In My Opinion
Online shopping is burying us in waste
Brown ones, white ones, and now blue ones, all delivering packages to what seems like every front porch in America. It’s the new way to shop.
Online shopping offers the convenience of putting everything from furniture in the living room to food in the dog dish, all without leaving the keyboard at the kitchen table. But now, with the new blue Amazon Prime vans joining the fleet of white FedEx trucks and UPS “Big Brown” haulers, it’s not the extra traffic clogging up our neighborhoods that should have us concerned as much as the environmental costs not showing up in our online virtual checkout baskets.
Amazon, the e-commerce giant, reported that its July 15-16 Prime Day Sale, a Black Friday-like discount day in 2019, was the biggest shopping event in the company’s history. During a 36-hour period, customers purchased more than 100 million products that needed to be shipped. To its credit, even Amazon, by far the largest shipper and producer of waste, acknowledges what a stress that event alone put on the health of our environment.
The company has been looking for alternatives to cardboard, which takes more space and contributes to the waste stream. The lightweight plastic mailers they’ve been using as an alternative, however, have caused problems for material processors because the plastic is not recyclable and plugs up the mechanical recycling systems. In the company’s effort to be environmentally conscious, Amazon has announced it is testing a fully-recyclable cushioned mailer that can be mixed in to paper recycling systems. Until it comes up with the solution, though, the demand of American consumers for online, deliverable products continues to swell.
Another growing environmental challenge has been the expedited shipping craze itself, which means packages aren’t being consolidated with other shipping companies like the U.S. Postal Service, UPS and FedEx. Instead of coordinated, single routes each day to reduce the amount of traffic, each company is running up and down the same roads so as to get packages delivered in a timely manner. This expansion of the shipping business and more packages is drastically increasing the amount of packaging waste, which researchers caution is adding more congestion to our cities, pollutants to our air and cardboard to our landfills.
Our bottom line and on-time culture, however, certainly does not seem concerned. Free and fast shipping, which is the Amazon Prime customers' big perk, has attracted more than 100 million subscribers who are willing to pay $119 annually for the convenience. A recent UPS study indicates that nearly all (96 percent) U.S. customers who made a purchase on a marketplace such as Amazon or other major retailer said “free or discounted shipping” was their primary reason for purchase.
So, as consumers make more online purchases, it appears their communities will be left with even more waste, not to mention what online shopping is doing to our community retailers. Those local businesses – who are being squeezed out by consumers choosing the cheapest price and most convenient delivery – are the core of a community that pays local taxes and supports so many community activities. Amazon and other online retailers don’t carry that obligation or philanthropic concern, a perspective that’s needed on local levels where communities are now grappling with what to do with all the waste.
Recently, the Barry County Board of Commissioners asked Barry County’s Solid Waste Oversight Committee, a 12-member body of local leaders, to work on a plan to raise Barry County’s recycling rate by getting recyclables out of the waste stream.
“The real value of recycling lies in waste diverted from landfills, which translates into more land saved for the enjoyment of current and future generations,” Hastings Township Supervisor Jim Brown said. “Plus, focusing on recycling plays a major role in reducing carbon emissions, a greenhouse gas nearly universally accepted as a factor in climate change.”
Local students are accepting that challenge by learning the importance of recycling at their school. Last week’s Reminder featured a group of students from Star Elementary in Hastings who told how they collected enough pizza boxes to equal the height of the Statue of Liberty – that’s 2,000 pizza boxes stacked 305 feet high. Their personal quest to save the planet after months of collecting boxes was successful, and now they’ve increased their goal to 3,000 boxes.
“Often, when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else,” the late children’s television presenter Fred Rogers said.
These students at Star Elementary found that they were at the beginning of something huge.
“I think it was good because we’re helping the world we live in,” fifth-grader Bryce Ethridge said.
That’s especially true in Michigan which, at 15 percent, has one of the worst recycling rates among the Great Lake states, according to Brown, who points out that the national average is 35 percent, and Barry County’s recycling rate is one of the lowest in the state.
So it makes sense to teach our young people the importance of recycling and the impact it will have on future generations.
In another article in Saturday’s Reminder, “Contamination, shaky markets top recycling challenges,” J-Ad contributing writer Christian Yonkers wrote about the effect that recycling can have on the overall challenge to impact climate change.
According to the ground-breaking research initiative by Project Drawdown, a nonprofit organization and coalition of worldwide and renowned scholars, scientists, entrepreneurs and advocates dedicated to reversing global warming, out of the 100 most substantive solutions to reversing climate change, household recycling is the 55th most effective means of reducing carbon emissions, with industrial recycling just behind.
Now, with the exponential increase in online shopping, the amount of additional waste will continue to put even more pressure on landfills. Brown said a wealth of knowledge, creativity and technology already exist to provide solutions to the growing crisis, but he added that all of our communities must work with waste haulers to make recycling streams more efficient.
That means we must focus on how we handle the waste by following instructions to better prepare the waste for processors, making sure contaminants such as plastic bags and Styrofoam don’t end up in the mix. Processors face the economic challenges of marketing the recycled material, so keeping the stream clean of certain items makes a difference in the value of the product when they take it to market.
To Brown, the best solution is moving from a single-stream process to a sorted stream. For several years, Hastings Charter Township has been operating a sorted recycling unit. It’s the only sorted recycling system being used by a municipality in the county. Brown said he hopes the Hastings Township model will inspire similar stations elsewhere in the county.
He conceded that there are no easy answers, but you have to start somewhere. By working with local schools, he figures he can inspire our youth as to the importance of recycling and saving the planet. What better place to start than at our schools where students learn about the impact that waste has on the environment and what they can do to promote recycling for all of us?
Brown told the story of a Star Elementary student who asked him what her class could do to recycle Amazon shipping boxes in addition to pizza boxes.
“It’s amazing to me that a girl that young is thinking that far ahead,” Brown said.
Forward thinking, he added, is the key to a circular economy -- and part of the solution could be making recycling more visually appealing.
“If you want grown-ups to recycle, just tell their kids the importance of recycling, and they’ll be all over it,” said Bill Nye, the Science Guy, longtime host of the PBS children’s science program of the same name.
One thing is for sure, it’s a problem that needs solutions, so it’s imperative that leadership at all levels of local government work together to find answers that will be acceptable to more citizens throughout the county because it’s the right thing to do.
I suggest that, if you haven’t read the special articles in last week’s Reminder, take the time to educate yourself about a program that’s in the best interest of us all – that of recycling. For more information on recycling, attend the Barry County Solid Waste Oversight Committee meetings, explore the website BarryCounty.org/Barry-CountyRecycles/ or email Jim Brown, JimBrown33@sbcglobal.net.
Fred Jacobs, CEO,
J-Ad Graphics Inc.