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Can You Shop Online and Be Zero Waste?

During the holiday gifting season, there is no question that online shopping is king. I mean, is there anything more convenient than Amazon Prime?

For a family that’s spread out all over the country, buying and shipping Christmas gifts through online shopping services can save a pretty penny.

Unfortunately, if you’re on the “save the planet” bandwagon, it can be a real challenge to buy a product sight unseen and hope it’s plastic-free. 

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Common Online Shopping Hurdles

It is next to impossible to get something online that is entirely Zero Waste, but you can get close if you try.

Here are the main hurdles you should be prepared for:

  • Overzealous packing material
  • Poorly-sized boxes
  • Product wrapping

A lot of these issues are simply the nature of the beast. When we order something online, we expect to see it delivered undamaged – that’s to be expected!

However, even the most indestructible items come unnecessarily wrapped in plastic films, styrofoam, and several layers of packing material. 

Ready to take on the beast? Keep reading.

Shopping online while reducing waste is a challenge. Here's how to pull it off.

How to Handle Online Shopping Waste

In all honesty, my primary guidance is this: just do the best that you can. 

I didn’t join the Zero Waste community for the competition of “who can create the least trash.” Rather, I started this journey to live out my values of ecological stewardship and a desire to create a better world for my future children. 

Why am I saying this? Because the world we live in is complex and broken, and shopping for brand new items (especially gifts you have to ship) is really challenging! 

If you really want to reduce your waste, get comfortable with the idea of doing things differently than the status quo for the sake of making better choices.

It’s so worth it. 

Step 1: Ask for what you want.

If you have the opportunity to leave a personal note for your vendor, request plastic-free shipping. Most of the time companies will try to accommodate, and it’s a great way to share your values and maybe make an impression. 

Step 2: Recycle or reuse what you get stuck with.

If you end up with brown paper you can easily compost, recycle or re-purpose it. Apply the paper to craft uses, keep it as scratch paper, or keep it to pack another product. 

We break down old cardboard boxes and use them to ship other packages later.  If you end up with plastic bags and films, use this tool to find a location to recycle them. 

Step 3: Look for other solutions.  

If the seller you’re buying from can’t or won’t accommodate your packaging requests, you have some decisions to make. Is there another solution? If it’s a gift, consider whether or not you can buy the item locally and then ship on your own terms.

Would you be comfortable gifting a photo of the item, then cutting a check for the cost?  If it’s a personal item, dig deep and decide if you really need to make the purchase. Can you find what you need in town? Can you make it? Furthermore, can you borrow it? 

Step 4: Reuse or donate anything you can’t deal with otherwise. 

If you get stuck with bubble wrap and styrofoam peanuts you don’t have much choice other than to save them for packing purposes in the future, or to donate them to a shipping company. Better than tossing!

Step 5: Honor the things you buy.

When buying things for your home or daily life, always, always opt for something that is sustainably-made, made-to-last, or easy to repair. Then take care of it! 

In those cases, a little waste created by shipping will be worth it in the long run if that purchase prevents larger amounts of future waste. 

Sound doable? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!


Yes you can!