By Rashmi Jose, Senior Policy Advisor, International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD)

This article is part of a series that examines e-commerce and its role in contributing to the plastic packaging waste problem. The first article highlighted how the rapid growth of global e-commerce and its high use of plastic packaging for transport make it one of the fastest growing waste streams, contributing to the plastic pollution problem. In this article, we review some of the regulatory solutions being put in place by governments at the national level that are looking to address the growing problem.

Evolving regulations for a changing landscape

Over the past two decades, governments have increasingly employed policy instruments to combat plastic pollution. The most popular approach has been regulating plastic bags. As of 2018, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), 127 countries had implemented national legislations ranging from bans to taxes, aiming to curb the production, use, or trade of single-use plastic bags.

However, these regulations primarily target brick-and-mortar retailers who provide plastic shopping bags at checkout. E-commerce, with its different packaging formats, remains largely unaffected. As e-commerce grows, plastic bag policies, currently the dominant instrument, must be updated or expanded to address the evolving retail landscape.

As a response, some countries are taking the initial steps to adapt their policies to limit the use of plastic in packaging by e-commerce. Below, we highlight some of their approaches.

From bans to reduction efforts

Beyond measures targeting single-use plastic bags, countries are increasingly beginning to experiment with regulations targeting a wider range of single-use plastic items. UNEP’s 2018 study identified 27 countries adopting policies targeting broader single-use plastics, with measures either limiting particular single-use products or certain types of plastic materials. Examples of products targeted include service- or tablewear, whereas examples of plastic materials targeted include polystyrene and PVC.

Measures that focus on banning certain types of single-use plastic products will likely affect e-commerce the same way as they would apply to brick-and-mortar retailers by preventing all retailers from selling or distributing such products. However, the regulations that target materials could also have an effect on whether specific plastics are used as materials for different types of packaging, including the packaging used for transport. For example, some countries have implemented bans on using PVC, the world’s third most widely produced synthetic plastic polymer, which tends to be extensively used in packaging. The material has faced significant criticism because of its difficulty in recycling and relatively more harmful implications for human health. Spain has implemented a tax against non-reusable plastic packaging, and the Republic of Korea has banned PVC plastic in packaging altogether.

There are no examples of countries implementing outright bans against all types of single-use plastic materials for packaging in e-commerce. The reluctance to implement more restrictive methods may stem from a need to balance against unintended negative environmental consequences. For example, some concerns have been raised that banning plastics in packaging for transport may result in switching to alternative materials that could be more emission-heavy or generate bigger challenges for waste or recycling.

Rather than prohibiting plastic in e-commerce packaging, countries seem more comfortable exploring options for encouraging a reduction of using plastic for packaging. The jurisdiction that is at the forefront of considering more comprehensive policies regulating the use of plastic in packaging, at present, is the EU. Below, we outline some of the regulations it is considering through its packaging and packaging waste regulation (PPWR) proposal, indicating how some of the features are expected to apply to e-commerce operators.

Empty space regulations: Minimization efforts are important in e-commerce, which can be prone to excessive packaging due to inefficient boxing practices. Goods may be transported in larger than necessary boxes, leaving significant parts of the package to be made of empty space. This void space may then be packed with additional filler material to prevent potential damage during transportation. Fills made of plastics, such as air pillows, bubble wraps, or plastic pellets, are often a favored filler material due to their low cost and lightweight nature.

To reduce the tendency toward wasteful packaging, the PPWR is considering the implementation of an “empty space regulation” that would require e-commerce deliveries to restrict empty space to a maximum of 40%. It also limits the use of filler material by clarifying that the use of such material would be accounted for as empty space. To comply with such a regulation, e-commerce operators will likely have to invest in new technology to facilitate more efficient boxing practices.

Promoting recycling: Another approach to reduction is to limit the use of virgin plastics for packaging by requiring that the packaging meet certain recycled content targets. The PPWR, for example, requires that, by 2030, the plastic used in e-commerce packaging must comprise at least 35% recycled plastic content. The target will go up to 65% by 2040, resulting in most of the packaging being made from recycled rather than virgin plastic.

Beyond increasing recycled content, the EU’s PPWR requires “design for recycling” efforts. This ensures that the packaging is recyclable or can be disposed of responsibly. The PPWR also includes new harmonized labeling requirements facilitating improved waste disposal, recycling, and reuse.

Australia and Canada have also announced that they plan to restructure their packaging policies and that recycled content or recycling for design will be important features within the new framework.

Promoting Reuse: One reason prohibitive measures of plastic bags are useful in brick-and-mortar retail is that they prompt consumers into important behavioral changes, encouraging them to shift from consuming new shopping bags toward reusing existing bags. Promoting similar behavioral changes in e-commerce is more challenging due to the limited consumer involvement in the physical delivery process.

Despite such challenges, importantly, the EU’s PPWR sets targets for promoting reusable packaging in e-commerce deliveries. By 2030, 10% of deliveries are expected to utilize reusable packaging, increasing to 50% by 2040. Additionally, 90% of large household appliances must be delivered in reusable packaging by 2030.

The reuse targets will likely necessitate significant operational changes for e-commerce retailers, including implementing reverse logistics or closed-loop supply chains to facilitate returns of reusable packaging. It may be fair to assume that these systems would once again require technological investments and are also likely to be more challenging to implement and coordinate on a cross-border basis.

Extended producer responsibility (EPR): An increasingly popular measure leveraged by some countries is EPR, in which the manufacturer is expected to take on more financial or operational responsibility in the waste or circular management of plastic products following consumer use. For example, Germany has implemented an additional levy on producers of single-use plastics, with the revenue collected to be used for disposal costs. Importantly, the regulation also increases the liability of e-commerce as third parties responsible for ensuring they will only supply from officially registered producers and comply with the regulation. Third parties who offer sales of single-use plastic by manufacturers that are not registered will be subject to potential fines.

Learning from countries’ experiences

Countries’ regulatory efforts to limit the use of plastic in packaging for e-commerce retail, at present, are still quite limited. Only a few countries are at the exploratory stage of experimenting with different approaches. The above list, although not comprehensive, is useful in illustrating the emerging approaches.

The nascency and experimentation of such regulations mean a higher potential for the global community to learn from the experiences of the select few countries implementing these regulations. International platforms that facilitate exchanges of experiences and best practices could be of value. This could be an important topic for the World Trade Organization (WTO) members participating in the Dialogue on Plastic Pollution and Environmentally Sustainable Plastics Trade (DPP), or it could be picked up at the multilateral level. For example, the Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade already ran a thematic session on regulatory cooperation on plastic regulation.

In this case, WTO members can learn from pilot countries’ experiences implementing plastic pollution regulations related to e-commerce. These information exchanges can help countries understand the challenges of adopting such regulations and learn from countries’ experiences in balancing against unintended negative environmental externalities.

Beyond getting a better grasp of the environmental trade-offs, discussions can also help facilitate an understanding of the economic and social implications of such regulations. As highlighted above, complying with some of the proposed regulations will likely require technological upgrades and significant changes to supply chain operations. These updates will likely be more challenging for operators with limited resources, especially those from poorer developing economies. As a worst-case scenario, some of the regulations may weaken poorer countries’ ability to access and engage in cross-border digital economy opportunities, an issue that poorer countries already need significant help with.