The unintended impact of eco-friendly packaging on sustainability in the CEP industry

There is increasing demand for eco-friendly packaging in e-commerce and many producers and retailers have started using more sustainable materials for their packaging and shipping supplies. But are some of the choices of materials creating another problem?

By Bjarne Johansen


CEP operators are unable to handle some types of eco-friendly packaging and these parcels are adversely impacting their parcel distribution operations and cost.

Meeting the demand for eco-friendly packaging

According to a 2022 OECD report, just 9 percent of global plastic waste is recycled and a large amount of plastic waste eventually ends up in rivers and oceans, with devastating effects.

Accordingly, public policy, environmental groups and consumer buying power are working to curb the use of plastic. The movement includes regulatory authorities in many countries seeking to regulate packaging waste to improve, encourage and accelerate the recycling of packaging materials.

As sustainable packaging is increasingly prioritised, e-commerce producers are also looking to use more eco-friendly packaging materials. Many focus on whether:

  • The materials used are biodegradable.
  • The materials are reusable and recyclable materials, reducing the amount of packaging materials and overall wastage.
  • The packages are easy to dispose of after their useful lives.
  • They do not contain chemical additives harmful to the environment.

The materials the e-commerce providers often select to fulfil these priorities are:

  1. Paper, cardboard packaging or plant-based materials: such as cartons and paper bags, wood or timber waste, bamboo, old newspapers and paper towels
  2. Glass: which can be used repeatedly for different purposes
  3. Metal packaging: such as aluminum cans, foil trays, and steel containers, which are all recyclable
  4. Organic fabrics: natural materials such as cotton, jute, leather, canvas, hemp, and palm leaves, which are all compostable packaging

Reusable eco-friendly plastic: is often used for its strength; recycled plastics in the form of polybags are cheaper and comprise 100 percent recycled or recyclable materials.

The difficulty some new packaging materials create for CEP companies

However, e-commerce retailers are creating a problem further down the supply chain by using new packaging materials.

One unintended consequence is that some automated sortation systems in the CEP industry can have difficulties with efficiently handling and sorting some of the parcels utilising the new types of packaging. This is because some of the new packaging materials can sometimes affect the shape, form, friction level and stability of the parcel.

Unstable items

For example, some recycled plastics are frictionless, making them unstable in sortation. With little or no traction against the mechanical handling equipment of conveyors and sorting devices, it can be difficult for the system to handle the item for gentle handling.

Differently-shaped items

Some new forms of wrapping also change the shape of parcels, impacting their behaviour in the sorting process. Where a mug might previously have been wrapped in primary packaging to protect it, as well as secondary packaging for shipping, such items may now be shrink-wrapped to use less packaging materials. But this changes the shape of a small package to an uneven, odd-shaped shipment that complicates the journey through the automated system and adds more manual processes.

Forms of items

To save time when packaging products for shipping, e-commerce companies often package one or two single items in a large plastic bag. While this practice may be more efficient for the company, the repercussion for the distribution centre is a bag that constantly changes in movement on sortation and conveying equipment.

The impact on the CEP business

Unfortunately, using some of the new types of packaging materials can have unforeseen adverse effects on operational sortation efficiency in distribution centres.

System performance takes a hit as these items get jammed, causing operational disturbances and costly downtime. Their sortation requires manual intervention, meaning more resources and additional supervision time for the material handling equipment.

In the worst-case scenario, whole new parallel systems are required to deal with a greater variety of parcel packaging. Given that most well-designed systems have a lifespan of twenty to thirty years, there is a potential risk for new, entirely fit-for-purpose automated systems becoming obsolete well before their time and creating significant wastage. This makes no sense in terms of sustainability.

Some of these new packaging materials can, therefore, impact both OPEX and CAPEX costs, which in turn, need to be passed on to the CEP customer.

Avoiding solutions that create new problems

From a supply-chain perspective, eco-friendly packaging poses an obstacle even though it has been flagged as a solution to minimise waste. Sustainable packaging, therefore, needs to be connected with the entire supply chain.

This may take raising awareness about the impact of some sustainable packaging materials on the supply chain.

For example, CEP companies could be advising their customers now about the wider impacts on the supply chain. Doing so could avoid a situation where parcel handling becomes more costly because the handling costs suddenly explode due to the new packaging materials. It also may require CEP companies to offer reductions in their handling costs to those customers who use eco-friendly materials that don’t create obstacles in the sortation process – as some are already doing.


The use of certain eco-friendly packaging materials and shipping supplies may prove to be problematic for the CEP sector and can lead to increased wastage. In introducing sustainable packaging solutions, there is a need to think about the supply chain as a whole and the implications for all stakeholders –  including the CEP sector and the end consumer –  if further problems and additional costs are to be avoided. In their efforts to become more sustainable, e-commerce retailers must watch out for unintended consequences.

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