The law of unintended consequences tells us that actions, especially on a large scale, may have surprisingly unexpected results. Take the eCommerce boom. The $350 billion eCommerce industry (in the United States) has transformed the retail and delivery business and given the customer greater control of the buying experience.

It has also caused a tsunami of cardboard boxes. This comes at both an economic and environmental cost. More than 35 million tons of containerboard were produced in the United States in 2014, with eCommerce companies among the fastest-growing users, according to a recent article in the New York Times. Today’s consumer can order anything online with no order too big or too small for (sometimes even same day) delivery to the doorstep. Boxes inside boxes protect electronics, jewelry, or groceries as they make their bumpy way to your door.

About 90 percent of cardboard packaging is recycled, according to the corrugated packaging industry. But recycling has its own costs, including the emissions from shipping the material to recycling centers, and the water and energy used in the recycling process. As consumers start to consider the waste they are creating, retailers are likely to focus efforts on sustainability solutions, including less packaging for shipments.

The U.S. Postal Service, too, might be a victim of unintended consequences when it comes to its shipping materials. A major beneficiary of the eCommerce boon, it is also a major purchaser of corrugated boxes. World demand is expected to increase 3.7 percent per year through 2019, approaching 260 billion square meters, according to a recent report from the Freedonia Group. Falling prices for raw material have kept corrugated box prices in check the past 2 months, but some analysts say buyers should expect modest price increases in paper and packaging markets this year.

An OIG audit report from 2011 said the Postal Service spent $158 million for Express Mail and Priority Mail supplies in fiscal year 2010. That number increased to $192 million in FY 2015.

The Postal Service offers packaging supplies for its domestic and international Express Mail and Priority Mail products free of charge. It gives packaging supplies away to attract and retain new customers, increase on-time performance with clearly marked packages, and reduce the number of weak shipping containers in the mail. Free packaging differentiates the Postal Service from its competition.

However, because the supplies are free and readily available at all post offices, some customers use the boxes, envelopes, and labels for other purposes, such as shipping with competitors or using the labels for an art form known as graffiti slaps.

Do you think free packaging supplies for Express and Priority Mail is the right strategy for the Postal Service? Are there alternate shipping containers that are economical to produce, yet more sustainable? 

Comments (4)

  • anon

    good and helpful information, thank you, anyway I think accompanies its customers whether public or private rail operators, fleet administrators or maintenance specialists, by offering a range of customized services for their trains, infrastructure and rail control systems. its best way.

    Dec 17, 2016
  • anon

    OK you look at 3 aspects of this blog. 1. Cost of boxes. 2. Cost of boxes as a part of the income generated by the use of these boxes. 3 The goodwill generated by the offer of free boxes. I submit that the offer of free boxes is not an intangible. It is an important inducement of small mailers to use usps. Little people are loyal, they are consistent and they should be nurtured so we can grow along with them....And, we don't give the little people a break on prices....Betcha when we give them boxes we are still ahead profitwise than the big guys who we give deals to.

    Mar 12, 2016
  • anon

    I am an eBay/Amazon seller. I definitely ship more with Priority Mail due to the free packaging. However, in the course of my online shopping, I have come across other sellers who abuse the program, using the packaging for UPS/FedEx shipments, using a padded envelope inside another box for cushioning, etc. I hate to see this because 1) such abuse could result in legitimate users being denied access to the packaging, and 2) sellers abusing the packaging can potentially undercut sellers who are abiding by the rules and purchasing their own packaging and void fill materials where appropriate. However, the USPS doesn't even accept reports about packaging abuse, so it is going to continue unchecked. I could document several moderately large sellers who have sent me multiple shipments and are consistently abusing the packaging. Why cannot I not report this somewhere so the USPS can take action? Rather than curtailing the packaging programs, how about investing $500-750k a year on 2-3 people to investigate and recover costs from blatant packaging abuse? I think in the scheme of things the losses from individuals taking supplies from the post office is probably minimal. The place to focus is on larger shippers who are doing this on a large scale. It will also be able to recover some of the costs of the abuse from a larger shipper than a customer who takes a few boxes or some labels from a post office.

    Mar 03, 2016
  • anon

    Small business shippers (like eBay sellers) re-use ALL of the boxes they receive other items in, rarely buying/ordering new boxes because many have a ready supply of boxes to re-use for their business! One thing that might make folks order less free boxes from USPS is if the USPS would make available to more customers its non-flat rate Priority Mail boxes -- these are rarely available in post office lobbies, but most small shippers find the flat rates are more expensive or the boxes not big enough for their purposes, so they don't re-use those the way they would the larger Priority Mail boxes available from the USPS (which you can get online).

    Feb 29, 2016

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