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Tackling the Packaging Problem: How Trek is Changing the Way They Ship Bikes
by Sarah Robbins
You've been thinking about how you can reduce your impact on the environment and decided to buy a bike. You figure it'll reduce your carbon footprint, reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) that are emitted into the atmosphere. Great! Not to be a downer, but have you thought about the entire life-cycle of that bike you're going to buy? Where are the raw materials from? How are the parts made? How is it getting to you? More specifically, what kind of packaging is used to ship that bike to your distributor?
These aren't questions we typically ask ourselves when it comes to our consumer choices. But packaging is something that Peter Hennessy, part-time bike assembler at Wild Rock, deals with often. As an esteemed bike enthusiast, Peter has been receiving and building bikes as a break from everyday life. But one thing has been getting in the way of his work flow: packaging. "This is something my grandkids and great grandkids are going to be thinking about. Like you guys [previous generations] really messed this up" he says.
Peter can tell how much waste a packaged bike will produce as soon as he opens the box. Zip ties, plastic knobs and foam glued to cardboard are all visible inside a standard bike box. Some companies also stuff plastic pillows between the bike frame and the cardboard to prevent is from moving around inside the box.
Comparison of packed bikes. Left: Standard bike package with visible plastic and foam materials. Right: Trek Marlin 6 bike package with visible recyclable materials.
These materials help prevent damage from occurring to the bike during shipping, which is a good thing. But, a lot of it ends up in the trash. In September 2020, Oceana Canada published a report titled Drowning in Plastic: Ending Canada's Contribution to the Global Plastic Disaster. In the report they state "half of our plastic waste is packaging" (p. 7).
"In Canada, 47 per cent of the plastic we use is for packaging, including plastic bottles, wraps, cups, cutlery and plastic bags." The report continues "If Canada's trends continue as predicted we'll be generating another 450,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste by 2030." (p. 7)
As a comparison, 450,000 tonnes equate to approximately 1,350 Boeing 747 jets.
Trek has been trying to tackle this problem with their low-impact bike packaging program. Their goal is to reduce the amount of non-recyclable materials produced by their shipping process. So far, they've been able to reduce the number of non-recyclable pieces for their Marlin bike packages from 22 pieces to 12 pieces.
These changes can be tough to spot, but if you look closely, you can see it. The box is sized to match the size of the bike. Recyclable cardboard is used to pad the frame and other sensitive parts. More parts come pre-assembled reducing the need for plastic foam padding. Two small bags and a small number of zip-ties and plastic frame protectors are used to secure parts that could move around during transit, but this is the only single-use plastic in Trek's low-impact bike packages. According to Trek's website, these changes have helped them avoid 22,680 kg of plastic waste per year. And they plan on reducing the amount of non-recyclable materials in their packaging even further by the end of 2021.
Non-recyclable material from a standard bike package.
Non-recyclable material from a Trek Marin 6 bike package.
What's better is that less packaging has meant a more efficient building process. Cutting tags, removing plastic and assembling parts that could be assembled prior to shipping adds extra build time to each bike that comes into the store. This reduces the profit margin for each bike sold (and increases Peter's stress levels). This isn't the case with Trek bikes. Trek's low-impact bike packaging has made building bikes more efficient. This means more bikes on the floor and more bikes going to happy clients.
Trek's initiative seems to be flying under the radar. But at Wild Rock Outfitters, we recognize that these changes could have an enormous impact on our environment is every company followed suit. That's why we've contacted our suppliers to ask them to change or stop using non-recyclable shipping materials. Most of them welcome our feedback - one supplier immediately stopped wrapping individual items in single-use plastic bags. Others, we think, haven't had a big enough push. If you're concerned about the amount of waste generated by shipping, try asking your favourite retailer to avoid using single-use plastic next time you order their products. And let us know how it goes!
For more information on Trek's Low-Impact Bike Packaging program, check out their website.
Buonsante, V., September 2020, Drowning in Plastic: Ending Canada's Contribution to the Global Plastic Disaster, Oceana Canada. pp.7