April 21, 2024

In response to increasing pressure to address the plastic pollution crisis, Amazon has cut back on plastic packaging. Last July, the company said it was using 11.6 percent less plastic for all of its shipments worldwide in 2022, compared to 2021. Many of Amazon’s reductions have occurred in countries that have imposed — or threatened to impose — restrictions on certain types of plastic packaging. But the company’s progress may not extend to the US, which has not regulated plastic production at the federal level.

Amazon generated 208 million pounds of plastic packaging waste in the United States in 2022, about 10 percent more than the previous year, according to a new report from the nonprofit Oceana. This packaging includes Amazon’s ubiquitous blue-and-white mailboxes, as well as other bags, pouches, and plastic padding. If it were all turned into plastic air cushions and laid end to end, Oceana estimates it would circle the Earth more than 200 times.

“The crisis is so significant that we need change now,” said Dana Miller, Oceana’s director of strategic initiatives and an author of the report.

Miller and her co-authors call on Amazon to stop using plastic packaging in the US, citing phase-outs in some of the company’s biggest overseas markets as evidence that such a transition is possible. Amazon has done some impressive things in Europe and India, but in the US they are not making the same kind of commitments,’ Miller added. “The company has made great progress, but it’s just not enough.”

To calculate Amazon’s US plastic footprint, Oceana used market research on the amount of plastic consumed by the US e-commerce industry in 2022 – more than 800 million pounds – and multiplied it by Amazon’s share of the market, 30.5 percent. Oceana then made some downward revisions to account for Amazon’s public efforts to reduce plastic packaging. For example, Amazon said in 2022 that it was replaced 99 percent of its mixed-material mailboxes with papers and delivered 12 percent of its US shipments in 2022 without adding any of its own packaging.

The resulting estimate, 208 million pounds, is roughly 11 times the weight of Seattle’s most iconic landmark, the Space Needle.

This is concerning because the type of plastic typically used in Amazon packaging – known as “film” – is almost never recycled. Most of it is sent to landfills or incinerators, or is disposed of in the environment. According to one 2020 study, plastic film is one of the most common forms of marine plastic debris near ocean shores, where it kills more large marine animals than any other type of plastic. Oceana estimates that 22 million pounds of Amazon’s global plastic packaging waste generated in 2022 will end up in aquatic environments.

Amazon bags on conveyor belt
An Amazon bag on a conveyor belt.
Beata Zawrzel / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Plastic production causes additional concern. The extraction of fossil fuels used to make plastics, plus the conversion of those fossil fuels into plastic products, sets carbon and air, water and soil pollution that disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color.

Miller said she wants Amazon to reduce plastic “because of a moral responsibility … to reduce their impact on the environment.” But the company has been slow to respond to moral appeals from customers and shareholders, including three shareholder decisions since 2021 calling out plastic’s damage to marine ecosystems and human health. The resolutions, which each received more than 30 percent of shareholder votes, Amazon called for reducing plastic use worldwide by one-third by 2030. When announcing that it had reduced plastic use worldwide by 11.6 percent, Amazon did not make a quantitative or time-bound commitment to further reductions.

Instead, Amazon seems to have taken its biggest steps to reduce plastic packaging in response to strict plastic regulations, or the threat thereof. “Amazon is a smart company,” Miller said. “They see things in the pipeline and they want to move early.”

In 2019, for example, Amazon India promised to phase out plastic packaging after Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed to voters to “make India free from single-use plastics,” hinting that he would announce major restrictions on the material later that year. Within months, Amazon India said it had plastic packaging eliminated of the country’s fulfillment centers, largely replacing them with paper.

In the European Union, s directive on single-use plastics has made it illegal to sell various types of single-use plastics, including bags, since 2021, and after a lengthy drafting process, the bloc agreed last month to “historical” targets to reduce packaging waste by 15 percent by 2040. Amazon said in 2022 that it did eliminated single-use plastic delivery bags at its fulfillment centers across the continent.

In spite of efforts of progressive legislators, the US still lacks a federal plan to phase out plastic packaging, which may help explain why Amazon hasn’t taken more aggressive action against the issue to the state. A company spokesperson told Grist last month that Amazon had begun a “multi-year effort” to transition U.S. fulfillment centers from plastic to paper packaging, but the company did not announce a timeline for that transition.

Then again, Amazon’s US presence is also much larger than its operations overseas; the fact that US orders account for nearly 70 percent of Amazon’s total sales may make it more complicated to change packaging materials here.

Amazon bag crumpled
A crumpled Amazon bag.
Beata Zawrzel / NurPhoto

“It would be a bigger deal for them to eliminate plastic in the United States,” said Jenn Engstrom, director of the California chapter of the nonprofit US Public Interest Research Group, which was not involved in the Oceana report. not. “But they are also one of the most innovative and largest companies in the world; just because it’s hard to do doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do it.”

Amazon, the largest e-commerce company in the world, has outsold half a trillion dollars‘s goods last year. Its main US rival, Walmart, said last month it had single-use plastics eliminated from its postal envelopes worldwide. In China, retailer JD.com is replacing disposable packaging entirely with reusable alternatives.

Engstrom pointed to some state-level policies that could affect Amazon’s plastic use — particularly in California, where a law enacted in 2022 require companies to reduce their overall packaging distributed in the state by 25 percent by 2032. Washington state tried to pass a similar law last year, but the proposal died in committee. Five other states have passed less specific bills regarding “extended producer responsibility,” or EPR, which seeks to make plastic producers financially responsible for the waste they generate – often by having them finance improvements in recycling infrastructure.

Although Amazon finances several attempts on improve plastic recycling, Oceana says that this is “not the solution that the company should rely on.” Plastic film cannot be reliably recycled due to technical and economic limitations; virtually no curbside recycling program accepts it. In the best case, plastic film can be interspersed in plastic covering material or benches, but recent investigations suggests that store drop-off programs meant to facilitate this process often end up dumping Amazon packaging in landfills or burning it in incinerators.

When US consumers accidentally put Amazon’s plastic packages in their curbside recycling bins – as many do — a 2022 Bloomberg survey found that they can end up in illegal landfills and industrial furnaces in Muzaffarnagar, India, with potentially serious consequences for the health of nearby residents.

Pat Lindner, Amazon’s vice president of mechatronics and sustainable packaging, called Oceana’s study a “misleading report with exaggerated and inaccurate information” and told Grist that Amazon is committed to reducing its plastic footprint at U.S. fulfillment centers. A spokesperson said the company is proud to be reducing its plastic footprint in Europe and India and will continue to share updates on its progress in the US. The spokesperson also said Amazon is committed to good faith engagement with shareholders on plastics-related decisions.

Oceana said the company declined the nonprofit’s requests for country-level data on its plastic use. The company also declined to share data on plastic packaging used in third-party shipments; Amazon’s disclosures for plastic packaging used in 2021 and 2022 only account for packages shipped from Amazon fulfillment centers.

“We hope that Amazon will provide more detailed data … and illuminate some of these questions,” Miller said.

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