April 21, 2024

Feeling guilty about all those blue-and-white plastic Amazon bags piling up around the house? Fear not – they can be recycled! At least, that’s what the packaging says.

For years now, Amazon’s plastic bags, bubble-lined mailboxes and airbags have featured the ubiquitous “chasing arrows” recycling symbol along with the words “store drop-off.” The idea is simple: Since most curbside recycling programs don’t accept this type of plastic — it’s too expensive to process and can clog machines — consumers can instead drop it off at retail stores across the country. From there, this plastic, known as “film”, will go to a specialized facility and be transformed into new products.

The problem, however, is that the system doesn’t seem to work.

An investigation Published Tuesday by the nonprofits Environment America and US Public Interest Research Group, or US PIRG, indicates that only a small fraction of Amazon’s plastic packaging makes it to a material recycling facility, the term for operations that sort glass, metal, plastic and others . items for recycling. The packaging is much more likely to end up in a landfill, incinerator, export terminal or in the hands of a company that recycles plastic films into things like sofas.

The report adds to a growing body of evidence that suggests store drop-off programs are an ineffective solution to the growing plastic pollution crisis. According to environmental groups, these programs help justify the continued production of single-use plastics, helping manufacturers and retailers evade liability while easing consumer debt.

“The store drop-off system really doesn’t work, and plastic film is not recyclable,” said Jenn Engstrom, state director of US PIRG’s California chapter and a co-author of the report.

To find out what’s happening to Amazon’s plastic packaging, US PIRG and Environment America attached small tracking devices—mostly Apple AirTags—to 93 bundles of Amazon plastic packaging marked for store pickup and deposited them at retailers in 10 states. These stores, listed in an online directory, mostly included supermarkets such as Safeway, Sprouts, Publix, Fred Meyer, QFC and Whole Foods, although some bundles were placed at outlets such as Kohl’s or Home Depot.

Place plastic bag by hand in a drop-off container
A drop-off container for plastic bags at a grocery store in Palo Alto, California.
Paul Saukma / AP Photo

The report authors were able to determine the fate of about half of the bundles, since, as expected, many of the trackers likely died before reaching a final destination. Of those that survived, 13 went to a landfill, two to an incinerator and three to the Port of Los Angeles, suggesting the bundles were destined for processing or disposal overseas.

Only four trackers eventually made their way to a material recycling facility that sorts plastics for recycling. US PIRG and Environment America said they were able to contact three of those facilities: Two specifically said they did not accept Amazon packaging, and the third said it only accepted paper and cardboard.

Two dozen trackers ended up in the hands of Trex, a company that makes sofas and decks from discarded plastic. But US PIRG and Environment America question whether Trex uses Amazon packaging in its products; the contents of store drop-off bins are often littered with food and drink, likely making these plastics too contaminated to be used in manufacturing.

Trex did not respond to Grist’s request for comment, but a similar company reports that it uses 70 to 80 percent of its plastic from “back-of-house shrink wrap,” referring to the material wrapped around pallets, which tends to be cleaner than post-consumer plastic. Meanwhile a Trex executive told Bloomberg News last year that there is not enough demand for recycled material to make store drop off successful.

“All the claims the companies are making are just greenwash,” he told Bloomberg. “Recovery failed.”

While USPIRG and Environment America’s investigation may be the largest of its kind, it is not the first to find flaws in the store drop-off system. Last year, Bloomberg tracked down 30 bundles of packaging and wrappers marked with the store drop-off icon and found that 13 of them — more than 40 percent — ended up in U.S. landfills. Only four made it to places that can recycle plastic. A similar effort from ABC News found that about half of 46 batches of plastic bags went to landfills and incinerators, while only four went to facilities “that say they are involved in recycling plastic bags.”

Jan Dell, an independent chemical engineer and founder of the environmental nonprofit The Least Beach Cleanup, has also deployed her own trackers. Since December 2022, she has not located a single batch of film marked for store download to US facilities that can turn the material into new bags. Twelve bundles were sent to a landfill or waste station, and one to an incinerator. Four appeared to have traveled to Mexico, Vietnam or Malaysia, countries that generally lack adequate recycling infrastructure.

“They are absolutely lying with these labels,” Dell said. The store drop-off system “never worked, it was never true.”

The labels in question are produced by an initiative called How2Recyclewhich they started selling to large companies in 2012 – presumably to clear up confusion among consumers and retailers about which products can be recycled. The initiative issues several versions of the recycling icon, with the one labeled “store drop-off” reserved for products, such as plastic bags and film, that are not accepted in curbside recycling programs.

The store drop-off labels direct consumers to How2Recycle’s website, which links to a directory of retail locations with ]collection containers. Until last year, that directory was found at BagandFilmDirectory.org and featured more than 18,000 locations — but the consulting firm that ran it shut it down following ABC News’ investigation, citing a lack of “real commitment from the industry,” as well as insufficient funding. Many of the locations listed didn’t actually have a containerwhile the Target and Walmart locations appeared to be disposal, rather than recyclingmuch of the film they received.

“There is more of an illusion of things being recycled than there actually is, because there is an imbalance in supply and demand,” Nina Butler, chief executive of the consulting firm, told ABC News. How2Recycle is now connecting customers another directory presented at Earth911. How2Recycle did not respond to Grist’s request for comment.

As scrutiny has increased over the use of the store drop label, some companies have vowed to stop it altogether. Mondelez, which owns brands including Oreo and Ritz, said in March 2023 it plans to phase out the label by 2025. Dell said she also noticed the label disappearing from packaging sold by Target and Georgia Pacific, a company that sells toilet paper, paper towels and other pulp products. Target and Georgia Pacific did not respond to Grist’s request for comment.

Amazon, for its part, did not respond to Grist’s questions about its use of the store drop label. When Dell asked the company during a 2020 Zoom meeting she shared with Grist to provide evidence that its packaging is widely recycled through the store drop-off program — as required by California law — an Amazon spokesperson told the state recycling commission that the company “has a lot of confidence that store drop-off is a solution available in California.”

Pat Lindner, Amazon’s vice president of mechatronics and sustainable packaging, told Grist that the company has no control over how its packaging is handled “once it’s disposed of by municipalities or recycling centers.” A spokesperson said the company is investing in better recycling infrastructure while also reducing plastic use overall. As of last year, Amazon for example plastic eliminated of shipments delivered in Europe, probably in response to EU regulations ban various categories of single-use plastics. The company too eliminated plastic packaging in India after Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to ban single-use plastics nationwide by 2022.

In the US last year, Amazon has an automatic fulfillment center in Euclid, Ohio, which uses paper exclusively instead of plastic packaging, and the company said it is ramping up a program to ship items in their original packages instead of extra plastic. The company also said in a 2022 sustainability report that it is “phasing out padded bags containing plastic in favor of recyclable alternatives,” but the spokesperson did not address Grist’s request to clarify the timeline for this transition.

Environmental advocates agree that Amazon has made progress, but say it needs to do more to reduce the hundreds of millions of pounds of single-use plastic waste it generates every year – and that it should remove the How2Recycle symbol from its packaging. In California, where state law often sets a national standard, s truth-in-advertising law signed by the governor in 2021, could soon limit the use of store drop-off tags unless companies can prove the system is effective. A separate law would require single-use plastic packaging sold in the state to be demonstrably recycled at least 65 percent of the time by 2032, a threshold that could push manufacturers toward paper, which is much easier to recycle.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *