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Amazon’s recycling program for its plastic packaging isn’t working, report says

Amazon Plastic Packaging IMG_6256Amazon packaging rarely gets recycled when customers use the company’s recommended store drop-off system. Packaging from drop-off bins ended up in landfills or incinerators, became stuck in distribution centers, or was made into nonrecyclable products, according to a report from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Environment America Research and Policy Center.

“Nearly every time we order something from Amazon, we’re left with a pile of plastic packaging, which becomes waste as soon as our packages are opened,” said Jenn Engstrom, state director of CALPIRG Education Fund and author of the report. “We already knew that plastic is hard to recycle and that the rates of recycling all types of plastic, especially plastic film, are abysmal. We were skeptical that the store drop-off system that Amazon instructs customers to use is working and we were right.” 

Staff and volunteers with the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Environment America Research and Policy Center in eight states put 93 tracking devices inside Amazon plastic packaging and placed them in recycling store drop off bins.

After following the instructions Amazon included on its packaging, only four packages with trackers inside ended up in a material recovery center that sorts items for recycling. Thirteen trackers ended up in landfills, two went to an incinerator, and three went to the Port of Los Angeles. 

The most common destination for the tracking devices – 24 of 93 – was a company called Trex Company Inc. Trex mixes plastic film with sawdust to make benches and decking, rendering the plastic’s new form nonrecyclable.

“Turning Amazon plastic packaging into nonrecyclable products might be better than throwing it away, but this process, called downcycling, is not the same as recycling,” said Celeste Meiffren-Swango, Beyond Plastic campaign director with Environment America Research andPolicy Center. “Downcycling still doesn’t close the loop on plastic production. To solve our plastic waste crisis, we need solutions that reduce the need to bring more plastic into our world.”  

As one of the largest retailers in the world, Amazon is a huge contributor to plastic waste. A 2021 report from the ocean conservation group Oceana estimated that Amazon generated 709 million pounds of plastic waste globally, which it estimates is enough to circle Earth more than 800 times in the form of the air pillows commonly used in packaging.

Less than 10 percent of all produced plastic has been recycled. The rest ends up being incinerated, overflowing landfills, littering our streets, polluting the ocean, and harming wildlife, Engstrom said. In the environment, plastic doesn’t degrade. Instead, it breaks into smaller pieces, called microplastics, that have been discovered in every corner of the globe. Microplastics are now being found inside human bodies.

Amazon has committed to eliminating plastic packaging in Europe, India, and Japan. In the U.S., the company has committed to phasing out the use of its plastic padded mailer, though without a timeline, she said. 

“We hope our investigation makes it clear to Amazon that recycling plastic is not the answer, especially relying on a store drop off system that uses an awful lot of infrastructure and energy to transport plastic around the country just to be downcycled or landfilled,” said Engstrom. “It’s time for Amazon to eliminate plastic packaging in its shipments.” 


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