The WooCommerce plugin from WeRePack.org makes it possible to reuse shipping cartons. How can online shops use the extension to contribute to more sustainability? We talked about this with Philipp Wellmer from WeRePack.
Philipp, you developed a WooCommerce plugin that helps to reduce shipment waste. What is the background?
It only takes one look at the waste paper bin to understand our perspective. For decades we have been led to believe that recycling is the solution to our waste problem. Yet recycling an average shipping box, for example, requires 123 liters of water and produces 156 grams of CO2.
It takes chemicals to dissolve the paper fibers, fresh wood fibers from 0.0024 trees and other chemicals to turn the fibers back into cardboard. Every shipping box that is sent out once more saves all this. The principle must be: "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle". Everyone can reduce consumption only by themselves, we have only little influence here.
What we can do with WeRePack, is to point out the many areas where a reuse is possible with simple means and how everyone can easily participate.
Integration into the purchasing process
How does WooCommerce plugin work for traders? And how does it work for customers of online shops?
The free shop extension is available for download on WeRePack.org and on WordPress.org. It only needs to be installed and activated. After that, it is automatically integrated into the purchase process. Customers can now click on a checkbox to give their consent to receive their order - if available - in reused shipping packaging.
Introduction into WooCommerce
Are you interested in building an online shop with WordPress and WooCommerce? Then read our e-book Online shops with WooCommerce. It tells you more about how to set up your shop and what you need to consider.
The plugin offers some customization options for traders. They can choose, for example, where and how the customer's consent is obtained. In addition, a voucher can be optionally linked, which is credited to the order if customers choose the option of previously used packaging. In this way, the cost savings for new packaging can be shared with the customers.
Various counters can also be integrated on the website to show how much packaging, water, CO2 and trees have been saved in cooperation with the customers. True to the motto "Do good and talk about it", we would like to create an additional incentive for retailers.
Which processes do retailers need to establish, or what additional effort does it mean for them to use packaging more than once?
With a little creativity, the extra effort is kept minimal. Since the WooCommerce plugin is very easy to integrate into the payment process, the biggest hurdle at the moment is procuring suitable shipping packaging. Some shops already have packaging that has been used for returns, others collect it in the neighborhood or cooperate with supermarkets in the vicinity, for example, where boxes of a suitable size are placed aside.
We are working on an infrastructure in which already used and faultless packaging can be collected, sorted, handed over to traders and sent once more. Ideally, in addition to the positive effect on the environment, we will also achieve a cost saving for traders, and in the future an income for people in precarious situations.
Our team takes a social-entrepreneurial stance and wishes to expand both the environmental and the social impact.
From your first experiences, how willing are online shops and customers to reuse packaging?
70 percent of customers choose to receive their order in packaging they have already used during the checkout process. We obtain data about this, because some shops share the numbers of approvals with us, which can be seen on our website. Measuring the impact is very important for us to encourage other online shops to join in.
Make WordPress more green
The internet, WordPress and WooCommerce consume lots of resources. How can WordPress be made more sustainable in general? Read our posts "Green" WordPress and save CO2 in the plugin development.
It turns out that most customers have no problems with reused packaging and even consider it the better option. In comparison, getting retailers to participate is quite a big effort. Since we all work on the project on a voluntary basis, we often don't have the time to search out shops and address them specifically. Accordingly, we rely on word of mouth and communication with reach, such as this interview.
Legal and logistical issues
Every joining shop contributes to the willingness to participate and the community grows. Shops often struggle with legal or logistical issues. Clarifying these is part of our offer. Some of these can already be found on our website WeRePack.org, where we are also available for questions.
Besides, our plugin cannot only be used for German-speaking countries. For example, a bookseller from Malaysia has already joined us, who sends his books in old newsprint with the consent of his customers. And this shop also shares the number of consents with us so that we can measure how much packaging has been reused, how much CO2 and water has been saved, and how less trees have been felled.
How can traders motivate their customers to reuse packaging?
In the beginning, we did a lot of field research and approached and interviewed people in postal queues, for example. Many already use packaging that they have previously received themselves, at home. Apartment buildings' paper bins are overflowing regularly. Many people associate receiving a parcel, opening it and directly holding unnecessary waste in their hands with a negative feeling.
In general, customers are fully aware of the unnecessary waste, but they are rarely offered an alternative. Maybe customers should motivate retailers rather than the other way round. Participating online shops can advertise their participation through transparent communication and - as already mentioned - optional voucher or discount campaigns and encourage conscious customers to join in.
Shops that are unable to install the plugin because they use an unsupported system, are welcome to contact us and become part of the community, provided they offer the service in another way. Support for Magento and Shopify is planned. The more customers and shops rely on recycling, the more it will be in demand - that's where we have to get to.
Initially, you had other approaches to make online shopping more sustainable. What did these look like? And why did you decide to use classic cardboard packaging?
In the beginning, we wanted to establish a circular deposit system. In other words, we wanted to establish our own packaging that is stable and can be recycled again and again. Similar to beverage crates or EU pallets and ideally stuffed with technology, such as a digital shipping label, GPS tracking, geofencing and an app. Made from recycled plastic, the packaging should always come back to us and then be put back into circulation. We even won a prize with this approach and used the small prize money to pursue the idea further.
Environmental footprint of shipping packaging
However, at some point we had to admit that such packaging has to be sent unrealistically often until it achieves a better environmental balance compared to shipping boxes. This is comparable to "memo", an online shop for office supplies that has been a pioneer in using its own reusable shipping system for many years. The green memo-boxes are also made of recycled plastic. They are sent to the customer with the goods and then returned empty.
According to "memo", their environmental balance sheet improves, compared to the use of conventional packaging, from the 55th cycle onwards (shipping and returns). This is remarkable, provided that a box really goes into cycle more often. Unfortunately, however, the approach has not taken off on a large scale and the majority of their shipped orders still end up in conventional boxes. We then discarded the approach of reusable shipping boxes after just less than a year. Also because there are now various start-ups pursuing similar concepts.
Some of them are overloaded with technology, so 55 cycles are certainly not enough for a better environmental balance. Nevertheless, it is important that improvements are made on this. And hopefully a circular solution - perhaps even a standard like that for EU pallets - will be established at some point. Until then, however, cardboard boxes have great advantages. Light, stable, compact, cheap and recyclable. They should simply not end up in the rubbish immediately, but be reused.
And we proved that they are more durable, with a shipping experiment. We sent a parcel across Germany. After the 10th shipment, the box showed some scratches, but was still usable. That was the initial spark for the search for a way to send packaging into another life - the beginning of WeRePack.
A few words about the team behind WeRePack?
We started in 2018 as part of an advanced study programme at the Social Entrepreneurship Academy in Munich. At the time, the team was asked to go to a big street, observe what was going on there and find problems to solve. A lot of things came together.
However, the overflowing paper bins and rushed parcel deliveries have aroused our greatest interest. Probably also because we were all affected as regular recipients. We work full-time in various fields and simply enjoy developing concepts to solve social challenges and getting involved in this project.
It is especially nice that more people have joined in the last few months. This has given us all a great boost in motivation. The fact that there are even more people who believe in the meaningfulness of the initiative is enormously important for us. By the way, we are happy to have more supporters and to hear about the initiative.
Your questions about the WeRePack plugin
What questions do you have for Philipp? Feel free to use the comment function. You want to be informed about new posts on the topic of WordPress and sustainability? Then follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or via our newsletter.