Amazon must stop flooding our oceans with plastic waste

Amazon’s apparent embrace of plastic packaging is hindering its commitment to help the fight against climate change.

An Amazon worker delivers packages in Denver, Colorado, US, on April 22, 2020 [Kevin Mohatt/Reuters]

Just last month, Jeff Bezos, the CEO and founder of Amazon, announced that he would be donating $791m to 16 environmental organisations to help combat the effects of climate change. The impressive donation is coming from a $10bn fund set up in February to address this critical issue. Amazon also launched the “Climate Pledge” last September, which encompasses several ambitious goals, including a commitment to be carbon neutral by 2040. Unfortunately, as Amazon and its leader make news for their contributions to the fight against climate change, plastic packaging used by Amazon floods municipal waste systems and, a part of it, pollutes waterways and seas around the world.

According to a new Oceana report, Amazon generated an estimated 465 million pounds of air pillows, bubble wrap and other plastic packaging waste in 2019, which, in the form of air pillows, would provide enough plastic to circle the Earth more than 500 times. Up to 22 million pounds of this waste, the report estimates, found its way into freshwater and marine ecosystems – the equivalent of a delivery van full of plastic packaging being dumped into the world’s waterways and oceans every 70 minutes. The company disputes these figures but has not yet provided alternative data or specific estimates – by country – for its and its marketplace vendors’ plastic footprint.

Marine animals can mistake plastic for food, or swallow it inadvertently while feeding or swimming. Once swallowed, plastic can obstruct their digestive tracks or lacerate their intestines, leaving them unable to feed or obtain nourishment. These problems can lead to starvation and death. Recent studies estimate that 90 percent of all seabirds and 52 percent of all sea turtles have ingested plastic. According to a recent Oceana study, some 88 percent of animals that have swallowed or have been entangled in plastic were members of species listed as endangered or threatened with extinction under the Endangered Species Act.

As part of its efforts to reduce waste and combat climate change, Amazon has recently prioritised the use of flexible lightweight packaging partially made of plastic over more-bulky non-plastic options such as cardboard boxes. But while doing so, it failed to fully acknowledge the additional environmental damage its increased use of plastic would cause to the seas.

Plastics are not only a danger to marine ecosystems but also a major contributor to climate change. If plastics were a country, they would be the planet’s fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Amazon’s efforts to reduce its fuel use, waste and emissions are laudable. However, the company’s apparent embrace of plastic packaging is highly problematic. Climate change and the plastics crisis are intrinsically linked – it is counterproductive to try and address one problem without addressing the other.

Amazon has said that it is trying to make more of its plastic packaging “recyclable”. However, it is not possible to effectively recycle the plastic used in Amazon’s packaging in many parts of the world. The plastic film used in Amazon packages has little to no value on the recycling market. Most municipal recycling programmes in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom do not accept plastic film at all. According to a 2017 industry report, only four percent of residential polyethylene plastic film waste, including bags and wraps, was recycled in the US.

As a result, plastic packaging materials like the ones being used by Amazon often end up as litter, in landfills, or worse, in oceans, contributing to pollution. The company’s claim of recyclability is an empty promise and will not reduce its plastic waste footprint or its effect on the oceans.

Amazon says it is a “customer-obsessed” company that works vigorously to earn its customers’ trust and keep them happy. However, it is refusing to listen to its customers who overwhelmingly want Amazon to shrink its plastic use. In 2020, a survey conducted by Oceana in the US, Canada and the UK found that 86 percent of Amazon customers in these countries are concerned about plastic pollution and its impact on the oceans. An impressive 87 percent, meanwhile, said that they want Amazon and other major online retailers to offer plastic-free packaging options at checkout and/or other measures that would reduce plastic. More than 664,000 people have signed a petition calling on Amazon to offer plastic-free choices.

Amazon’s commitment to be carbon neutral by 2040 is commendable – but not enough. The online retail giant also needs to commit to reducing its plastic footprint and it needs to do it fast. It must disclose how much plastic it is using, introduce new programmes to reduce plastic waste and find ways to encourage the shipping of products in reusable containers.

Amazon is one of the most innovative companies on the planet and has already demonstrated its ability to quickly respond to the growing climate sensibilities of its customers. As former Amazon manager Rachel Johnson Greer has said, the company can do this, “it is really a question of will”. It is time for the company to step up, listen to its customers and commit to reduce its plastic use, offer plastic-free packaging choices at check-out and help save the oceans and the planet.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.