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Online Shopping: Fun For You, Bad For The Environment

Online shopping has skyrocketed during the pandemic and, consequently, so has waste. While being restricted to our homes during lockdown, millions of people turned to the Internet for almost everything—entertainment, clothes shopping, groceries, the list goes on. I, myself, must admit I also have fallen into the hole of online shopping—it’s addictive. Especially while at college in the winter, it’s much easier to tap a few buttons on my computer for a purchase rather than taking the time and effort to walk over to the Chestnut Hill Mall. But I must consider the greater consequences of my actions.

 In 2020, total retail sales amounted to $4.02 trillion, with $920 billion of that total coming from non-store and online purchases. Similarly, online purchases increased by 32 percent from 2019 to 2020. It’s no surprise that these figures correspond with increased waste from packaging. It’s also estimated that, in the US, returns exceeded $500 billion. But what are the implications for the environment? How do we stay sustainable while staying safe? 

With the increase in online shopping, waste increased alongside packaging, cardboard, and plastics. While people are driving to stores less to buy clothes, companies are emitting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere with all the shipping and deliveries. In addition, increased online shopping has come with equally frequent returns. Since we are not going into stores and trying on clothes to see what fits, all the clothes, furniture, and other purchases that end up not working out then go through the return process. The returns require more delivery miles, which translates into more emissions being released. And once returned, it’s more likely than not that the returned item will end up in the landfill rather than being re-sold. 

Waste has been a common theme during the pandemic, not just with online shopping, but with the use of disposable masks and gloves. Even in a small community like BC, we see how extreme this issue of waste is. For every person that gets COVID tested, that puts two gloves into the trash, which then end up in a landfill. From August 16th, 2021, to January 23rd, 2022, 176,442 tests have been performed at BC. While this is an important figure for our community safety, it also translates to 352,884 gloves that have gone into the landfill, along with the testing q-tips, wrappers, test-tubes, and disposable masks. While this is just BC, those numbers become astronomical when considering the waste created throughout the entire US as a result of the pandemic and its  corresponding necessary protective gear.

While these numbers are daunting, there are still solutions we can implement to decrease our waste. One possibility that other universities have opted for are self-administered COVID tests, which reduce disposable glove waste. While things like this come at a cost and take time to develop, our responsibility to the environment is priceless; we should be doing everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint. It’s hard to avoid disposable masks, especially with the Omicron variant, yet it still helps to be mindful of your waste and seeing if there’s ways you can cut it down. 

As for clothes, opt to shop second-hand. Social media is full of thrift store recommendations as well as second-hand clothing accounts. TikTok can give you all the tips and tricks to finding the best clothes in thrift stores. Find a trustworthy and trendy (preferably local) account on Instagram which sells second-hand clothes and shop away! And if you must resort to online shopping, try limiting yourself to stores that you are familiar with their sizing and the fit of clothes. Read reviews from other buyers to see if there’s any common theme of a weird or unexpected fit, and then base your purchase off of that advice. This way, you’re less likely to go through the return process.

Climate consequences can be mainly attributed to large companies and the burden should not be passed on to individuals; however, I believe that we should all do whatever we can to reduce our carbon footprint. Little things each day add up to help reduce our impact on the environment, like shopping second-hand instead of buying from online stores. The pandemic has had numerous consequences and posed us with many challenges, so it’s difficult to add more things onto our plates. It’s not about a single person trying to save the world—it’s about finding balance and navigating life in an environmentally conscious way.

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International studies major who's obsessed with dogs and coffee