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By The Numbers

Where can I recycle all this wrapping paper?

Dan Weissmann Dec 26, 2013

Online retailers shipped us so many individually-boxed Christmas gifts this year that UPS couldn’t keep up.  And once all those packages arrive, the boxes themselves have to go somewhere.  

Christmas week has always meant a bulge for trash pickup, thanks to piles of wrapping paper and other detritus. Add cardboard boxes on top, and it’s reasonable to start worrying how big a mess we’re creating.

So, first, some good news:  The Christmas trash pile hasn’t grown out of control — at least not yet.

Economist Jeffrey Morris creates forecasts of Seattle’s waste stream for the city’s public utilities — “the big picture of what’s coming at them,” as he puts it. He says that December’s bump hasn’t grown appreciably in the ten years he’s been paying attention. “Nothing’s punched me in the face,” he says.  “Maybe because it’s the early days, but it hasn’t shown up yet.”  

Nationally, the big picture is similar: The total tonnage of stuff we throw away and recycle hasn’t grown appreciably in the past ten years, says Chaz Miller, director of policy and advocacy for the National Waste and Recycling Association, an industry group.

Even the amount of cardboard has been flat.  “What we have seen in the last decade or so is called the ‘evolving ton,’” says Miller, meaning that today’s ton of waste reflects a new mix of materials.

For instance, some cardboard boxes have gotten replaced by lighter weight, smaller plastic containers. “For instance, my asthma pills come in a little, plastic package now,” he says, “because that’s all that’s needed to ship them.” Cardboard boxes themselves have gotten a bit lighter.

However, it’s likely that we’ve only begun to face the rising tide of cardboard.

An individually shipped item generates about ten times more solid waste, on average, than the same item purchased from a retail store, says H. Scott Matthews, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied the issue.

He says the primary reason online retailing hasn’t yet affected the waste stream in aggregate is likely because these are still such early days. Despite rapid growth, e-commerce still represents only six percent of total sales.

As that tide rises, that cardboard sea will rise with it.  “It’s humbling to think about managing all that waste,” says Matthews.

However, he thinks another problem will come first — the explosive growth in air and truck traffic delivering all this stuff.  

“Eventually, we’re going to be sitting in traffic, in rush hour on the way home, competing for space with these delivery trucks,” he says.  “We’re going to be staring at the problem next to us, out the window, while sitting on streets and highways.”

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