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Online Shopping Unboxed: Startup Tackles E-Comm Shipping Waste

To say that e-commerce has boomed during the pandemic is an understatement.

With digital sales soaring 71 percent in the second quarter of 2020 and 55 percent in the third, according to Salesforce, virtual storefronts have proven to be a lifeline for embattled retailers coping with the fallout of shrinking foot traffic. But the trend has also ushered in some major environmental downsides. Among the most tangible? Packaging waste, much of which is landfilled, incinerated or allowed to escape into the ecosystem.

Padded mailers, shrink wrap, bubble wrap and air pillows were already burgeoning problems before Covid-19 upended the globe. A recent study by Oceana, a conservation nonprofit, estimated that Amazon alone generated 465 million pounds of plastic packaging waste in 2019. Some 22.44 million pounds of that, it said, landed up in the world’s freshwater and marine ecosystems as pollution in the same year—the rough equivalent of “a delivery van’s worth of plastic being dumped into major rivers, lakes, and the oceans every 70 minutes.”

Olive, a new delivery consolidation platform, hopes to alleviate some of that burden.

The brainchild of former founder Nate Faust, Olive lets consumers bundle their assorted e-commerce orders at so-called “consolidation hubs,” where they’re placed in reusable containers and dispatched on a weekly basis. Already, Olive has inked agreements with hundreds of apparel brands and retailers, including Adidas, Anthropologie, Everlane, Free People, ThirdLove, Hugo Boss, Outdoor Voices, Saks Fifth Avenue and Vince, which pay the platform an average 10 percent commission on every transaction.

Olive is free for consumers, who are only required to download the Olive iOS app and/or Chrome browser extension. They can shop directly from their favorite brand and retailer sites like they normally would. The app pops up during checkout, using autofill to assist with the process. Returns, Olive says on its website, are “crazy simple.” Anything that isn’t a good fit goes back into the box and then out on the doorstep for pickup and processing.

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Doing all this, the company says, not only curtails waste but also the greenhouse gases that result from ferrying individual orders and returns back and forth. Some 75 percent of e-commerce’s carbon emissions, in fact, come from single-use packaging and last-mile delivery, Olive claims.

Olive is notable because it attacks e-commerce’s biggest ecological pain points in one fell swoop. Other companies have wrestled with elements of these in the past. Happy Returns, for instance, accepts box-less returns at hundreds of “return bars” at brick-and-mortar retailers, shopping malls, campus bookstores and office buildings, plus 2,000 FedEx locations, nationwide. It consolidates these castoffs into reusable totes, made from recycled plastic, for bulk shipping to a “Return Hub” in California or another in Pennsylvania for sorting and routing to their final destinations.

Boox works with beauty and apparel companies, from RenSkincare to Boyish Jeans, to package their items in reusable boxes, known as Booxes, that are sent back for reconditioning and redistribution. Using Boox, the company says, slashes the impact from cardboard boxes by an average of 75 percent—and up to 90 percent—after 10 shipments. It’s available in the United States for now but the company plans to expand to Canada and the United Kingdom in the near future.

Europe has RePack, a Finnish platform that partners with brands such as Filippa K, Mud Jeans and Makia, and deploys “packs” that are made to be used and reused at least 20 times. And in California, a startup called LimeLoop marshals lightweight, waterproof pouches, derived from recycled billboard vinyl, that can be used for as many as 200 “loops” between customers and brands. Compared with conventional packaging, the company says, LimeLoop’s reusable mailers are estimated to save roughly 70 trees, 90 gallons of water and 200 gallons of oil for every 10,000 shipments.

Meanwhile brands, trying to meet various sustainability goals, are grappling with how to reduce their reliance on single-use plastic, particularly the ubiquitous polybag, with mixed results.

Faust arrived at the concept of Olive after breaking down a week’s worth of cardboard boxes and dragging them outside. He looked around and saw that everyone on his street was struggling with the same problem.

“ It is unbelievable that we have been shopping online for over 25 years and we receive our purchases in single-use cardboard boxes filled with plastic air bubbles,” he wrote on “An even bigger environmental issue is the delivery itself: with nearly every package delivered one at a time to consumers’ doorsteps, plus our own trips to the post office for returns, our carbon footprint from e-commerce continues to climb.”

Olive’s mission is “tackle this problem head-on,” he added. “You can feel good that every time you shop with Olive and our retail partner sites you are making a step towards a more sustainable future.”