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How much plastic Amazon packaging is ending up in the ocean?

The world’s largest retailer is partially responsible for a pandemic-inspired surge in ocean plastic. A new report tries to estimate how much.

How much plastic Amazon packaging is ending up in the ocean?
[Photos: miromiro/iStock, Jéan Cloete/Unsplash]
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As online shopping has surged during the pandemic, it’s also driving up the amount of plastic packaging that’s ending up in landfills—or escaping into the ocean. Because it’s the world’s largest retailer, Amazon is likely responsible for some significant percentage of that increase. But despite the company’s very public push for sustainability, it won’t disclose its plastic footprint. Instead, a new report from the nonprofit Oceana tries to estimate how much plastic waste the company is creating.

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In 2019, the report says, Amazon was responsible for the use of an estimated 465 million pounds of plastic packaging. As much as 22 million pounds of that may have ended up in rivers, lakes, or the ocean. That’s roughly as much as dumping the contents of a plastic-filled delivery van into the water every 70 minutes.

Since Amazon won’t share data about its plastic use, the nonprofit made estimates based on market data about plastic packaging in the countries where Amazon operates and its market share in each country, including its marketplace vendors. The company reportedly shipped more than 7 billion packages in 2019. Based on a recent study in Science that estimates how much plastic waste escapes into waterways—as much as 11% of all plastic waste—Oceana estimates that 22.44 million pounds of Amazon’s plastic waste had the same fate.

“We think it’s important to have the baseline out there,” says Matt Littlejohn, senior vice president for strategic initiatives at Oceana, which studies plastic’s impact on marine life in its effort to protect and restore ocean habitat. Sea turtles, for example, often mistake plastic bags or plastic “air pillows” from packaging for jellyfish and end up eating them; ingesting around a dozen pieces of plastic can kill them.

The total amount of waste from Amazon orders is potentially even larger than the Oceana’s conservative estimate, Littlejohn says. (It also doesn’t include the footprint of original packaging from manufacturers.)

In a statement, Amazon disputed the estimate, saying that it uses roughly a quarter as much plastic in its packaging, and that it has reduced total packaging over the last five years—although much of that reduction came from using fewer cardboard boxes, not necessarily less plastic. Amazon also disputed how much of its packaging reaches waterways, saying that the report overestimated ocean plastic from countries like the U.S., although the U.S. is one of the world’s top contributors to the problem.

Oceana defended its research, saying that until Amazon transparently shares data, the nonprofit stands by its estimate. And if Amazon’s overall plastic use is actually a quarter of the estimate—or around 116 million pounds—that’s still a massive amount of plastic.

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The company has taken steps to reduce the number. An innovative paper mailer from Amazon, for example, is cushioned without bubble wrap, and can be recycled just like a cardboard box. In India, after pressure from consumers, fulfillment centers switched from plastic air pillows and bubble wrap to paper cushioning; some orders in Bangalore are also delivered in reusable crates rather than single-use boxes. Some manufacturers, working through Amazon’s frustration-free packaging program, have redesigned their packaging for online orders to shrink plastic use.

But all of this is still happening at a small scale relative to the company’s massive size. “I think it needs to be rolled out much more aggressively,” Littlejohn says. He argues that the company also shouldn’t rely on claims about recyclability, because plastic packaging typically isn’t recycled, and the plastic film used in something like bubble wrap usually isn’t accepted in curbside recycling programs. Although plastic has some advantages from a climate perspective because it’s so lightweight, the total impact doesn’t make it a good choice.

“Because plastic production is increasing so fast, it’s overwhelming ecosystems in a way that’s just not good for the future of the ocean,” Littlejohn says. “In this case, with Amazon, it’s a preventable thing. The company does have solutions that are so innovative. We think they can go away faster from plastic packaging.”

It’s something that customers want. More than 660,000 people have signed a Change.org petition asking Amazon to offer plastic-free packaging options. In a survey that Oceana conducted of thousands of Amazon customers, 87% said that they also wanted that option. “What was really interesting is that the better the customer is—the more frequently they’re buying,” Littlejohn says, “they’re the ones who really want this the most.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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