How To Shop Online In The Least Wasteful Ways Possible

If you’ve found yourself spending the pandemic filling up online shopping cart after online shopping cart, you’re not alone.

People have increasingly turned to online shopping during the coronavirus crisis. While Americans spent less online during the first three months of 2020 compared with the final three months of 2019, this shot up by 37 percent in April, May, and June, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. While online sales decreased slightly during July, August, and September, they were still 37 percent higher than the same period in 2019. And online sales are only expected to increase across the industry, according to the Associated Press.

But all this shopping puts a heavy strain on the environment because the packaging relies on a huge amount of single-use plastic (most of which is difficult or impossible to recycle), says David Pinsky, who was a senior plastics campaigner at Greenpeace for over a year and a half. That packaging, like bubble wrap and air pillows, helps protect items from damage during transportation but is usually meant to be used once and then tossed in the trash. And out of all plastic waste ever produced, only nine percent of it has been recycled, while 79 percent ends up in landfills or the environment. 

Some of this is hard for you as the consumer to avoid. The responsibility should be on online retailers to transform their industry to produce less wasteful packaging, with the ultimate goal of replacing it with reusable alternatives like glass containers, says Pinsky. Indeed, individual actions have limits. Given that are currently responsible for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, avoiding the worst impacts of climate change requires government policy and changing company practices. 

Still, in an effort to reduce your own wastefulness, you might want to alter your own online shopping habits, and in doing so, show big companies that you care about what you put in your online cart. 

As Pinsky explains, “individual actions…helps to avoid more stuff being produced and communicates to massive corporations that consumer interests and shopping trends are changing.”

With that in mind, here are five ways to reduce waste when you shop online. 

1. Do a mental check-in

Before putting anything in your virtual shopping cart,  ask yourself “Do I need this?” suggests Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist who works on sustainable packaging issues at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy organization. We can often get trapped in a cycle of excessive consumerism without taking a moment to consider if we actually need something. 

For example, you might see a new dress online that you think you absolutely need. But if you take the time to consider the purchase, you’ll realize your wants are overpowering your needs. 

If you’ve found yourself in a similar situation, consider whether you can use something you already own or if you can borrow something from a friend. 

And be honest with yourself if you get a thrill from online shopping. It’s a common reaction when anticipating something you want. If you realize that’s happening to you, you might not actually need to make the purchase. Find out if you can get a similar dopamine boost from other activities like taking a walk or talking with friends, suggests Pinsky.

If none of these strategies work, prioritize items that are durable, reusable, or recyclable, suggests Hoover. Pinsky also urges people to turn to Craigslist and Nextdoor, websites where you can buy or get goods for free from people in your community, before places like Amazon and Target. 

2. Don’t fall for greenwashing

If an online retailer claims something about their sustainability practices that sounds too good to be true, look into it. Pinsky brings up the example of a company promising that its packaging will be 100 percent compostable or recyclable by 2030.

Pinsky says these kinds of goals can sound good at first. But he urges people to dig deeper. Does this actually mean the company’s packaging will be 100 percent compostable or recyclable? Many companies, such as Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and PepsiCo, have partly replaced their plastic products with bio-based plastics, which are often incorrectly touted as biodegradable or compostable. But most bioplastics, though often derived from crops, are also partially made of fossil-based plastic, which means they still pose the same recycling issues as the plastics they’re trying to replace, according to a 2019 report from Greenpeace. And even if a company promises 100 percent compostable packaging, the burden is on the consumer to compost it. There’s no guarantee a community will have the facilities to actually deal with that waste, Pinsky points out. It may still end up in a landfill, incinerator, or in the environment.

You should also familiarize yourself with the company’s reputation on sustainability. Research what trustworthy environmental organizations (like Greenpeace) say about the company you want to buy from. Often, this can help you decide if that retailer is a good choice without doing painstaking research.

Lastly, look at the sustainability commitments the company’s made and compare it with other retailers. You can also check out the Break Free From Plastic Movement’s website to see what the movement and its members (which include Greenpeace, ocean conservation group Oceana, and the Sierra Club, among others) say when it comes to specific companies’ commitments around packaging, suggests Pinsky.

