Plastics Packaging: Yet Another Reason to Loathe Amazon

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Most Naked Capitalism readers probably don’t need another reason to loathe Amazon.

There’s certainly lots to object to, from its terrible labor relations to its impact on the environment

I’ll address one aspect of that last issue in this post: Amazon’s use of plastic packaging. The year 2020 saw a huge surge in the company’s use of  plastic packaging, according to a new report by the ocean conservation group Oceana, Exposed: Amazon’s enormous and rapidly growing plastic pollution problem,. From the Oceana press release:

Amazon generated an estimated 599 million pounds of plastic packaging waste last year stemming from the billions of packages delivered by the company during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a 29% increase over Oceana’s 2019 estimates. Oceana also found, based on data from a peer-reviewed study on plastic waste pollution published in Science in 2020, that up to 23.5 million pounds of this plastic waste entered the world’s waterways and seas. That is equivalent to dumping a delivery van’s payload of plastic into the oceans 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. Amazon has shown it can do this in large markets like India and Germany. It now needs to commit to do so worldwide,” notes Matt Littlejohn, Oceana’s Senior Vice President for Strategic Initiatives.

Plastic is a major source of pollution and is devastating the world’s oceans. Studies have estimated that for species, 55% percent of sea birds, 70% of marine mammals, and 100% of sea turtles have ingested or become entangled in plastic and have found that plastic film is one of the deadliest forms of plastic for marine life.Scientific reports have estimated that only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled [citations omitted].

Now, I get it. We all hate Amazon, but no one wants to catch COVID-19. So I understand why people resort to ordering from the evil empire, rather than schlepping to an old-fashioned bricks and mortar store, or seeking out non-Amazon e-commerce alternatives. The widespread surrender to Amazon is reflected in its sales figures, which in 2020 surged by nearly 40%, to $386 billion.

The next time you’re going to use Amazon, bear the following packaging details in mind (I realize they reflect all global e-commerce, rather than Amazon exclusively, but given Amazon’s dominance of e-commerce, they’re a useful proxy.)

To be sure, Amazon is easy and convenient, but, is there really no alternative?

I know from first-hand experience that other companies have eliminated most plastic packaging. Weck, which makes excellent glass jars that I use extensively to ferment and preserve food, relies on crushed cardboard, and double-boxing, rather than plastic bubble wrap and other forms of plastic packaging. I’ve ordered from Weck several times during the past year, and everything has arrived safely.

Amazon could be a leader rather than a laggard in the war against plastics. Instead, it offered a pathetic response to the Oceana report, according to The Guardian:

Amazon, the western world’s largest retailer, rejected Oceana’s figures and said it had overestimated the plastic waste by 300%. It also questioned the model used to estimate the percentage likely to enter the sea. It did not provide alternative figures.

This is laughable. Even cutting the figures back to what the company cops to, that’s still lots of plastic. Oceana has asked Amazon to produce figures for the plastic it generates, but the company hasn’t deigned to comply. According to the Oceana press release:

Oceana has asked Amazon, which disputed Oceana’s estimate last year, to provide data about its plastic footprint but Amazon has so far refused to do so. The amount of plastic packaging waste estimated to have been generated by Amazon would now, in the form of air pillows, circle the planet more than 600 times.

Amazon purports to promote recycling as a viable response to the waste it generates. But when Oceana examined more closely what these recycling efforts amount to, it found that Amazon’s touching faith in the recycling fairy was especially ineffectual. Per the Oceana press release:

Amazon asserts that recycling can help solve its plastic packaging pollution problem, but Oceana’s report found otherwise. Amazon plastic packaging falls into the category of ‘plastic film’ – a material that is extremely difficult to recycle and is not accepted at most curbside recycling programs in the UK, the U.S, and other large markets for Amazon. Most often, it is landfilled, burned, or pollutes the environment, including the oceans.

To address this, Amazon directs customers who want to recycle their packaging to stores with designated drop-off locations through its Second Chance website. Oceana sent secret shoppers into 186 of these stores in 25 cities in the UK and the U.S. Representatives from more than 40% of the stores visited told the secret shoppers they would not accept their Amazon plastic packaging and managers at more than 80% of stores visited did not know Amazon customers were being directed to their stores.

