a lot on gifts, so holiday sales were the best option for me to maximize because things are cheap, maraming selection and variety, and free shipping pa,” she said. 

As she anticipated the 12.12 big sale, Ally was still waiting for three more parcels to arrive to complete the nine items she checked out from the 11.11 sale. Though she cannot be certain when she will be able to open another parcel, one thing’s for sure: 

For buyers like Ally, it will only take an average of 12 minutes for the products’ packaging to transfer from their hands to the trash can, according to a New York State analysis on plastic use. But the deluge of plastic waste stays long after. 

Online merchants often overpackage when they ship their products, wrapping a prepackaged item in a second layer of plastic, and sometimes even a third one. This “Russian doll” packaging, according to environmental group Greenpeace Philippines, creates an excessive and unnecessary amount of waste.

Ally recalled buying a single correction tape online, which was shipped to her swathed in bubble wrap. “For me, medyo alarming [‘yung packaging] especially if the thing itself isn’t super fragile,” she said. 

Since the online shopping boom, environmental groups have been urging e-commerce giants such as Shopee and Lazada to reveal the amount of plastic they produce as the first step in efforts to reduce them. 

What is made public, however, is the record-breaking sales that e-commerce sites earn during the online holiday sales such as Singles Day — a 24-hour shopping period every Nov. 11 offering sweeping discounts and free shipping fees. 

On this year’s Singles Day, Shopee sold nearly 200 million items across Southeast Asia. Sellers also saw 10 times more orders than an average day, which was a first for the e-commerce site. 

Meanwhile, Lazada Philippines had two million carts checked out and three million items sold in the first hour of their sale. Customers were said to have already added items to their carts as early as Oct. 15. 

A study from e-commerce aggregator iPrice Group revealed that Filipinos increased their online purchases by 57% in the first half of 2020, which was the highest growth among all Southeast Asian countries.

As Filipinos celebrate the world’s longest Christmas season, zero-waste advocates are now worried that the plastic problem from online holiday shopping will simply pile up unnoticed. 

“It’s a silent killer, really. We tend not to think about it because I’m just shopping and I can’t go out. What do I do?” Greenpeace Philippines e-commerce campaigner Jefferson Chua said.

Though Ally has been keeping all the bubble wraps from her parcels, she has accumulated over two bags’ worth of bubble wrap which she does not know what to do with. 

Chua said the plastic packaging uptake in e-commerce is “not just a waste problem but also a logistics problem.”

E-commerce deliveries involve two stages from producer to buyer. In the first-mile delivery, retailers package the products and have them transported to the courier’s warehouse. The next stage, otherwise called the last-mile delivery, involves the courier shipping the packaged products to the buyer’s doorstep. 

The issue, Chua said, lies in the latter stage as e-commerce companies do not regulate, much less ban, the ‘excessive’ plastic packaging because of the varying logistics providers they outsource to make the deliveries. 

While logistics companies offer convenience to both seller and buyer, the middlemen of deliveries have a hands-off approach in the plastic packaging responsibility. 

Chua asserted that logistics providers should explore returnable packaging schemes, as well as internal policies to rationalize packaging. Middlemen of deliveries are likewise asked to rethink the amount of their packaging depending on items’ varying levels of fragility. 

But the complexity of the e-commerce ecosystem continues to challenge zero-waste efforts, since no single company directive would ban plastics in one full sweep across logistics providers.

“They are very different in their logistics problem. Each company entails a different strategy,” Chua added. 

How the pandemic boosts holiday sales, e-commerce industry

UP Psychology Assistant Professor John Rilveria said online shopping can be a way to cope with stress, as acquiring something uplifts one’s mood and provides a sense of comfort.

“Because of the pandemic, mataas ‘yung sense of uncertainty at binibigay natin ‘yung sense of control through shopping and acquiring something,” he added. 

However, Rilveria cautioned against the danger of impulsive buying. “Shopping is supposedly a cognitive activity, may planning na involved. Kapag nagiging habit siya, eventually shopping becomes automatic, especially if it’s readily accessible on your phone. Magugulat ka na lang naka-open na ‘yung app,” he said. 

Since her 9.9 overhaul, Ally has never missed another big online sale. She has bought work-related items such as desk organizers, laptop stands and even a keyboard and mouse set. In October and November combined, she spent a total of P8,197. 

Ally, in fact, likes to scroll through e-commerce sites in short bursts every day. She spends a total of 40 minutes in a day, which is four times more than the average Filipino spends time on e-commerce platforms, according to iPrice Group.  

In the Philippines, e-commerce grew from $2 billion to $7 billion from 2015 to 2019. The country also became the third fastest growing e-commerce market around the world, trailing behind India and Mexico. 

“A lot of Filipinos already spend a lot of time on their mobile phones, so we’re ripe for [e-commerce] growth,” iPrice Group Content Marketing Executive Isabelle Romualdez said. 

Though shopping fiends like Ally have become mindful of the piling waste they generate, Chua said Filipinos need to change their notions of individual to collective responsibility. 

“Once we see that my responsibility doesn’t end with me throwing my trash properly, and others ought to do the same, that’s when you start demanding for accountability,” Chua added. 

While plastic packaging from an unregulated e-commerce industry is worrying, it is still just the tip of the iceberg. More than plastic consumption, Nicdao said the problem is rooted in the plastic production in petrochemical industries. 

“Even if recyclable lahat ng waste, from the production pa lang, it’s already detrimental to our planet,” she added. 

Plastic, most of which are non-biodegradable and non-recyclable, is a major driver of climate change. If left unregulated, the plastic binge problem behind the attractive sale deals could exacerbate the climate crisis. 

“It’s the whole ecosystem of e-commerce that’s driving the waste problem,” Chua said.

Until then, buyers like Ally who are stuck at home are keen on finding alternative online platforms offering sustainable packaging to avoid generating plastic waste just by adding items to cart. 

*Note: The name of the interviewee has been changed at her request. 

Editor’s Note (May 13, 2020): This story has been edited from its original version to show more in-depth research of the issue. The story now includes a graph showing the projected waste generated in the National Capital Region for 2021.

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