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Amazon Has a 709-Million-Pound Plastic Packaging Problem

Amazon says it’s trying to nip plastic pollution in the bud. The question is, can it?

In 2021, the e-tail Goliath’s plastic packaging—think plastic mailers, plastic shrinkwrap, plastic bags and plastic bubblewrap—totaled 709 million pounds, an 18 percent uptick from 2020, according to Oceana, now in its third year of crunching Amazon’s e-commerce packaging data. Measured in terms of air pillows, this is enough plastic to circle the planet more than 800 times.

A significant portion of this—up to 26 million pounds, by the environmental nonprofit group’s calculations—will end up in the world’s rivers, lakes and oceans. The plastic film favored by Amazon is particularly harmful to marine life, said Matt Littlejohn, Oceana’s senior vice president for strategic initiatives.

Shareholders are aware that this isn’t a good look. At Amazon’s annual general meeting in May, more than 48 percent of them voted in support of a resolution seeking transparency about how the company will tackle the issue.

“The science is clear, the type of plastic used by Amazon for its packaging is a threat to the oceans. Customers and shareholders are calling for the company to act,” Littlejohn said. “It’s time for Amazon to, as it has on climate, step up and commit to a global reduction in its use of plastic packaging.”

Amazon jumped ahead of Oceana’s announcement last week by publishing a blog post detailing how it’s dealing with the problem. (It pointed Sourcing Journal to the post when asked to comment on Oceana’s report, which was still under embargo at the time.) Last year, the Whole Foods owner reduced the average plastic packaging weight per shipment by more than 7 percent, resulting in 97,222 metric tons—roughly 214 million pounds—of the single-use stuff proliferating across its global operations, it said.

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“We know customers care about the packaging used to ship their Amazon orders. Customers want orders delivered in right-sized, easily recyclable packaging that makes sure the product arrives in great condition and minimizes its impact on the environment,” Amazon wrote. “At Amazon, we care deeply about our packaging achieving both of these goals, and we have teams of scientists and other experts who are constantly working to reinvent how products are shipped for the good of customers and the planet.”

This is the first time that Amazon has provided hard numbers about how much plastic packaging it uses, a move that Littlejohn said is a “step in the right direction.” Previously, the Everything Store would only say that Oceana had overexaggerated its use of plastic.

Even so, Amazon is underestimating its plastic burden, Littlejohn said. Oceana’s tally includes all sales through Amazon’s e-commerce platforms worldwide, including those fulfilled by third-party sellers. In contrast, Amazon’s figure only accounts for plastic packaging used for orders dispatched through owned and operated fulfillment centers in the 13 countries where it maintains a presence, he said.

“It is unclear how much of Amazon’s total sales are sent through the company’s fulfillment centers,” Littlejohn said. “Amazon has declined to disclose this information to Oceana.” Neither has the juggernaut divulged how much of its plastic footprint grew as its sales surged by 22 percent from 2020 to 2021.

Until Amazon is “fully transparent” about its company-wise use of plastic packaging, Oceana’s 2021 estimate is the “best available” estimate of the company’s total plastic footprint, he added.

Inside an Amazon warehouse in Georgia. Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images

There’s no question that legislation can force Amazon to come to grips with its plastic use, Oceana said. In fact, it already has. In India, where single-use plastic items that have low utility are verboten, Amazon exclusively employs paper-padded and reusable packaging. A similar shift is happening in Germany, where logistics centers are swapping out single-use plastic packages with paper-based bags or cardboard boxes. Under the German packaging act, companies have to ensure the proper disposal of any packaging they put into circulation, or risk financial penalties.

Forthcoming regulations could further tighten the net. Signed into law in June, California’s Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act, or SB 54, will require producers to reduce single-use plastic packaging and food service products by 25 percent by 2032. In the European Union, the pending Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive will require e-tailers to report on the amount of plastic packaging they use annually, as well as formulate targets to reach 50 percent reusable packaging by 2030 and 80 percent by 2035 for any goods shipped within the bloc.

Amazon shouldn’t wait for these rules to come into effect before taking action, however, Littlejohn said.

“If Amazon really is ‘a company that obsesses about [its] customers,’ they would eliminate plastic packaging, increase the number of products shipped in reusable containers and adopt policies that demonstrably reduce their global plastic pollution footprint,” he said.

But Amazon isn’t the only company struggling to decouple growth from plastic packaging use.

Despite “strong progress” in certain areas, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation-led New Plastics Economy Global Commitment expects to miss “key” targets to address plastic pollution at its source. This includes the goal of achieving 100 percent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025, which is being stymied by the use of flexible packaging and a dearth of investment in collection and recycling infrastructure. Even the most promising innovations, such as Fashion for Good’s recently announced home-compostable polybag, which the innovation platform is trialing with C&A and Levi Strauss, are still in the pilot stage.

Four years after the commitment’s launch, more than half of its 500 signatories, which include Asos, Burberry, H&M Group, Stella McCartney and Zara owner Inditex, but not Amazon, continued to decrease their virgin plastic use, yet the entire group’s collective virgin plastic use has risen back to 2018 levels. Signatories’ share of reusable plastic packaging decreased slightly compared to last year and is at an average of 1.2 percent. Overall, the commitment said, reuse ambitions for packaging remain “limited” with very few brands and retailers specifying a strategy that could lead to reuse at scale.

Meanwhile, Selfridges was among a handful of signatories that exited the pact because it was “unwilling” to fulfill the mandatory requirements for participation, including setting quantitative targets and publicly reporting progress.

The prospect of not meeting all 2025 targets highlights the urgent need for a “bold, new approach” that is “far beyond what we’ve seen before,” the commitment said. Every brand and retailer needs to develop and execute an “ambitious” reuse strategy with “credible” action plans; exponentially increase the use of recycled plastics while curtailing total plastic packaging use; and accelerate investments in infrastructure and packaging redesign. Governments that are part of the agreement, too, such as those of France, Portugal, the United Kingdom and New Zealand, must take action to help accelerate progress.

“The Global Commitment continues to provide unprecedented transparency on how major businesses are addressing the plastic pollution crisis,” said Sander Defruyt, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Plastics Initiative lead. “The latest findings demonstrate the need to urgently ramp up efforts—both from businesses and governments.”