Oceana also surveyed 1,400 Amazon Prime customers in the same 25 cities and found widespread confusion and concern:

  • 39% said that they put their Amazon plastic into municipal recycling bins, while 35.5% said they put their packaging into the trash – meaning the Amazon plastic packaging of three-quarters of those surveyed is ending up in landfills, incinerators, or the environment.
  • 91% said Amazon should reduce its use of plastic packaging.
  • 94.8% are concerned about plastic pollution’s impact on the oceans.

Touting recycling won’t solve the world’s dire plastics waste problem. For starters, it shifts responsibility away from the source of the problem – those who generate and use plastic packaging – to consumers. Unsurprisingly, most plastics aren’t recycled – about 9% of the total amount generated. Some solution!

Instead, Oceana calls for Amazon to:

Eliminate plastic packaging, increase the number of products shipped in reusable containers, and adopt policies that demonstrably reduce plastic pollution rather than making empty claims about “recyclability.”

Alas, I think it highly unlikely Amazon will take action on this issue anytime soon. Jeff Bezos seems rather pre-occupied chasing his space dreams. Instead, some form of government action will be necessary to make the company address the problem. According to The Guardian:

Rachel Johnson Greer, a former programme manager at Amazon, who worked for the company for eight years, said the company would only take action on plastics if governments or a majority of customers demanded it.

On plastics packaging, India has been a leader, and has forced Amazon to stop using single use plastic packaging. The packaging protocol Amazon employs in India – no single use plastics, and instead, reliance on returnable and reusable packaging – could easily be rolled out globally – a single step that would prevent the massive amount of plastic Amazon currently uses from entering the waste stream. According to The Guardian::

Oceana has highlighted the action taken by the retailer in India, where it has eliminated single-use plastic packaging by using paper alternatives, after India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, and its central government pledged to ban single-use plastics by 2022. The ban was delayed, but a tribunal ruled that packaging was the responsibility of producers, importers and brand owners.

Amazon also announced it would move away from single-use plastic packaging in Germany.

“If the company can do this in India and Germany, they can move away from single-use plastic packaging on a worldwide basis,” Littlejohn said.

How about it Jeff? Could 2022 prove to be the year that Amazon says no to plastic packaging?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


    1. James Simpson

      Really? Here in the UK, which still has EU regulations in force, there are no rules that I’m aware of preventing anyone from using as much plastic as they like when sending parcels. I recently received a computer via ebay which was encased in a huge amount of large-scale bubble wrap. I offered the packaging for free to anyone local on Freecycle such as for moving house but no takers so it went via the refuse collectors to landfill.

  1. John Zelnicker

    It seems to just get worse and worse. We’re not going to make significant progress until the government decides to re-regulate these major industries and starts insisting that they do the right things for the people, not just their shareholders.

    As the Amazon lady said, that company, like so many others won’t take action until they are forced to by the government or threats to their bottom line. Disgusting.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Well, that’s what government is for, ideally.

      We would have to conquer the government and make it ours in order to make the real approach the ideal.

      1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

        A good question to put to your Congresscritter: If India can do it, why can’t we?

      2. James Simpson

        That’s called “revolutionary socialism” and you could be arrested and imprisoned for advocating it, perhaps because the ruling class knows there are more of us than them.

  2. drumlin woodchuckles

    If I only have limited amount of energy to devote “to” Amazon, will I devote it to supporting unionization at Amazon? Or to abolishing Amazon from existence?

    If I don’t have enough energy to support both, then I will choose “abolish Amazon from existence” as what I want to direct my scarce energy towards.

    1. Carla

      I’m with you, drumlin. I have not knowingly purchased a single item from Amazon in at least 10 years. I research online retailers to make sure they are not stealth-Amazon-owned. Nevertheless, with all my efforts, occasionally something shows up in an Amazon box with that disgusting phallus on it. Of course I try to keep as much of my shopping local as is possible and practicable.

      Re: plastic — I’m trying to prioritize purchasing items in glass bottles vs. plastic, and am now rejecting hand soap in plastic pump bottles in favor of old-fashioned bar soap, which works perfectly well. Anyway, more glass makes both my re-usable shopping bags, and the recyclables container heavier, but that’s a small price to pay.

      Also, those who don’t have good local independent booksellers should note: ships only in cardboard packaging, and the shipping is always free (well, it’s a penny or two but I count that as free). It’s truly the non-Amazon!

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        The go-along-to-get-along types will sneer at our individually tiny efforts. I will keep up my individually tiny effort anyway, however derisory it might be at the scale of nations.

        We are living our witness.

