China Carbon Credit Platform

The green transformation of packaging is a key enabler of ESG practices in the express delivery industry

Release Time1 month ago

The era of "100 billion pieces" of China's express packaging has arrived, and the growing business volume has also brought serious waste of resources and environmental pollution. From 2017 to 2022, the carbon emissions of China's express delivery industry increased from 18.37 million tons to 55.65 million tons, with a growth rate of more than 200% and an average annual compound growth rate of nearly 25%. At present, the logistics and express delivery industry has regarded packaging as one of the key areas of carbon reduction, and the connection between various actions and ESG (environmental, social and governance) is becoming increasingly obvious. Relevant companies have taken action and published ESG reports under the listing requirements or on a voluntary basis. 

1. Recycling and reuse in the green transformation of China's express packaging

The complexity of packaging materials poses a challenge for recovery and recycling. Express packaging often involves a variety of materials, such as plastics, paper, metals, and composites, and this diversity not only complicates the sorting process, but also increases the cost of recycling.

Paper packaging (cartons and paper bags, etc.) is mainly made of cardboard or corrugated cardboard, which has good recyclability and degradability, and has less negative impact on the environment. Plastic packaging (plastic bags, bubble wrap, plastic foam, etc.) is mostly made of synthetic plastics such as polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP) or polystyrene (PS). Although some plastic materials can be recycled, the recycling rate is still low due to the difficulty of sorting.

Composite packaging, such as postal envelopes and courier bags, is often made of plastic and paper, and this composite structure makes sorting and separation more difficult.

Biodegradable plastic packaging is an environmentally friendly alternative material, such as polylactic acid (PLA)-based degradable packaging materials, but the cost is high and requires a certain degree of scene adaptability.

Glass and metal packaging is mainly used to transport certain categories such as high-end goods, and is easy to recycle and reuse, but it is heavy and fragile, and reverse logistics costs are relatively high.

The recycling system of express packaging waste is still immature, facing the dual challenges of extensive classification and unclear rights and responsibilities.

At present, China's waste sorting system fails to refine the classification of low-value-added express packaging waste, which is usually treated together with dry waste, which not only causes waste of resources, but also exacerbates soil pollution caused by landfills and harmful gases produced by incineration, harming the environment and human health. In addition, the participants in the recycling system are not clearly defined, and the distribution of rights and responsibilities is unclear. The green cycle chain of the entire express packaging involves packaging companies, delivery companies, e-commerce platforms, consumers and recycling companies, but the responsibilities and interests of all parties are not clear, resulting in low enthusiasm and participation. Although some express companies have taken some green measures, such as setting up recycling points in universities, using degradable materials, and carrying out pilot recycling boxes, they have not yet formed a scale effect, the effect is limited, and the market-oriented recycling mechanism is not mature.

Consumers are beginning to wake up to environmental awareness, but action still needs to be further strengthened. According to Accenture's 2022 China Consumer Insights, 43% of respondents are willing to pay a percentage premium for eco-friendly products or packaging. While some consumers have expressed a preference for sustainable packaging, many are still unable to choose eco-friendly packaging when it comes to actual purchasing decisions due to price sensitivity or lack of specific incentives. In addition, consumers' overall awareness of green packaging is not sufficient, and their understanding of the characteristics and recycling methods of various environmentally friendly materials is limited, which limits the popularity and acceptance of green express packaging. That is to say, in order to comprehensively promote the promotion of green express packaging, it is not enough to improve consumers' awareness of environmental issues, but also to further support the transformation of action by formulating more attractive price policies, providing clear environmental protection labels, and enhancing the visibility of the whole process of recycling.

Policies and standards still need to be improved and refined, and the effectiveness of implementation needs to be improved. Although policies and standards related to express packaging have been introduced in the past ten years, they mostly focus on encouragement rather than mandatory, which limits the implementation to a certain extent. As shown in the table below, the policy development of green express packaging has gone through three stages: from germination to deepening and turning to the "green revolution".

2. Actions taken by express delivery companies from the environmental perspective of ESG

According to HKEX regulations, all listed companies are required to comply with the requirements of the ESG Reporting Guidelines and publish ESG reports on a regular basis. Mainland express delivery companies listed on the Hong Kong stock market and have released ESG reports from 2022 to 2023 mainly include SF City, JD Logistics, ZTO Express and YTO Express. The ESG reports of these leading logistics companies show the following commonalities and characteristics from an environmental perspective.

