Over the last year, Amazon.com Inc. has reduced the portion of shipments it packs in its cardboard boxes in favor of lightweight plastic mailers, which enable the retailing giant to squeeze more packages into delivery trucks and planes. But environmental activists and waste experts say the new plastic sacks, which aren’t recyclable in curbside recycling bins, are having a negative effect.
“That Amazon packaging suffers from the same problems as plastic bags, which are not sortable in our recycling system and get caught in the machinery,” said Lisa Sepanski, project manager for the King County Solid Waste Division, which oversees recycling in King County, Wash., where Amazon is based. “It takes labor to cut them out. They have to stop the machinery.”
Last year’s holiday season, the busiest for e-commerce, meant ever more shipments — creating a massive hangover of packaging waste. As the platform behind half of all e-commerce transactions in 2018, according to EMarketer, Amazon is by far the biggest shipper and producer of that waste — and it’s a trendsetter, meaning that its switch to plastic mailers could herald a shift across the industry. Other retailers that use similar plastic mailers include Target Corp., which declined to comment.
The problem with the plastic mailers is that they need to be recycled separately, and if they end up in the usual stream, they gum up recycling systems and prevent larger bundles of materials from being recycled. Environmental advocates say Amazon, as the industry giant, needs to do a much better job of encouraging consumers to recycle the plastic mailers by providing more education and places to bring that plastic for recycling.
“We are continually working to improve our packaging and recycling options, and have reduced packaging waste by more than 20% globally in 2018,” Amazon spokeswoman Melanie Janin said. She added that Amazon provides recycling information on its website. (Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post.)
Amazon’s goal to reduce bulkier cardboard is the right move, said a number of waste experts. And plastic mailers have some positives for the environment. They take up less space in containers and trucks than boxes, making shipping more efficient. Fewer greenhouse gases are emitted — and less petroleum consumed — by the production, use and disposal of plastic film compared with recycled cardboard, said David Allaway, senior policy analyst for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Materials Management Program. Plastic is so cheap and enduring that many companies use it for packaging. But people are prone to put plastic sacks into recycling bins.
Plastic mailers escape the notice of sorting machines and get into bales of paper bound for recycling, contaminating entire bundles, which experts say outweighs the positive effect of reducing bulky cardboard shipments. Paper bundles used to fetch a high price on international markets and had long sustained profits in the recycling industry. But mixed bales are so hard to sell — because of stricter laws in China, where many are sent for recycling — that many West Coast recycling companies must trash them instead. (Packaging is just one source of plastics contamination of paper bales bound for recycling.)
“As packaging gets more complex and lighter, we have to process more material at slower speeds to produce the same output. Are the margins enough? The answer today is no,” said Pete Keller, vice president of recycling for Republic Services, one of the largest U.S. waste haulers. “It’s labor- and maintenance-intensive and, frankly, expensive to deal with on a daily basis.”