  3. Susan the other

    Sounds encouraging. I’ve stopped shopping on the net because of the whole plastics issue. But plastics are everywhere. I can’t stop shopping at the grocery store or the pharmacy. The internet itself should impose license restrictions on retailers who do not recycle their plastic packaging. No recycling responsibility? Well then no retail license. Our own government just sits there with their usual blank stare. But the FCC has rules, why not the internet? That could be a big U turn. All the littler sources of packaging shouldn’t be ignored. I see where grocery stores are looking for take-out replacement packaging, that’s good. But literally everything on the shelf is plastic. I used to enjoy shopping in bulk, before New Frontiers became Whole Foods and Whole Foods went all-in for packaged goods. I think all the little items should be collected and turned into construction material – they are doing this in Vietnam (I think, or maybe Thailand). And just thinking about all the plastics in the Oceans makes my heart sink. What’s the latest solution from Maersk? The Danes are pretty good at thinking through these things. All we seem to be good at is allowing pollution to happen; it’s somehow not the responsibility of government in the United States… because everyone is Free – free to pollute the rest of the world.

  4. lordkoos

    What I find really frustrating is buying from an ebay seller and then the item arrives in Amazon packaging. Amazon must have hundreds of sellers on ebay fronting for them. I have noticed their use of plastics is over the top… they never use biodegradable packing materials even though they are readily available, and frequently pack small items in boxes or plastic containers that are much larger than necessary. It’s a horrible company in every way.

    1. Flyover Boy

      Yes, Amazon does have numerous fronts on eBay. I look for the name of the merchant, whether it has over 100,000 or so transactions historically, what its other items on offer are (if all cheap, new and mass-produced, be suspicious). The Amazon aliases also are invariably labeled “top rated plus” merchants, with 99%+ satisfaction rates (as well they would be if selling many thousands of commonplace items that seldom draw complaint).

      A couple of times, I’ve outright sent a message to a merchant asking “Are you Amazon?” Last time they didn’t answer, which was my answer.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        As tinfoil as I take pride in being able to be, I never even thought of Amazon selling new stuff on ebay under fronts, cut-outs, and aliases. I just thought it was bunches of boring merchants with stuff to move.

        So if every single ebay-er in the world adopted the protocol of “never buy anything new on ebay”, that might degrade Amazon’s sneaky presence on ebay right there.

        I stopped using ebay many years ago when it became no fun anymore. It demanded I make all payments by paypal, and it stopped people offering books from showing any pictures of the cover or especially any pages of text. At that point I lost interest.

    2. James Simpson

      biodegradable packing materials

      use plenty of resources to make and, unless they are very basic, merely break down into smaller and smaller pieces.

  5. The Rev Kev

    Maybe the way to solve this problem is an end-to-end tax. So if Amazon sends something in a package, they also have to pay hard cash to dispose of the packaging after it has been used in the form of a ‘disposal’ tax rather than having consumers be on the hook for these costs. And not just Amazon but everybody, right across the board. Paper/cardboard-based packaging would be cheaper to recycle so it gets off with a much lower tax than plastic packaging as plastic is so hard to dispose of. Then it would be up to Bezos to explain to his institutional shareholders why he willing to have money come out of Amazon’s bottom line because he likes plastic so much.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Hmm – I think India’s solution is simpler. I would tackle the problem when the waste is created, rather than when it’s to be disposed.

      So, as in India, no single use plastic packaging. Period. I’m not in India at the moment, so I can’t investigate exactly what reusable and returnable packaging actually means in practice. One thing I do know is that India’s a much lower waste culture than the U.S. and things are typically repurposed or re-used rather than being tossed as a matter of course. I’ve replaced a scratched screen on my $30 dumbphone; ditto for its speaker.

      But there’s no reason not to try to import some Indian low-waste habits into the U.S.

        1. You're soaking in it

          Originally in Germany, the Green Dot Program required producers to accept all packaging to be returned to them, or pay into a fund to deal with whatever they generate. Especially in the beginning it resulted in a noticeable reduction of “advertising” packaging and willingness to adopt simpler methods. Supposed to be throughout the EU now, though I don’t know how far along it really is.

          1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

            I’m wondering whether German policy prompted Weck to adopt its packaging practices, although I’ll confess I’m not sure exactly how the U.S. website is related to the German company. But I’ve been pleased with my orders. They pack well and don’t use plastic.

Comments are closed.