First, there are commitments and descriptions for reducing carbon intensity and reducing waste. For example, SF City described that it achieved the goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emission intensity, office power intensity, office water intensity and office waste intensity in 2022. Promote green office practices and waste separation. In terms of the environment, YTO International Express & Supply Chain Technology Co., Ltd. has a climate change policy in line with the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) to mitigate the impact of climate change by identifying and assessing potential risks. In 2022, the company's total greenhouse gas emissions decreased from 301.1 tCO2e in 2021 to 214.8 tCO2e. Significant reductions in emissions of pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide through active management of waste emissions; Focusing on the efficient use of resources and selecting equipment with higher energy and water efficiency, energy consumption was reduced from 543.7 MWh in 2021 to 355.9 MWh in 2022. ZTO has issued a green procurement policy, which aims to standardize procurement behavior, guide suppliers to provide more environmentally friendly and sustainable products and services, and promote the green and low-carbon development of the entire supply chain by reducing resource consumption and environmental pollution.

Second, the greening of green packaging was explained. For example, JD Logistics has introduced the industry's first DWOP (Delivered with Original Package), which aims to significantly reduce the use of single-use packaging; About 90,000 cartons are collected in more than 100 cities every month. SF City emphasizes reducing the use of disposable document envelopes and promoting green packaging solutions. Zhongtong Express has carried out green express delivery activities in five universities in Shenyang, Shanghai, Hunan and other places, promoted the use of degradable packaging, and encouraged students and faculty members to use express packaging for the second time. YTO International Express & Supply Chain Technology Co., Ltd. has increased the use of recycled paper.

Third, the use of new energy and green logistics are emphasized. For example, SF Express uses electric vehicles and public transportation for green delivery, covering more than 90% of transportation scenarios. JD Logistics has implemented important environmental protection measures such as the use of new energy vehicles and the development of hydrogen energy transportation test routes; China's first "carbon neutral" logistics park has been established, using photovoltaic power generation. 

In addition to the above-mentioned ESG disclosures, express delivery companies have taken active measures to reduce environmental impact in terms of green packaging. Adopt a reduction strategy in packaging design, reduce the use of materials through optimized design, and improve the circularity of packaging. Actively promote the use of recyclable and biodegradable materials to reduce the use of petroleum-based raw materials and reduce the negative impact on the environment. Reusable boxes have been developed for multiple recycling, significantly reducing the need for single-use packaging. By using advanced packaging algorithms and equipment, the size and shape of the packaging are optimized, ensuring that the packaging is more matched to the size of the product, thereby reducing unnecessary material use. Implement a "tape-free packaging" project to avoid the use of adhesive tape by designing boxes that can seal themselves. A recycling system for packaging materials has been established to encourage consumers to return used packaging materials through logistics and distribution personnel for reuse or recycling. Partnering with local governments and environmental organizations to promote community-level packaging recycling programs. Educate consumers about the importance of packaging reduction and recycling through platforms and marketing campaigns, and encourage consumers to choose eco-friendly packaging options and participate in packaging recycling programs. 

3. How to go on the road of sustainable development of China's express delivery industry

The express delivery industry should closely focus on ESG standards, take "reduction, reuse, and reuse" as the basic principle, closely follow the policy guidance, and promote the construction of a green express packaging system with "green action" and "information disclosure" in parallel.

First, fully understand the ESG disclosure rules and use them as the basis for enterprises to carry out green actions. According to the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Disclosure Standards of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange (HKEX), the disclosure areas that are more directly related to the greening of packaging mainly include the following aspects.

The first is the emission level. This refers to data and actions related to emissions of exhaust gases and greenhouse gases, discharge of sewage into water and land, and the generation of hazardous and non-hazardous waste. Specifically, companies are required to disclose the generation and disposal of their waste, including the total production of solid and hazardous waste and the proportion of recycling. This is directly related to the recycling and disposal of packaging materials.

