Death by kipple

Boxes, boxes everywhere

I saw this phrase in a piece about adulting a couple months ago and I haven’t been able to forget it: “reverse cardboard origami” - the process of breaking down Amazon packaging.

Since my husband and I found out we were expecting a second child, the amount of reverse cardboard origami we’ve done over the past couple months is insane. New picture frames, diaper boxes packed in boxes only slightly larger than the actual diaper boxes themselves, additional furniture, just random…stuff, all of it flatpacked and arriving weekly.

Almost every day since about March, a new box has arrived, and has to be promptly broken down and put in recycling so it doesn’t overwhelm our tiny living room. By most Wednesdays, our 64-gallon recycling bin (which we also bought on Amazon, and which came in its own gargantuan box that we had to break down and put into the bin) is full, and we either have to compress everything like we’re stomping grapes for wine or wait until next week’s recycling run, the deflated packages lying forlornly on our kitchen floor.

Packaging for the large retailers is enormously inefficient.

What used to happen was that all packages would be delivered to distribution centers, which would get rid of all the random bubble wrap, cardboard, and flotsam, and conveniently lay it out for customers to see, sans packaging. That packaging was collected at an industrial scale.

Now the distribution happens at an industrial scale, and packaging happens at an individual level. We are all living in the equivalent of Docker containers.

Globally, e-commerce companies use $20 billion worth of corrugated materials per year and predicts that the market for e-commerce packaging will expand at an annual rate of 14.3 percent through 2022

And retailers are terrible at packaging.

The e-commerce logistics system involves more service providers and processes than the traditional retail environment. "Products are handled an average of five times in a traditional retail supply chain, as handling is highly mechanized with the use of pallets and forklifts. In the e-commerce network, products tend to be handled manually and may potentially be handled 20 times or more," according to a January 2017 white paper by Ameripen, the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment.

The results are that we’re terrible at getting rid of it. And it’s infiltrating our lives.

There’s no backlash from downstream processors of these cardboard packages (yet), but I guarantee as e-tailing grows and grows, particularly in the developing world, it’s coming.

In San Francisco, as the local recycling business struggled with growing piles of materials from online orders–from Amazon to meal kit companies–the city was forced to raise garbage rates.

On the other side of the equation, not only is it hard to get rid of packaging, but it’s hard to stop buying stuff. Our rabid consumerism is only enabled in America by the three major American e-tailers: Walmart, Amazon, and Target, competing with one another to bring cheap stuff more quickly to homes.

Walmart and Target both reported yet another quarter of great comparable-store sales growth (a combination of foot traffic, digital traffic, and size of customer receipts) to kick off 2019. Walmart had comps of 3.4%, its best rate in nine years; and Target put up a whopping 4.8% year-over-year gain.

The impressive growth is owed in large part to each company's respective work in the digital realm. Once lagging far behind -- and by many counts still trailing Amazon -- Walmart and Target have each developed their own internet retail strategy. Granted, both do a relatively small online business totaling a few billion each quarter, compared to tens of billions in sales at Amazon every quarter -- but the gap is narrowing.

I witnessed this first-hand when I started shopping for baby and house stuff this spring. Usually Amazon Prime is my go-to, but they didn’t have a great selection of some furniture I was looking at, so I checked out Walmart’s site. I bought some nightstands, and they were shipped and delivered immediately the next day, with an insane amount of emails from Walmart assuring me they were on the way. They came before their projected arrival date, as has been the case with everything I order from Wal Mart (this is not an advertorial for Walmart, although if they want to throw $500 my way, it wouldn’t be a problem.)

Target arrival times are a little more dicey, but what they’ve gotten good at is online marketing and targeting for website content. For example, here’s an email they sent me recently based on me browsing for some furniture:

And here’s another one, even more aggressive:

In most cases, these would be really annoying, but since I actually am browsing specifically with the intent to buy, Target has gotten very good at…targeted.. nudges.

What’s happening is that Walmart and Target are, rightfully so, scared, and as a result, doing brisk business to catch up with Amazon. All three now offer same-day shipping. Target will let you order things from your phone and bring it out to you in the car (super handy for their prime demographic of young, affluent-ish parents, with kids sleeping in car seats.) In fact, in middle class America, it’s kind of hard to go a day without accidentally spending money online. (Again, if Target, Walmart, or Amazon want to throw some cash this way, Normcore Tech, Sponsored by Tarmazon™ is not complaining.)

So on the one hand, we’re getting rid of boxes, but on the other, the amount of incoming crap is also taking over our lives faster than we can get rid of it. As a personal example, my husband and I started cleaning and throwing stuff out and donating this spring, and, despite having a pretty small house, we are STILL constantly throwing things out. What are these things? Parts of old toys, towels we no longer use, books we haven’t read in years, random containers, broken chairs, things we bought in the dollar aisle at Target, just random crap that keeps coming and coming, without end.

A couple months ago, I read “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”, a short novel by science fiction master Philip K. Dick (which I think everyone near any kind of machine learning, but more generally, anyone in tech, should read). Dick reasons about a number of issues that we’re still trying to puzzle out today: artificial intelligence, sustainable life on earth, ethics of technology, etc.

But one of the things that blew me away the most was his introduction of the concept of kipple.

Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday's homeopape. When nobody's around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you to go bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up there is twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.No one can win against kipple, except temporarily and maybe in one spot.

Every time I see a package arriving, I can’t stop thinking about kipple. The kipple that will result from the packaging, and the kipple that will, ultimately, live in my house until, in a fit of minimalism, I’ll throw it out, into a landfill, where it will sit as kipple forever more.

No wonder Mari Kondo has EXPLODED in popularity here in the United States. We are being kippled to death as a country, and the mechanism of capitalism and the competition only keeps the velocity of kippleization increasing. If only there were a way for us all to start slowly going in reverse.

If all of this talk of sustainability and trash has you stressed out, don’t worry. Amazon Prime Day (and the associated Target and Walmart saving weekends) are coming in just a few weeks! I hear they’re offering great deals on vacuum cleaners and trash cans.

Art: Colonial Cubism, Stuart Davis 1954

What I’m reading lately

  1. The Banana Data podcast picked up the Normcore Tech issue about Python’s Caduceus syndrome and talks about it, as well as other data stuff, here

  2. This is a very cool post on how to find open parking spots with deep learning. I think what I like most is that the author goes through defining the problem and how he thinks through obstacles (i.e. overlapping parking spots, etc.)

  3. One of my life goals is to eat at White Rabbit in Moscow, a restaurant that focuses on producing pre-communist, czarist-era Russian food recipes lost to time (there is also a great Chef’s Table on Netflix episode on it, season 3)

  4. Do you have a Starbucks name?

  5. This thread on website nostalgia:

About the Author and Newsletter

I’m a data scientist in Philadelphia. This newsletter is about tech and everything around tech. Most of my free time is spent kid-wrangling, reading, and writing bad tweets. I also have longer opinions on things. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.

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