After a long holiday weekend filled with friends, family, food, and presents, last week probably posed your most difficult trash-and-recycling night of the year. While the disproportionate volume of emptied holiday booze bottles may have been sobering, it was nothing compared to the sprawling scrap cardboard from a month of Amazon holiday deliveries.
SF Weekly was eager to run an exposé and uncover all manner of problems being caused by this increase in modern-day cardboard consumption, so we reached out to San Francisco’s waste collection and disposal provider Recology, hoping to reveal how this excess cardboard is a menace to waste management.
But our theory was wrong. Turns out, overall cardboard usage has been relatively unaffected by the on-demand delivery boom.
“On a typical day in San Francisco, we collect and process about 100 tons of cardboard,” Recology spokesperson Robert Reed tells SF Weekly. “We have been running at this number for several years.”
Despite the surging popularity of cardboard-box deliveries, the overall volume of cardboard shipped has remained, shall we say, flat. More online shipments to home addresses have balanced out the reduction in cardboard used in wholesale shipments to Walmart, Target, and brick-and-mortar stores.
“If you go to a shoe store and buy a pair of shoes, they arrive to the store in a cardboard box,” Reed says. “If instead you order the shoes online, they arrive to you in a cardboard box. Either way, it’s one pair of shoes and one cardboard box.”
While Amazon is notorious for overpackaging, similar inefficiencies have existed in the wholesale shipping sector, and are now reduced.
“We have seen an increase in the number of small- and medium-size cardboard boxes we receive,” Reed explains. “We suspect part of the shift is that some products that used to arrive at larger stores in larger cardboard boxes now arrive in smaller boxes delivered to individual addresses.”
In other words, the increase in small and medium boxes is offset by a decrease in wholesalers’ larger cardboard box shipments.
There are many lamentable disruptions that Amazon’s business model has created — the loss of locally owned physical stores, the burden Amazon places on the U.S. Postal Service, and the dreadful working conditions in their “fulfillment centers” and offices. But the increase in consumer cardboard is a problem Recology has been able to address, at least at the local level.
The first thing you’ll notice is that Recology is giving you a larger recycling bin, if they haven’t already.
“We are providing larger recycling blue bins, and smaller trash bins, to residential customers,” Reed says. “We started on the west side of the city. The bin swap is part of a two-year program upgrade. The larger recycling bins give customers more space for their recyclables, including cardboard.”
If on-demand delivery is causing any waste management problems, it’s the ice packs of gooey gel from meal-kit services like Blue Apron and HelloFresh. Confused buyers are often unsure what to do with them, and most services recommend you dump the goo in the trash. That’s just more landfill.
“Do we need on-demand meal kits?” Reed wonders philosophically. “The reality is they are here to stay in some form.”
San Francisco is among those cities adopting the Zero Waste vision, an initiative to transform waste into an “only recycling and compost” model producing no landfill or trash. Can we really become a no-trash society? That depends on us as much as it does Recology, and whether we can do the little things to eliminate trash and packaging.
Reed recommends some little things, and some big things too. “Shop at farmer’s markets. Grow your own food,” he says. “These simple steps can be thought of as forms of self-reliance. Our grandparents lived it. We can too.”
Joe Kukura is an SF Weekly contributor.