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A courier sorts through a sea of packages in a storehouse. [Shen Qilai / Bloomberg]

Guideline from Post Bureau says sector should reuse more packaging materials

Concerns about the country"s mounting trash problem prompted the State Post Bureau to publish a guideline for green development of the express delivery industry, aiming to reduce the generation of waste and to encourage recycling and green packaging.

China"s booming express delivery industry used about 17.9 billion plastic bags, 8.6 billion cardboard boxes and 330 million rolls of adhesive tape in 2016, the bureau said.

That number is likely to have risen, given the number of deliveries in the country jumped from 31.35 billion in 2016 to more than 50 billion last year. This year it"s expected to hit 60 billion.

Experts said making the industry green is necessary to curb pollution, because many of the materials currently used are not recyclable. But they also said the goal would be difficult to achieve without enhanced awareness of the importance of environmental protection among members of the public.

Express delivery enterprises should have containers to collect reusable packaging at their service outlets, according to the guideline, which was issued in December.

They should also avoid using single-use, woven plastic bags and increase the use of reusable bags and boxes. The big bags used in parcel transportation should be reused at least 20 times, it said.

About 3.2 billion such big woven bags were used in 2016.

The guideline also said green packaging materials, such as those printed with environmentally friendly, water-based ink should be given priority.

Disposal of waste remains a challenge for the express delivery industry, said Li Tianjiao, an expert on green action with Cainiao Network, Alibaba"s logistics arm.

A green logistics report published by the China Environmental Protection Foundation last year said paper packaging, which had a recycling rate of about 90 percent in 2017, is the most-recycled waste generated by the express delivery sector. However, many of the plastic products it uses must be incinerated - generating power - or disposed of in landfills.

The State Post Bureau said waste from the express delivery industry accounted for about 93 percent of the growth in domestic waste in big cities.

"Under the circumstances, it"s imperative to promote green packaging," Li said.

He also noted the importance of developing and researching cost-efficient green models. Although Cainiao and its partners had been piloting the application of different green packaging solutions since 2017, the increased cost associated with lowering environmental impacts remained a challenge.

The guideline also called for the increased use of biodegradable plastic packaging, saying consumers should be offered the option of using green packaging for their deliveries.

Ba Ning, executive deputy director of the China Post Research Institute"s testing center, said this would help to greatly reduce the environmental impact of plastic packaging used in express deliveries.

Under natural conditions, it takes about 200 years for the common plastic packaging currently used in China to degrade. But more than 90 percent of the materials in biodegradable plastic packaging could degrade in just six months under certain conditions.

With favorable humidity and temperature, biodegradable plastic packaging could degrade into carbon dioxide and water within a year, Science and Technology Daily quoted Ba as saying.

However, Ba said, using biodegradable plastic bags could more than double the cost of plastic packaging, which would be a challenge to the development of the express delivery industry.

Increased environmental protection awareness among the public was needed to help address the cost challenge because consumers with such awareness would be willing to pay more for green delivery.

The cost of biodegradable plastic packaging could be 30 percent more than common plastic, Chen Shunfeng, general manager of a ZTO Express branch in Shandong province, was quoted as saying by China Economic Herald.