Online shopping has long been the norm in South Korea — from food and plants to furniture, almost everything you need can be delivered to your doorstep with just a few clicks on the internet.
In 2016, over 2 billion parcels were handled by local courier companies, as the parcel service market grew to 4.7 trillion won ($4.2 billion), quadrupling from 1.3 trillion won in 2005, according to data from the Korea Integrated Logistics Association and corporate credit appraiser Korea Ratings.
The convenience of online purchases and home delivery, however, has its downsides. All the delivery boxes, wrapping and padding meant to protect what’s nestled inside are waste, once delivered, and a burden on our environment.
According to Korea Waste Association, most of plastic bags are single-use, while packing tape is made of polyvinyl chloride, which takes a century to decompose.
Cardboard boxes are another problem.
Many believe that cardboard boxes are OK because they can be recycled, but officials say at least 10 per cent of such boxes are dumped as trash and even those collected for reuse have a not-so-long life span after recycling.
“Unfortunately, cardboard can’t be recycled indefinitely, because every time it’s remade, the fibers shorten. After five to seven recycling loops, the fibers become too short to be made into cardboard,” said Kim Dong-hyuk from Korea Recycle Association.
The growing waste from parcel packaging is a problem in many other countries where online shopping is popular. China is grappling with mountains of packaging waste, while shipping boxes and packaging materials accounted for 30 per cent, or 75 million tons, of total solid waste generated in US in 2015.
Around the world, over 16.9 billion meters of box tape were used for parcel service in 2016, according to industry data, equivalent to the length it would take to wrap around the Earth about 425 times. Over 8.2 billion plastic bags and 3.1 billion packing strings were used in the same year.
As parcel packaging becomes a growing environmental headache, some companies have begun to seek out green alternatives.
Innisfree, a local cosmetics brand, has been using recycled cardboard boxes and biodegradable foam made of corn since 2012.
Though costs went up, the company said it has decided to stick to eco-friendly options to provide consumers the value of going green.
“We wanted to convey the message that our company values naturalism and cares about environmental issues and waste problems. Delivery is a small part of our business, but it may be the most effective way to portray our value,” said Seo Sung-hyuk, a manager at Innisfree’s E-commerce team.
Boxes for some of the cosmetic products are made of recycled citrus peels and green tea leaves, he added.
Some consumers are going package-free on their own.
“After I saw a box of toothpaste that I ordered online arrived packed with several layers of plastic bags and air caps, I always leave a note (to the seller and the courier service provider) that I do not need extra wrapping when the product is not something fragile,” wrote a member of an online moms’ community.
Going package-free and promoting zero-waste shopping has been a trend around the globe in recent years, although it hasn’t arrived here yet.
In a typical package-free grocery store in Europe, customers are required to bring their own containers to buy food and ingredients in bulk, from cooking oil and vinegar to grains.
Ko Su-ra, 33, shops at local organic stores and expressed hopes for more package-free shopping options here.
“It’s such a great idea. You can just go and shop at those stores, instead of telling the industry what they should do (for the environment),” Ko said.
“We want to see the world become sustainable, clean and thriving for future generations to enjoy.”