Thanks to the rise of on-demand shopping and shipping, we can buy nearly whatever we want whenever we want from wherever we happen to be. We don’t have to wait in line. We can easily compare prices across online stores. But those virtual shopping carts are yielding a growing heap of real-life cardboard boxes–and boxes inside boxes inside boxes–that come with costs of their own.
In the past decade, the dollar value of the shopping we’re doing online has almost tripled, according to the Department of Commerce. In the first quarter of this year, e-commerce sales were nearly $93 billion, up 15% from the same time in 2015. “People in the U.S. are receiving way more home deliveries than before,” says Cara Wang, an assistant professor at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who studies transportation. That boom in shopping dollars may be good for business, but it’s linked to increased delivery-truck trips, which means gas costs, emissions and congestion–and more packaging materials that end up in the local dump.
Right now about two-thirds of paper and board waste gets recovered in the U.S., but the rest gets discarded–25 million tons (of 69 million total) in 2013. The European Union, with more people, generates less and recycles more. E-commerce giants like Amazon are aware of the issue and may well be willing to change their packing practices, Wang says. But that will only happen, she adds, when consumers’ demand for instant gratification, delivered right to their doorsteps, is matched by their demand for businesses to consider the environmental costs.
This appears in the July 11, 2016 issue of TIME.