Cory Trusty of Aquarian Bath (a small business owner and sponsor of this blog who is committed to reducing her plastic footprint) got tired of all the plastic bubble wrap she receives when ordering supplies from eBay sellers. While she has found her own unique way to request and receive less plastic with her orders (explained below), she realized that getting sellers to reduce their plastic packaging across the board would require help from above, specifically from eBay itself. Why? Because through its recommendations and feedback process, eBay has fostered a “Bubble Wrap Culture.”
The eBay Bubble Wrap Problem
For 2012, eBay revenues were nearly 7.3 billion dollars, and eBay now has 128 million active users. Bubble wrap is the first packaging option that is recommended by eBay to every seller. Other alternative suggestions are offered, but plastic bubble wrap is always at the top of the list. That’s a lot of plastic waste if every seller follows their suggestion! To their credit, eBay does mention reusing bubble wrap as an acceptable option. And one eBay seller has posted tips for using less bubble wrap, though she still goes to the trouble to purchase colored bubble wrap to match her branding. Her tutorial really says it all:
How many eBay sellers wrap their items in bubble wrap before shipping them? I know I do. Most of the things I have purchased on eBay have come to me in bubble wrap. Bubble wrap can be expensive, especially if you are not buying it in bulk or online here at eBay. I buy mine here on eBay, but I go through quite a bit of it, so the expense is considerable.
More famously Weird Al immortalized eBay bubble wrap culture in his “eBay Parody Song.”
So how much bubble wrap is sold on eBay? Mark and Robin LeVine estimate that in their eBay store they’ve sold nearly 3,000 square miles of bubble wrap at 1 million dollars in revenue. We can’t determine the amount of bubble wrap shipped with eBay purchases from looking at eBay bubble wrap sales volume, but it is quite true that eBay sellers like buying from other eBay sellers.
How To Get Sellers to Mail Your Package Without Plastic
At Aquarian Bath, I purchase paper labels on eBay from a seller who ships with significantly less plastic packaging compared to other big online label sellers. I also purchase 4x4x4 inch boxes from another eBay seller for shipping our tooth powders and salves. The tricky part comes when I need to buy something from a new seller, which happens more often for our other company, SolarNetOne. At SolarNetOne, we purchase many small and sometimes very rare parts for assembly of power efficient terminal server and super-computing prototypes. Overall, I think that eBay can be a great way to reduce net plastic consumption by purchasing used items, and by purchasing small parts to extend the life of larger items by repair. The drawback is that it becomes harder with one-off purchases from random sellers to receive items that don’t come shipped in shiny new bubble wrap mailers.
Since sellers are rated on the speed of shipping, it can be a challenge to get them to change their standard packaging before shipping an item. A very slim percentage of eBay sellers in my experience will even acknowledge this kind of request. I have found only one method that significantly increases the likelihood of the seller using plastic-free shipping materials: Make an Offer.
Make the offer at or very near to the asking price for the item, and include the shipping terms in your offer: plastic-free and styrofoam-free. Include suggestions for alternative materials like kraft padded mailers made with recycled paper waste, newspaper and kraft wadding. [Here are several alternatives you could suggest.] By making an offer, the seller knows that you are locked into purchasing the item, and they have your business as long as they accept the terms. The terms become part of the purchase agreement, which the seller knows can then legitimately be rated. I found success with this method after purchasing from one regular seller who after three years of using paper padding switched to styrofoam. After multiple conversations, I found that the “make an offer” method is the only reliable way for me to not end up with styrofoam from this seller. Even if a seller agrees to ship without plastic, they do sometimes forget, and the extra terms seem to reduce forgetfulness.
Ask eBay to be Part of the Solution
Due to my experiences with eBay purchasing and eBay bubble wrap culture, I have come to the conclusion that some top down leadership from eBay might be more helpful to reducing plastic consumption by sellers. I started a petition on Change.org asking eBay to stop recommending bubble wrap to sellers.
Since putting up the petition, I have received a few questions/critiques, which I will address here because I hope everyone will sign this petition and forward it to your contacts and friends.
- I ship on eBay all the time, and I don’t use plastic! Hooray for you! You are likely among the 5-10% of sellers who do not. But what percentage of your eBay purchases come without bubble wrap?
- I don’t think this is enforceable. We’re simply asking eBay to change its recommendations, not its rules.
- Bubblewrap is necessary, because if the package is damaged then the seller is liable. No one wants a damaged package, but there are plastic-free alternatives. Shipping insurance companies such as U-pic will not ask if you used bubble wrap. And USPS priority domestic boxes now come with insurance which is great for sellers and buyers. International non-flat rate priority boxes also include insurance. Maybe there are some cases where bubble wrap is justified, such as with rare antiques, or you have a stockpile of bubble wrap to reuse. And bubble wrap does not prevent all damage. One example is a box that was shipped to me with a glass bottle of liquid. The mailer received back a flattened box stained with elderberry tincture after the box was run over by a mail truck.
- Amazon ships with plastic too. Why isn’t there an Amazon petition? I will be happy to sign and promote a petition to Amazon to ship with plastic free alternatives.
- I ship my Etsy products with used bubble wrap from a local bookseller, and I’m not going to post on my site to explain that to potential customers. Actually, posting an explanation of your packaging choices on your site might be a great selling point for your product. I know I’d be more likely to order from you if I knew you were making the greener choice of reusing packaging materials rather than buying new plastic. But also, what about contacting the bookstore owner? What does he/she think about plastic pollution? Have they ever asked for non-plastic packaging from their book supplier? Does the bookstore owner buy books on eBay for customers like the owner at the bookstore where I used to work?
- But it isn’t eBay who does the shipping; it is the seller. You are right, eBay just takes approximately 5% of every sale. I don’t have a detailed breakdown of eBay’s revenue sources, but if 100% of their reported revenue from 2012 came from online sales, that would mean *only* around $365 million for 2012. Just maybe they could afford to hire an independent team to research and determine the most environmentally friendly shipping practices, and then incentivize them within their 5-star rating system. That would be great PR for them too.
- If you don’t like plastic packaging, then don’t buy from eBay sellers who ship with plastic. I try not to. Sometimes I don’t have other good options.
Please sign and share!
It’s not enough for each of us to make our own personal environmental choices when those at the top continue to promote the disposable plastic culture. Yes, we need to personally request no plastic packaging whenever possible, but we also need to push companies to get on the band wagon. Please sign and share my petition to eBay. Changing its packaging suggestions might be a small step, but it could have an enormous impact.