Amazon, You Are Primed for Sustainable Packaging

In an interesting quirk of demographics and marketing, there are apparently more Amazon Prime members than American households. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are about 123 million U.S. households, but Amazon reports having 147 million Prime members. This seems to show that most U.S. households get things from Amazon through their Prime membership, which also means it’s high-time the company develops a closed-loop delivery system to get merchandise to those Prime members by retrieving standardized packaging on return visits.

package delivery, package, box-1243499.jpg

Every year the numbers are more eye-popping than before. Deliveries continue to skyrocket, and the packaging used to ship everything from dental floss to swing sets multiplies. Consider that Amazon alone shipped about 7 billion packages in 2020 – more than doubling 2019’s pace and continuing the same trajectory we’ve seen from them for years.

Environmental advocacy group Oceana released a report in December revealing that Amazon’s packaging is responsible for 465 million pounds of discarded plastic waste last year. This includes the plastic mailers, bubble wrap, and air pillows they tuck into boxes as padding. Estimates of Amazon’s cardboard box usage are hard to pin down because they won’t release that data. However, they’re happy to tout their efforts at savings, and a Fast Company story last October reported Amazon’s efforts at conservation reduced packaging materials by 915,000 tons – equal to one-third of the boxes it would’ve used. So, now we know the other two-thirds is equal to about 1.83M tons of cardboard.

Just so we’re all keeping the same score here, we’re at 465 million pounds of single-use plastic packaging, and an estimated 1.83 million tons of cardboard.

So much of this packaging is useless in the recycling stream. Soft and filmy plastics like those used in the padded mailers are no longer being recycled. It’s too complicated to sort and has little economic value on the aftermarket. While it CAN be recycled, it’s simply not going to be. And that’s an important distinction because you’re being told to recycle it even though no one who is telling you that believes it will actually happen.

inside amazon's "recyclable" paper mailer - hands holding open a brown paper envelope exposing white fluff of an unknown substance

More recent mailers like the padded paper versions are using mixed materials like this one. Although Amazon claims this pillowing material is water-based, recyclers around the country are saying they can’t process it. Any time you have two different materials together you run the risk of confounding the machinery. This is one of those cases and, despite its earthy looks, this envelope has to go in the trash.

blue and white plastic amazon envelope

The blue and white plastic mailer may encourage you to recycle it curbside or bring it to a plastic bag collection station. However, in most every case you’ll find around the country, this package cannot or will not be recycled. Just trash it.

Another Amazon mailer has more promise. A paper version with a liner made from crinkled paper. To our eye, this one may be the best they’ve come up with for recycling. But like all the boxes they send out, the challenge is keeping the material dry and clean while it’s in the bin so it can be properly recycled. Should any food, cleaning products or garden waste get on it, chances are high it won’t be usable.

At this point, the pressure is really on Amazon to come up with a better delivery solution. They have the market share, they have 147 million Prime members who order often and could participate in a closed-loop, container return program. And they have the ability to set the terms for their third-party retailers so compliance would be mandatory.

It is well past (prime) time for Amazon to introduce a reusable packaging system where boxes and envelopes can be left for pick-up by delivery drivers who are dropping off the next purchase. The sizes are all pretty standard, and even if there are exceptions, it seems utterly feasible that 80% of the things shoppers order could be placed in a standard shipper.

Amazon’s delivery fleet is ubiquitous in America. We see them everywhere, every day. The same delivery schedule that enables fast and efficient delivery of those boxes could be used to create a retrieval route just as easily. Or, every time someone had a delivery scheduled, a reminder email or text from Amazon could ask them to leave their old containers out for pick-up.

Perfect? No. 100% better than what they are doing today? Yes.

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