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  • Writer's pictureSteve Mills

PROJECT TWO: A pandemic-driven environment and a look into the future.

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

In 2020 the world faced a pandemic that was changing the face of everyday life for people around the world. We had to adjust to restrictions to protect us from COVID-19 which was infecting and killing people everywhere. As a result, existing infrastructures in areas like retail were evolving to continue to serve the public during times of lockdown. Trends evolved as online became the safest, and at times, the only way to receive goods and services.

After completing project one (see my previous blog), I got back together with my group to look at possible futures in the area of liquid Infrastructure. We started by coming up with a 2 x 2 critical uncertainties matrix. The critical uncertainties we focused on were efficient and intensive resource consumption that are human and AI-driven. After coming up with the four scenarios, I choose overproduction in a human-driven environment with intensive resource consumption.

Finding The Problem

Once choosing which quadrant I would work on from the critical uncertainty matrix, I went back to working on my individual project. In figuring out problems caused by human-driven intensive resource consumption with overproduction, a few questions needed answering.

  • What direction is the world heading with retail? Online shopping and home delivery are the new landscape.

  • What are the effects this new world might have?

Envisioning this world, I created an impact mural and started to picture some future issues that could arise. I highlighted some interesting points that I felt I could expand on in my future environment.

How Did We Get There?

A backcasting exercise helped visualize events that lead to a world where new initiatives could fix a future problem.

  • The world pandemic leads to an increase in online deliveries, which leads to increased production of packing materials.

  • Retail pollution: How do we reduce the waste and carbon footprint this new landscape brings?


Environmental Effects of a Growing Online Retail Industry

Creating the impact and backcasting mural, I build a complete picture of my future world. I was able to see what could become relevant changes in how we receive products and where potential problems could occur. Below, I have outlined a foreseeable future of what might impact our environment in a future where the face of retail makes a massive change with increased online presents and decreased brick and mortar.

Increased online retail

With more people choosing to shop online, the number of orders shipped doubled in 2020 due to the pandemic.

More people move to work remotely, and people adapt to a new lifestyle, this trend will continue to grow and evolve into the future.

Increased shipping

With increased online shopping comes increased shipping, which means producing more disposable shipping material and increased deliveries.

The cost of expedited shipping will result in future environmental concerns.

Carbon Footprint

Impatient online shoppers produce large carbon footprints, with influencers being packaging, freight transportation, and delivery.



The 2020 Pandemic and what we witnessed in the retail industry

  • Stores and restaurants are closing doors due to lockdowns.

  • Traditional shoppers adopt online shopping practices increasing the overall number of online shopping orders.

  • Restaurants implement new pickup and delivery options to continue to operate.

  • Increase in grocery home delivery services and pickup

  • Companies leverage existing delivery systems with promotions like Amazon PrimeDay and Old Navy Super Cash Day.

  • Faster, cheaper, shipping options or same and next-day deliveries.

  • Accelerate the popularity of new services like curbside pickup.

  • More people working from home resulting in fewer people going out to lunch or shopping during their lunch break or after work.


Liquid Infrastructure in 2030:

Online retail is destroying the environment

  • As the pandemic comes to an end, a new retail world starts to take form.

  • Smaller chain storefronts like Staples and HomeSense convert locations into fulfillment centers for curbside pickups and online deliveries.

  • Larger stores like Walmart and Target convert large warehouses to fulfillment centers for direct-to-consumer delivery and shut down many store locations.

  • Amazon continues to dominate online shopping as they leverage better service and promotions for its customers.

  • With the growth of online retail comes to an increase in disposable packing and shipping materials.

  • Increase in the transportation of products and more home delivery vehicles on the roads.

  • Large retail carbon footprints expand. Landfill operations increase as more packing materials find their way into trash disposal instead of recycling plants.

The government enforces a cleaner future

  • We live in an age where the health of our planet is high on the priority list for world governments.

  • With the steady increase in the production of disposable shipping materials to meet demands and increase shipping traffic, governments are cracking down on the big offenders.

  • Government calls for bans on disposable shipping packaging and eliminating gas motor delivery vehicles on the roads.

  • Threats of high environmental taxes for companies refusing to comply.

  • Companies like Amazon lead the way in implementing new technologies.

  • In 2020 Amazon gets FAA approval to operate a fleet of delivery drones.

  • The drone delivery system will continue to grow with its success.

  • Gass engine delivery trucks are replaced with fleets of new electricvans built by Rivian at the end of 2022.

