Amazon has a big plastic problem — and it’s getting worse

The plastic packaging waste produced by Amazon last year soared by almost a third amid the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a report by the marine NGO Oceana, Amazon generated about 599 million pounds of plastic waste, a 29% increase from 2019 estimates, stemming from the many packages delivered during the pandemic.

An Amazon warehouse in the UK. Image credit: Flickr / DK.

Plastic is one of the largest environmental problems of our time. Up to 55% of sea birds, 70% of marine mammals, and all sea turtles have ingested or become entangled with plastic, according to previous studies. We are also exposed to plastic in our food and water, with reports estimating we eat about five grams of microplastics per week. Overall, the world produces over 500 billion tons of plastic waste per year.

“Amazon’s plastic packaging pollution problem is growing at a frightening rate at a time when the oceans need corporate leaders to step up and meaningfully commit to reducing their use of single-use plastic. Amazon has shown it can do this in large markets,” Oceana’s VP for Strategic Initiatives Matt Littlejohn said in a statement. 

In its report, Oceana highlighted steps taken by Amazon in India, where it eliminated single-use plastics for packaging by introducing paper alternatives after the country’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to ban single-use plastics by 2022. The company also recently announced it will stop using single-use plastics in Germany. 

Nevertheless, this is not enough, Oceana concluded. Using surveys with Amazon Prime customers, interviews with municipal waste officials, and with store owners, the NGO said Amazon’s recycling efforts won’t “significantly reduce its enormous (and growing plastic problem.” The company should instead become a leader in plastic reduction. 

The figures were rejected by Amazon officials. speaking with The Guardian. Amazon said Oceana overestimated the plastic waste by 300% but didn’t give its own estimated figure. A spokesperson said to share the NGO’s concern for the ocean and said it’s making “rapid progress” in reducing and removing single-use plastics in packaging materials. 

A growing problem

The plastic packaging used by Amazon falls into the category of plastic film, a material very difficult to be recycled and that it’s not accepted by most curbside recycling programs in the US and the UK. In most cases, it’s burned or landfilled, polluting the environment. Only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled, studies showed.

To address this, Amazon asks its customers to drop the plastic waste into selected stores so it can be later recycled. Oceana sent secret shoppers to 186 of these stores in the US and the UK. Representatives from over 40% of the stores visited told the shoppers that they wouldn’t accept Amazon packaging, unaware that such a program even exists. 

Oceana also surveyed over 1,400 Amazon Prime Customers in both countries. Up to 39% said to leave the Amazon plastic into municipal recycling bins, while 35.5% said to put the packaging into the trash. This means the plastic waste of three-quarters of those surveyed ends up in landfills, incinerators, or into the natural environment, Oceana said. 

“Amazon is now bigger than Walmart, and is the largest retailer in the world outside of China. 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, added Littlejohn in a statement. 

The full report from Oceana can be accessed here. 

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