Is Buying Online More Eco-Friendly?: 10 Steps to Low Waste Online Buys

Reusable Nation - zero waste online shopping

Buying online seems like it would be much more wasteful than buying from a local store, when in fact, it can actually be the more eco-friendly choice. We explain why and share how to make online shopping as zero waste as possible.

The MIT Centre for Transportation and Logistics’s Environmental Analysis of US Online Shopping found that “online shopping is the most environmentally friendly option in a wide range of scenarios”. This is because online shopping can have a lower carbon footprint than shopping at a store when the entire lifecycle of a purchase is considered.

The components included in the study’s carbon footprint calculation were:

  • the packaging used

  • transportation

  • energy consumption, and

  • information flow.

For brick and mortar retail stores, secondary packaging such as pallets and protective shrink wrap are needed, while online shipping only uses shipping boxes and inner packaging like foam peanuts.

When it comes to transportation, with online shopping, there is one delivery truck going around instead of many people making many trips to the shops. A delivery truck uses far less fuel per package than the same number of people driving in person to pick them up.

In addition, a retailer website generates less emissions than a physical retail store as it needs a lot more power to keep it running.

This, of course, depends on lots of things, like:

  • How far are you from the shops? The further you have to travel to the shops, the less efficient it is.

  • Do you walk, bike or take public transport to the shops instead of driving? This decreases the carbon footprint of buying from physical stores.

  • Where did the product come from? Buying locally produced products that are sustainably and ethically produced is always preferable.

If you do buy online, follow these 10 steps to ensure that it is the more eco-friendly option and that your online delivery is as low waste as possible:

1. Buy from an eco-friendly focused online store

This way, you know that the store selling you your products cares about their impact and it is likely that they will have already come up with a system of sending out packages in a sustainable way.

Look for a section on their website detailing what they send their packages out in or look on Instagram for posts showing people opening their packages to suss out if the way they send them is up to your standards.

If they’re a company selling products to people in the zero waste or plastic free movements and they don’t send their packages out in a low waste way, you’ll be sure to find complaints about it online!

Most of these companies use some form of recycled, recyclable and/or biodegradable packaging and avoid using any plastic in their deliveries.

Our trusted stores include Flora and Fauna, Biome and The Clean Collective in Australia, Life Without Plastic in Canada/US and Faithful to Nature in South Africa.

2. Ask for a plastic free package

If the online store you are buying from is not focused on environmental sustainability, but is a more general online store like Amazon or eBay, the chances are much higher that your delivery will come over-packaged and wrapped in plastic.

At checkout, make sure you comment in the comments box that you would like your package to be plastic free and as low waste as possible and let them know that you don’t mind if the box used for your delivery is one that is being reused.

Write something like:

“Please don’t use any plastic when packaging my delivery and please use as few packaging materials as possible. I am happy for you to reuse an old box for my delivery if you have one. I am trying to make my purchase as low waste and eco-friendly as possible. Thank you!”

This works most of the time and the MIT Centre for Transportation and Logistics says that “by optimising the shipping package (removing primary packaging and reducing the amount of materials used), the carbon footprint of online behaviour is highly improved”.

3. Buy one big order from one store

To reduce packaging, buy as much as you can from one company, rather than buying one item here and one item there. This means you’ll get one large package rather than a lot of little individually wrapped packages.

This works for shopping at the store too - with the paper mentioned above noting that “when both traditional and online shoppers bundle items during the purchase step (e.g. multiple items in one store trip or multiple items in one box delivered from online purchases), it noticeably improves the absolute impact of all behaviours, by optimising fuel consumption and the amount of material for packaging”.

4. Don’t check out the product in store before buying it online

The lowered carbon emissions of online shopping are null and void if you head to the shops to look at a product in person in the store before buying it online. In fact, this generates a carbon footprint almost twice the size of a purely online purchase according to the MIT Centre for Transportation and Logistics’s environmental analysis of online shopping.

5. Don’t choose the quick delivery option; use regular delivery

Selecting the fast delivery option makes online delivery have a higher carbon footprint than traditional store shopping according to the paper mentioned above. It states that fast delivery almost triples the impact of freight transportation.

Transport companies’ regular delivery system is optimised and packages are consolidated into fewer trips, increasing efficiency and reducing emissions.

So give yourself enough time to buy and receive something if you need it by a set date.

6. Buy from companies that use the postal service or a commonly used delivery service

Australia Post will be making the trip past your postbox anyway and it is likely that a truck from a well-known delivery service company will be doing deliveries in your area, making the delivery more fuel efficient.

7. Be home when your delivery arrives

Redeliveries add a significant amount of carbon emissions to online purchases so it is best to be at home when you’re expecting a delivery so make sure that the delivery option suits you. If you do miss it and need to go pick it up from your local post office or delivery company depot, walk, cycle or use public transport to fetch it to reduce the emissions created.

8. Be certain you are not going to want to return the product

Returning a product increases the carbon footprint when both buying online and physically returning an item to a store, so think it through properly and make sure it is the right fit for you or whoever you are buying it for before clicking the purchase button.

9. Reuse the packaging you receive

When your delivery arrives, open it up in a way that you can reuse the box or give the box to someone else to reuse i.e. open it carefully - don’t rip it!

Then, keep it and use it when you need to send a delivery yourself, or pass it on to someone else who sends parcels or runs an online business. You can also pass on any padding inside or find another use for it.

10. Recycle or compost what you can’t reuse

If there is no way you can reuse the packaging, make sure you recycle it correctly according to your council’s recycling system or compost it if it is biodegradable.

Be wary of biodegradable plastics - the majority of these cannot be composted in a home composting system, but need high temperatures that can only be reached in a commercial composting facility to biodegrade. As we don’t have these facilities available in Australia yet, these need to go to landfill.

On the flip side, a lot of foam peanuts are actually biodegradable these days! They used to be made from polystyrene, but most of the ones used now are made from potato starch and can be composted. To check if they are polystyrene or potato starch, put one in water - if it dissolves in the water, it is potato starch and can be composted.

If buy in store or online, think about the entire lifecycle of the product you’re buying in order to make the most eco-friendly choice and consider changing your routine to make your in store or online purchase more environmentally friendly and less carbon intensive.

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