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Does Amazon Have a Plastic Pollution Problem?

Plastic pollution from Amazon deliveries has ballooned, and the Covid-19 pandemic is part of the reason why, a new report claims.

In 2020, the Seattle e-tail juggernaut generated roughly 599 million pounds of plastic mailers, plastic-lined envelopes, air pillows and bubble wrap, a 29 percent increase over the 465 million pounds it pumped out in 2019, according to environmental nonprofit Oceana. Citing a peer-reviewed study published in Science, the group also estimates that 23.5 million pounds of this plastic waste entered the world’s waterways and seas, the equivalent of dumping a delivery van’s payload of plastic every 67 minutes.

“Our report found that Amazon’s plastic packaging pollution problem is growing at a frightening rate at a time when the oceans need corporate leaders like Amazon to step up and meaningfully commit to reducing their use of single-use plastic,” Matt Littlejohn, Oceana’s senior vice president for strategic initiatives, said in a statement.

The health crisis has driven an “enormous surge” in online shopping, the report noted, with sales in 2020 rising by 27.6 percent to $4.28 trillion. The increase triggered a 24 percent growth in e-commerce-associated plastic packaging, or roughly 2.9 billion pounds. With digital sales expected to reach $6.39 trillion in 2024, the problem is only expected to get worse.

The Everything Store disputed Oceana’s estimates last year, insisting that the organization had “dramatically miscalculated” its use of plastic. Amazon cast doubt on Oceana’s calculations once again, calling them “seriously flawed.”

“They have overestimated our plastics usage by more than 300 percent and use outdated assumptions about the sources of plastic waste entering our oceans,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “The latest peer-reviewed scientific research finds that the majority of plastic waste that ends up in the ocean comes primarily from takeaway food and drink and fishing activities. Amazon is making rapid progress in reducing or removing single-use plastics from packaging materials around the world.”

Amazon advertises its packaging as recyclable, yet its “recycling promises” are doing little to help reduce plastic pollution, Oceana said. The e-tailer’s packaging falls into the category of “plastic film,” a material that is not only “extremely difficult” to recycle but is also not accepted at most curbside recycling programs in the United States, the United Kingdom and other large Amazon markets. Because of limitations in infrastructure, scientists estimate that only 9 percent of plastic ever produced has been recycled. Most of it is landfilled, incinerated or cast adrift in the environment, where it poses a threat to marine life and public health.

The retail giant directs its customers who want to recycle their packaging to stores with designated drop-off locations through its Second Chance website. When Oceana sent secret shoppers into 86 of these stores in 25 cities in the United States and the United Kingdom, however, representatives from more than 40 percent of them said they would not accept their Amazon plastic packaging, while 80 percent said they didn’t know Amazon customers were being directed to their stores.

Oceana also surveyed 1,400 Amazon Prime customers in the same 25 cities, finding “widespread confusion and concern” about how to responsibly dispose of the packaging. Nearly 39 percent of those polled said they put their plastic waste into municipal recycling bins, while more than 35 percent said they threw theirs away. More than 90 percent, on the other hand, said Amazon should reduce its use of plastic packaging, and almost 95 percent said they were concerned about plastic pollution’s impact on the oceans.

Still, the Whole Foods owner has shown that it’s possible to reduce its plastic footprint, Oceana said. Last month, Amazon announced plans to broadly eliminate single-use plastic in Germany by the end of the year by replacing plastic mailers with paper versions and dispatching larger items in corrugated cardboard boxes, though it will continue to use bubble wrap for fragile items such as glassware.

Amazon in India has also nixed single-use plastic following a nationwide push to phase out disposables designed to be used only once. At the same time, the company has expanded its Packaging-Free Shipping (PFS), an India-first initiative that ships orders in their original packaging, without additional packaging or with significantly reduced packaging, to more than 100 cities. More than 40 percent of its orders in the South Asian nation employ PFS, Amazon said.

​​“Amazon is now bigger than Walmart, and is the largest retailer in the world outside of China,” Littlejohn said. “The company is now defining how products are packaged. It must stop hiding behind false and ineffective solutions, like plastic film recycling, and instead, do what it is doing in India and in Germany all around the planet. We’re calling on Amazon to offer a plastic-free option at checkout—not just because their customers want it, but because our oceans need it.”

Plastic isn’t Amazon’s only pollution problem.

The e-tail giant, along with Walmart, FedEx, UPS, Flipkart and Deutsche Post SHL Group, has failed to identify meaningful carbon-reducing climate targets, Stand.earth, an environmental advocacy nonprofit, wrote in its “Parcel Delivery on a Warming Planet” report last week.

Zero-emissions targets are the only effective path forward, it said, claiming weaker “net-zero” commitments allow companies to get away with continuing to spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while touting projects like reforestation and renewable energy installations that “supposedly compensate” for the output. What’s more, promises to decarbonize along decades-long timelines with hard stops of 2040 or even 2050 are “way too late,” it added.

Retail and logistics fleets should instead strategize toward fully emissions-free operations by 2030, and stop investing in fossil-fuel-guzzling vehicles, Stand.earth wrote. It also urged companies to report annually on their greenhouse-gas emissions, the steps they’re taking to mitigate environmental impact, and what effect these measures have on their carbon footprint.

Amazon said that as a co-founder of The Climate Pledge, it’s committed to protecting the planet and achieving net-zero carbon by 2040. “We continue to welcome informed, constructive dialogue with NGOs and others on these issues,” the spokesperson said.

Additional reporting by Jessica Binns.

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