Amazon’s Plastic

Illustration by Nicholas Konrad/The New York Times; photograph by Getty Images

Commerce is taking place more and more over the internet, and one company is controlling so much of it that choices they make about packaging for shipment have an outsized influence on the planet. We hope they will listen to what these two professors recommend:

Amazon Uses a Lot of Plastic. It Doesn’t Have To.

The world’s biggest online retailer must become a leader in reducing single-use packaging.

The year 2020 may have been heartbreaking for most humans, but it was a good one for Jeff Bezos and Amazon. His company’s worldwide sales grew 38 percent from 2019, and Amazon sold more than 1.5 billion products during the 2020 holiday season alone.

Did you need a book, disposable surgical mask, beauty product, or garden hose? Amazon was probably your online marketplace. If you wanted to purchase a Nicolas Cage pillowcase or a harness with leash for your chicken, Amazon had your back (They’re #17 and #39 on a 2019 Good Housekeeping list of the 40 ‘weirdest” products available on the website “that people actually love.”) From pandemic misery came consumer comfort and corporate profit.

And plastic. Lots and lots of plastic.

In 2019, Amazon used an estimated 465 million pounds of plastic packaging, according to the nonprofit environmental group Oceana. The group also estimated that up to 22 million pounds of Amazon’s plastic packaging waste ended up as trash in freshwater and marine ecosystems around the world. These numbers are likely to rise in 2021.

Amazon has disputed those figures, telling the news website Vox that they are “dramatically miscalculated” and that actually it uses about a quarter of what Oceana reported. But that would still amount to more than 116 million pounds of plastic. The company was expected to account for an estimated 39 percent of e-commerce sales in the United States last year, according to the market research firm eMarketer, more than six times the expected sales of the No. 2 company on the list, Walmart.

With this growth, the continuing surge in demand for single-use plastic packaging seems inevitable. Packaging is the largest market for plastic resins in the United States, accounting for 31 percent in 2019, according to the American Chemistry Council. A significant portion of that is for food and beverages, but packaging for e-commerce is growing rapidly.

The magnitude of plastic packaging that is used and casually discarded — air pillows, Bubble Wrap, shrink wrap, envelopes, bags — portends gloomy consequences.

These single-use items are primarily made from polyethylene, though vinyl is also used. In marine environments, this plastic waste can cause disease and death for coral, fish, seabirds and marine mammals. Plastic debris is often mistaken for food, and microplastics release chemical toxins as they degrade. Data suggests that plastics have infiltrated human food webs and placentas. These plastics have the potential to disrupt the endocrine system, which releases hormones into the bloodstream that help control growth and development during childhood, among many other important processes.

Certainly, some of the onus for plastic pollution should fall on consumers. Convenience is seductive. Amazon’s distribution network is vast and efficient. Its products are also numerous; the company sells its own goods and serves as a clearinghouse for many other businesses. According to a 2020 Amazon report, small- and medium-size businesses sold an average of 6,500 products per minute on the website in the 12 months through May 31…

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