Consumers wrestle with deluge of cardboard boxes from delivery services, online shopping

  • TECH
  • Wednesday, 22 Mar 2017

Eric Webster, 33, comes to recycle the boxes from Amazon on March 4, 2017 in Maple Grove, Minn. (Xavier Wang/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

MINNEAPOLIS: The digital age has unleashed a torrent of cardboard boxes bound for homes as shoppers have everything from diapers to dinner ingredients shipped to their doorsteps. 

Boxes are piling up in basements and garages, filling apartment building mailrooms and spilling out of overstuffed recycling bins. And they just keep coming – sometimes several a day. 

"It's kind of amazing," said Dale Wood, who tends to a recycling drop-off centre in suburban Minneapolis and sees a steady flow of people stopping by on Saturdays with cardboard that doesn't fit in their curbside bins. "A person that just lives in a normal house would come with a whole truckload of cardboard." 

Nationwide, the United States Postal Service's package deliveries are up 65% since 2009. The onslaught of boxes is changing recycling and traffic patterns, inspiring thieves and even forcing changes in building design. 

The 360-unit Churchill Apartments in downtown Minneapolis receives 100 to 200 packages a day, with deliveries showing up more sporadically as Amazon offers near-instantaneous shipments using hired carriers. About 30 to 50 parcels arrive daily at the 56-unit Elysian Apartments, packed with students, near the University of Minnesota. 

"Amazon Prime is showing up 10 times a day at these buildings," said Dan Oberpriller, whose company CPM Companies manages the Elysian. 

That means new apartment buildings need parcel storage areas, recycling chutes and reconfigured mail rooms or high-tech electronic lockers, which send residents access codes to retrieve their packages, said architect Neil Reardon of UrbanWorks. The lockers take some strain off property managers, who are grappling with how to recoup the costs of the new service. 

At single-family homes, some large curbside recycling bins just aren't enough to keep up with the flow. 

"That thing gets filled up fast," said Tanner LePage, who has begun tossing boxes into the backyard until he can dispose of them. "I've thought of getting a trash compactor, but I looked it up (and) it's like US$1,000 (RM4,423), US$1,500 (RM6,635)." 

Despite the influx of boxes heading to houses, box shipments nationally have remained relatively steady due to an accompanying drop-off in shipments to traditional retailers, said Rachel Kenyon, vice president of the Fibre Box Association, a trade group. 

With boxes going directly to consumers, companies increasingly want their products to stand out from the pile, said Neal Mintz of Minneapolis box manufacturer Cedar Box Company. A client who ships car seat covers, for example, recently asked for a blaze-orange box. Twenty years ago, a brown box would do just fine. 

"Nowadays people call us and they have an idea and a concept, and they want to talk through it and share their plan and talk about printing multiple colours and custom tapes and stickers," Mintz said. 

All those boxes sitting on doorsteps have proved tempting for thieves, too. Sgt Jim Gray of the St. Paul Police Department said package thefts used to occur primarily around Christmas. Now they happen all year round, he said, estimating there were about 100 in his western St. Paul district last year. 

"In particular the last year here, it's been a more significant increase," Gray said, adding that some thieves who don't like what they find in the boxes have tried returning items to a brick-and-mortar store. 

Minneapolis police said 134 package thefts were reported in the city last year, up from just 36 in 2011. 

Neighbourhood message boards are peppered with posts about purloined packages, as well as the occasional home security video of a suspect in the act. In early February, a 27-year-old man who stole boxes containing a mattress cover and a salon apron from a suburban home turned himself in after a relative saw video posted on Facebook and confronted him. 

"It's the proverbial cat-and-mouse game between the citizens and the crooks," Gray said. 

Some wonder about the environmental impact of the growing piles of boxes. 

Lauren Fischer cancelled her subscription to Blue Apron, a meal ingredient delivery service, partly due to the amount of packaging it brings. Yet having Amazon Prime with a new baby still left her with piles of boxes. 

"Sometimes you get a box that has like one tiny thing in it," Fischer said. "And it just makes me feel guilty, as someone who recycles and wants to not impact the environment." 

Amazon says it developed software seven years ago that chooses the right box based on an item's size and weight. The company's boxes can also be used to ship unwanted items to Goodwill for free under the Give Back Box programme. 

Eureka Recycling, which handles recycling for Minneapolis and St. Paul residents, churned through more cardboard during a post-holiday bump this January than any other paper product – such as newspaper – for the first time in its processing facility's 13-year history. The amount of cardboard recycled across the Twin Cities metro area jumped nearly 40% between 2005 and 2015, according to state data. 

But boxes cannot be infinitely recycled because paper fibres grow shorter every time they are reused. Boxes contain a variety of fibre lengths, and after seven to 10 cycles some are washed away with water in the pulping process, according to West Rock, which recycles a lot of the metro area's cardboard in St. Paul. 

Research into the environmental footprint of e-commerce vs traditional retail has been inconclusive. Lynn Hoffman of Eureka Recycling said such analyses depend heavily on what's being ordered, where it comes from and what alternatives were available locally. 

And what about traffic from all the deliveries? 

The Minnesota Department of Transportation estimates that e-commerce will be responsible for about 5% to 10% more freight traffic between now and 2030, said spokesman Kevin Gutknecht. 

But Twin Cities residents are also making fewer trips to the store than they did in 2001, based on travel behaviour data. University of Minnesota professor David Levinson said that, coupled with the logistics efficiency of professional delivery services, likely means there are fewer trips overall. 

"There will be different patterns as a result," he said. "So there might be more traffic on some streets and less traffic on other streets." 

He said further changes will accompany new delivery technologies, such as drones or robots. 

"Every science fiction movie you've ever seen has robots doing delivery," Levinson said. — Star Tribune/Tribune News Service

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