The second is the level of resource use, environment and natural resources. The resource use dimension refers to the goals and actions for the efficient use of resources, including energy, water and other raw materials. One of the key performance indicators is "the total amount of packaging material used in the finished product (in tonnes) and, where applicable, per unit of production". The natural resource dimension refers to actions that have a significant impact on the environment and natural resources. Specifically, the company discloses the use of resources, especially the amount of packaging materials, including but not limited to paper, plastics, etc.; Explain how to optimize packaging design, reduce material use and improve material recyclability. The third is the product liability level. This refers to the act of providing products and services in relation to health and safety. Specifically, companies disclose information about the overall environmental characteristics and compliance of their products. For example, the use of renewable or biodegradable packaging materials and their compliance, explaining the accuracy and transparency of information, and providing measures to reduce environmental and safety hazards during the product life cycle.

Second, based on the principle of "reduction", avoid excessive packaging at the source and strengthen green design. First of all, avoid unnecessary secondary packaging on the basis of meeting logistics needs to reduce the burden on the environment. Secondly, the packaging is slimmed, and the amount of material used is reduced as much as possible on the premise of ensuring that the express packaging meets the necessary performance standards. Specifically, packaging manufacturers pay attention to detail and structural rationality in design, such as the use of easy-to-tear adhesives to reduce wastage and increase the recycling rate of packaging. Delivery companies should be "tailor-made" according to the nature and size of the goods, implement reasonable packaging, reduce the number of packaging layers and voids, and reduce non-essential fillers such as styrofoam. In addition, promote the use of automation equipment to reduce the risk of packaging damage in the process of sorting and transportation, and improve the safety and standardization of packaging.

Third, we should pay equal attention to reuse and reuse, and expand application scenarios and technological innovation. First of all, advocate the recycling of express packaging, such as the pilot and promotion of recycling boxes (bags). Compared with traditional cartons, the number of cycles of the recycling box can reach more than 50 times, which greatly reduces the cost of single use, prolongs the service life of the packaging, and has better carbon reduction and economic benefits. Secondly, plastic packaging that cannot be reused is recycled by physical or chemical methods. Physical recycling is usually prioritized due to its lower cost and lower carbon footprint, and is made into new products through recycling, washing, slicing, melting, granulation, etc., mainly for plastics that are not heavily contaminated or composed of a single polymer. Chemical recycling is mainly for plastics that are contaminated or have complex compositions. Processes such as pyrolysis, gasification and depolymerization break down polymers into their basic chemical components and then use them as raw materials for the production of new plastics, thereby reducing reliance on virgin materials and reducing carbon emissions. It is worth noting that large-scale chemical recycling still requires continuous technological breakthroughs and large capital investment.

Fourth, avoid single-link and single-subject problem solving, and emphasize the participation of the whole process and the whole subject. The responsibility for the recycling of express packaging should be borne by manufacturers, e-commerce platforms, merchants, delivery companies and consumers. Manufacturers need to reduce environmental impact in the production process, and delivery companies and packaging manufacturers should establish a closed-loop management model for recycling. E-commerce platforms and merchants should promote the standardization of packaging and reduce personalized packaging, while consumers can actively participate in express packaging recycling through carbon credit mechanisms. This series of actions is driven not only by the development of clear laws and regulations to define the responsibilities of all parties, but also through economic incentives such as tax incentives and subsidies. For example, tax breaks for green companies and economic incentives for consumers who actively participate in packaging recycling and recycling. At the same time, establish a comprehensive evaluation system for the quantification of green packaging behavior, and implement a reward and punishment system according to the contributions of all parties.

Finally, encourage the research and development of intelligent technologies and information platforms to help enterprises improve efficiency and reduce costs in the process of green transformation. The application of core technologies such as intelligent robots and drones is disrupting traditional logistics methods, such as intelligent robots with handling, palletizing and sorting functions have become a key tool to improve operational efficiency.

The upgrading of green packaging technology, coupled with the introduction of digital and intelligent deployment systems, will further enhance the transportation efficiency of the express delivery industry. Establish a top-level digital operation platform as the center of information management. Through the recording, transmission and management of big data, the whole process of greening can be analyzed and summarized in depth, quantified into logistics indicators, economic indicators and carbon reduction indicators, etc., providing an important basis for policy formulation, enterprise management and consumer supervision, and further improving the efficiency and effect of green express packaging. 

The author is an associate researcher at the School of Environmental Science and Engineering, Tongji University

RegionChina,Shanghai,Hunan,Hongkong SAR