Online shipping boom creates massive 'cardboard footprint' from boxes

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Fast deliveries are just a click away, all in a cardboard box. The I-Team and the Chicago Sun-Times discovered an extensive trail of excess waste that exposes your "Cardboard Footprint."

For months, ABC 7's Consumer Investigator Jason Knowles, the I-Team and the Sun-Times' Consumer Investigator Stephanie Zimmerman took note of small items delivered in big boxes stuffed with excess packaging. One oversized box contained a very small package of razors, another medium box had small batteries packed with plenty of plastic cushioning.

All of this at a time when deliveries are skyrocketing. The U.S. Department of Commerce says e-commerce sales for 2018 were more than $513 billion, an increase of more than 14 percent in a single year.

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Consumer Investigator Jason Knowles and Sun Times Consumer Investigator Stephanie Zimmermann have an I-Team Takeaway on what you can and can't recycle.



Samantha Doerfler said she shops online regularly.

"With the two boys we're really busy. We're running from sports, to school, to other activities. So sometimes I just don't have time to run to all the stores," she said.

Amazon revealed that in 2017 it shipped more than 5 billion items worldwide, to Prime customers alone.

The I-Team and Chicago Sun-Times wanted to know how all those cardboard boxes are stacking up.

"It could add up to some significant impact. And the concern there is, if there is less cardboard available we need to go back to the raw material, which is trees. So we may increase our consumption of trees to kinda meet our cardboard demand," said Jennifer Dunn, Director of Research for the Northwestern Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering.

One company that sells reusable packaging said the growth of the shipping industry by 2021 will be equal to 1 billion trees consumed.

"Did you really need this plastic fill?" Knowles asked Eric Masanet, Associate Professor of Engineering at Northwestern University.

"Probably not for a product like this, which is pretty durable. It could've been put in an envelope," Masanet said.

Masanet did run what he calls a "lifecycle assessment" number on that oversized package.

"If I get 1,000 packages per year it's still only 1 percent of the typical U.S. household carbon footprint," he said.

However, industry experts say the production of cardboard boxes continues to steadily increase.

"On average a corrugated box contains 49 percent recycled content, so when you recycle it you're giving that box back to our industry," said Racheal Kenyan, vice president of the Fibre Box Association in Itasca, which represents 95 percent of all U.S. Shipments.

But does the box have to be so big?

"Probably not," she said. "I think there's probably a lot of right sizing you'll see over the next several years where people will be examining their packaging to make sure that it's the right fit."

Kenyon said most shippers, including Amazon, are looking for size efficient packaging. Amazon said it reduced waste in 2017 alone by avoiding 305 million shipping boxes, and that it's promoted the use of 100 percent recyclable packaging.

According to the American Forest and Paper Association, the latest recycling recovery rate for corrugated cardboard is at 96.4 percent.

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At a Grayslake Waste Management recycling center, they collect and sort mounds of cardboard and plastic packaging which was in the boxes from the region.

"Because typically it is going to be a bubble wrap or a stretch film that really doesn't belong in the recycling program," explained Tom Vujovic, the center's Area Recycling Director.

The Plastics Industry Association said you can recycle much of the padding and cushioning by taking it to a local grocery store.

Despite all of the recycling efforts, China, the world's largest importer of recyclables, has issued recent restrictions.

"China has limited how much cardboard they are taking," said Vujovic.

And it's rejecting crates of recyclables if they have as little as 0.5 percent of contaminants.

The Grayslake facility and the City of Chicago both say 75 to 80 percent of recyclables that get picked up are recycled.

You can read more on the I-Team and Sun Times joint investigation on your "Cardboard Footprint" in tomorrow's paper and on the Chicago Sun-Times's website.
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