Why does Costco use so much packaging?

The popular retailer is using excessive packaging throughout its stores, neglecting to address the waste it creates

Mike Mozart | CC-BY-2.0
Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG

If you’ve been to Costco recently, you might have noticed some suspiciously large packaging, even on small items – such as a 2 inch tub of eye cream in an 8 x 11 plastic shell. That might seem like a mistake, and a particularly wasteful one at that. But if you looked closer, you might have realized that this is common through the store. You may also have seen a lot of other small items like gift cards, cosmetics, and more packaged in large clear plastic shells or brightly colored cardboard. 

Mike Mozart | CC-BY-2.0
Individually wrapped coffee packets collected in a cardboard box, encased in plastic and surrounded by more cardboard at Costco

According to Costco’s “packaging consultant,” despite the unnecessary waste this creates, it’s all by design.

Costco’s oversized and excessive packaging might be an extreme example, but the retailer isn’t alone in its contributions to the plastic waste problems we’re facing. At many major American retailers, it can be hard to find product options that don’t come coated in plastic packaging.

Costco is one of America’s most popular places to shop, which means that it could have a profound impact if it took single-use plastic packaging off its shelves – especially given how unnecessarily oversized its packaging often is. 

But instead, the retailer is doubling down on its use of excessive packaging. 

In a recent article, Costco’s packaging consultant explained how this excessive packaging is a “key piece of Costco’s overall strategy to cut steps and waste from its supply chain and lower costs for shoppers.” Costco has minimum size packaging requirements for items, not based on how much packaging an item actually needs, but how the retailer wants it to fit and look on the shelves. 

The consultant justified Costco’s system by arguing that:

  • They can fill their standard sized pallets with fewer items (this purposeful inefficiency apparently helps Costco avoid having more product in store than they can sell quickly). 
  • Larger packaging provides “extra marketing real estate.”
  • Larger packaging reduces the risk of shoplifting. 

All of these are fine problems for a retailer to want to solve. But given the plastic pollution problem we are facing, shouldn’t Costco look for other ways to address them?

Because a system that results in 2-inch jars of face cream being placed in their own plastic packages 10 inches wide by 11 inches high, among other examples of truly excessive packaging, just isn’t working. 

Nothing we use for a few minutes should threaten our health and pollute our future for hundreds of years. Costco’s oversized packaging is contributing to the amount of plastic pollution piling up in landfills and littering our streets and waterways. It’s time for the retailer to find better ways to cut costs and take all that unnecessary packaging off its shelves. 

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Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG

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