Some red flags include:

  • No mention of sustainability 

  • General aspirational language (like “we strive to make changes” or “we hope to address this problem”)

  • Promises that ignore the problematic nature of single-use plastics (e.g. “we will commit to 20 percent recycled plastic by 2030” instead of “we will replace all single-use plastics by 2030 with reusable alternatives”)

  • Commitments or policies that praise recycling and chemical recycling (which release fossil fuels into the air, according to Pinsky and the 2019 Greenpeace report) or compostable plastics and bioplastics (which are touted as ways to reduce reliance on single-use plastic but still often similarly create waste).

When you look deeper, you’ll often be surprised that companies’ sustainability commitments don’t make as big of a difference as you’d think, says Pinsky.

3. Pay attention to packaging

If you do buy from an online retailer, there are strategies to make your order less wasteful.

If possible, request that your items be put in the same package, suggests Hoover. This cuts down on the number of packages and amount of packaging you receive. 

You should also always try to recycle your packaging. Though ideally it’d be better if single-use packaging didn’t exist in the first place, that’s not on you. What is in your control is to get rid of the packaging as responsibly as possible. Look online to see if retailers have instructions on how to do so. And always check with your local government to see what it’s equipped to recycle, says Hoover. You can consult your town or city’s website or them directly.

On top of that though, find out if you can return packaging to be reused. Pinsky has returned things like bubble mailers, bubble wrap, and boxes to the UPS store. He also suggests people ask their local FedEx store or Amazon location (if there’s one in your area) if they accept packaging. 

You also don’t need to receive your package through the mail, suggests Pinsky. Online retailers like Amazon, Walmart, Costco, and Target all offer pick-up locations so you can drive, bike, or walk if there’s one near you. This cuts down on packaging you’d receive through the mail without sacrificing the convenience and safety of shopping at home.

4. Cut down on meal delivery waste

Unlike restaurants, many of which have closed permanently during the pandemic or forced to significantly decrease their hours and dining capacity, food delivery apps have grown in popularity as more people order takeout.

In fact, the four top U.S. food delivery apps saw their collective revenue from April to Sept. 2020 more than double compared to the same period the previous year. 

But delivered meals often come with excessive materials like a wad of napkins and plastic cutlery wrapped in plastic. Ask the restaurant to omit napkins, condiments, and plastic utensils in the comments field (sometimes called “special delivery instructions”) to avoid waste.

You can also prioritize meal delivery services and restaurants that include reusable packaging (which they then take back for future use), says Hoover. Though this isn’t a widespread option, it’s available in some parts of the country. She recommends Dispatch Goods, which supplies restaurants and meal delivery apps with reusable containers that it then picks up and cleans.

But if this isn’t an option, let the meal delivery app or restaurant know this is important to you. Companies care what their customers think and if they hear from enough people, this demand could push them to adopt less wasteful practices, says Hoover. 

5. Put pressure on retailers and patronize those with reusable models

While individual habits don’t make much of a dent when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, this isn’t a free license to give up. When you look at collective action, it does matter. Often, as Pinsky points out, companies are reluctant to change the status quo if no one demands it.  

To that end, while you work to make your purchases less wasteful, you can also lobby companies so they change their behavior for the better, says Hoover. 

“It’s very important to put pressure on companies and call for them to change,” says Pinsky similarly. “What they’re trying to do right now is pivot from saying ‘we can recycle everything, it’ll be OK,’ to saying ‘we recognize recycling is a problem. We’re going to innovate.'” This innovation, he says, needs to include systems of reuse and minimal wasteful packaging. 

Hoover suggests tweeting at companies or sending an email saying you want to see better sustainability practices. Let companies know what you’ve noticed or are concerned about, like single-use plastic items, says Hoover. 

For example, you can say, “I’ve noticed your packaging is in a non-reusable and non-recyclable container and I’d really love to see more sustainable options” or “I see that your restaurant only delivers food via cars, could you deliver it via bicycle or another zero or low-emissions way when possible?” It’s also good to let companies know if you like what they’re doing (e.g. “Thank you for using reusable packaging!”) because it can help them stay on track with their environmental efforts.

Meanwhile, as you wait for companies to change their practices, use companies that already avoid excessive packaging. 

Pinsky suggests companies like The Wally Shop and  Loop, both of which let you shop from your favorite brands, eliminate packaging that will end up in a landfill, and reuse its packaging.

“There are steps we can take and we have an opportunity to transform these systems,” says Pinsky. “Ultimately, we need to see that pressure placed on large corporations.”