  • As the decade winds down, Amazon and other big online retailers start to adopt innovations in biodegradable and reusable or repurposed packing material.


Repurposed Packing Peanuts

Looking into overproduction in a human-driven environment with intensive resource consumption ended up taking me away from the positive impact of curbside pickup to the negative impact of online shopping and home delivery. These negative impacts revolve around environmental issues caused by the increase of delivery vehicles on the roads and the increase of disposable packaging materials. Through research, some of these impacts are already being resolved with new programs being implemented today with things like drone delivery services, electric delivery vehicles, and biodegradable packaging materials. Something I also found interesting in my research was the trend of repurposing products. For example, Nike's Move To Zero project partly involves recycling old shoes to create a new product. The approach I decided to take and the target I chose was the repurposing of packaging peanuts. Today, packing peanuts have gone from styrofoam waste to a biodegradable starch material that dissolves quickly and easily. I wanted to look for ways peanuts could be repurposed and possibly provide another revenue stream for retailers and promote their brand and environmental sustainability.

  • Repurpose to reduce recycling.

  • Promote green technology.

  • Benefit consumers as well as solve the problem of excessive disposable packing material production.

  • Incentivize customers on the brand.

  • Create an additional revenue stream that promotes environmental sustainability.

Initial Ideations

When exploring ideas for ways to repurpose packing peanuts, there were things I needed to consider. Is this something that retailers would want to adopt into their shipping practices for their customers, and is this something that customers will buy?

Things to consider would be the cost of making such a product. Retailers will choose the cheapest alternative when it comes to something simple as packaging materials. If the governments provide incentives like tax breaks, it could convince them to use the product. Retailers could also see this option as an opportunity to promote their brand, identifying as an environmentally conscious company wanting to give back to their communities and customers with something reusable for the better instead of something disposed of. I could also see this as an option for the customer to decide on at the time of purchase. When choosing how they want their purchases shipped, they could also indicate the packing materials they want shipping. A minimal extra charge could be added to the customer cost to provide an additional revenue flow to the retailer. To encourage customers in choosing this option a point system could be put in place by retailers, offering incentives in the way of store credit or some other reward.

Along with this new product, a digital artifact had to be incorporated. This was a chance to be creative in creating and coming up with a futuristic digital product that could work together with these new repurposed packing peanuts. I found this to be a real challenge to come up with something useful. I just started thinking of different possibilities, no matter how ridiculous they sounded to me. These are a couple of my early ideas that I ended up scrapping for various reasons.

1. Green Tornado

A home device that allows you to repurpose your biodegradable packing peanuts into gardening materials or pet food products. A decorative lamp with a wind turbine chamber that fuses packing peanuts with seed or pet supplements to change those peanuts into something you plant in your garden or feed your small pets.

2. Green Earth Points

An app that allows you to choose your packing materials for every order. You earn points for choosing the repurposed box fillers, which have an additional cost, and you can use those points to go toward future online purchases. It could also allow you to donate your peanuts to various green programs, like repurposing old landfills by planting wildflowers to help the declining bee populations.

After going through the frustrations of coming up with something futuristic, I decided my initial ideas wouldn't fly. Many people live in cities that don't have gardens, and the number of small pet owners didn't justify moving forward. The product had to appeal to a greater audience to be worth pursuing further. I went back to the drawing board to rethink other possibilities for repurposing packing peanuts and what digital play would appeal to a larger population. What I came up with and how I got there, will be featured in my next and final blog for this three-part project.

PROJECT THREE - The Speculative Prototype

Stay tuned for the final chapter! Thanks for reading!



Howard, Brian Clark (October 31, 2018), 5 Recycling Myths Busted - National Geographic

Palmer, Annie (August 31, 2020), Amazon wins FAA approval for Prime Air drone delivery fleet -

Hawkins, Andrew J. (October 8, 2020), Amazon unveils its new electric delivery vans builtby Rivian - THE VERGE

Weideli, Dimitri - Environmental Analysis of US Online Shopping - Research: MIT Center forTransportation and Logistics

Rigby, Darrell K. (December 2011), The Future of Shopping - Harvard Business Review

Nguyen, Nichole (July 21, 2018), The Hidden Environmental Cost of Amazon Prime’s Free,Fast Shipping - BuzzFeed News


Photo of rabbit in a cage - Photo by ANKUR MADAN on Unsplash

Photo of the tomato plant - Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Photo of wildflowers - Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

All photos from and

Illustrated images created by Stephen Mills (author)

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