Ama­zon packs out­side the box

But new plas­tic pack­ag­ing is jam­ming up re­cy­cling cen­ters

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - MARYLAND - By Kris­ten Mil­lares Young

Over the past year, Ama­zon 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 in 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 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.”

The re­cent hol­i­day sea­son, the busiest for e-com­merce, meant many more ship­ments, cre­at­ing a mas­sive amount 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 a trend­set­ter, mean­ing that their switch to plas­tic mail­ers could sig­nal a shift across the in­dus­try. Other re­tail­ers that use sim­i­lar plas­tic mail­ers in­clude Tar­get, which de­clined to com­ment.

The prob­lem with the plas­tic mail­ers is twofold: 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 al­ter­na­tive 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 per­cent glob­ally in 2018,” said Ama­zon spokes­woman Me­lanie Janin. 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 con­sumers 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, out­weigh­ing the pos­i­tive ef­fect of re­duc­ing bulky card­board ship­ments, ex­perts say. 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.”

For the past 10 years, Ama­zon has whit­tled away at un­nec­es­sary pack­ag­ing, send­ing the prod­uct in its orig­i­nal box when pos­si­ble, or in the light­est pack­ag­ing pos­si­ble. Ama­zon’s Janin said that the com­pany shifted to light­weight plas­tic mail­ers in the past year as part of a larger ef­fort to re­duce pack­ag­ing waste and op­er­a­tional costs. Janin wrote Ama­zon “is cur­rently scal­ing ca­pac­ity of a fully re­cy­clable cush­ioned mailer that is re­cy­clable in pa­per re­cy­cling streams.”

One of the few For­tune 500 com­pa­nies not to file a cor­po­rate so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity or sus­tain­abil­ity re­port, the Seat­tle-based cor­po­ra­tion said its “Frus­tra­tion-Free” pack­ag­ing pro­gram re­duced pack­ag­ing waste by 16 per­cent and elim­i­nated the need for more than 305 mil­lion ship­ping boxes in 2017.

“Their move to flex­i­ble pack­ag­ing, in my be­lief, is driven by cost and per­for­mance, but there’s also a low car­bon foot­print,” said Nina Goodrich, direc­tor of the Sus­tain­able Pack­ag­ing Coali­tion. She over­sees a How2Re­cy­cle logo that be­gan ap­pear­ing on Ama­zon’s padded plas­tic mail­ers in De­cem­ber 2017, a step to­ward con­sumer ed­u­ca­tion.

An­other prob­lem with the new padded plas­tic mail­ers is that Ama­zon and other re­tail­ers af­fix a pa­per ad­dress la­bel that ren­ders them un­fit to be re­cy­cled, even at a store drop-off lo­ca­tion. The la­bel needs to be re­moved, sep­a­rat­ing the pa­per from the plas­tic, in or­der for the ma­te­rial to be re­cy­clable.

“Com­pa­nies can take a good ma­te­rial, and de­pend­ing on la­bel, ad­he­sive or ink, make it non-re­cy­clable,” Goodrich said.

For now, those padded plas­tic Ama­zon mail­ers can be re­cy­cled once con­sumers re­move the la­bel and bring the mailer to drop-off sites found out­side some chain stores. Clean, dry and in ag­gre­gate, such plas­tic can be melted and made into com­pos­ite lum­ber for decks. Cities with plas­ticbag bans, like Ama­zon’s home­town of Seat­tle, con­tain fewer drop-off sites.

Only 4 per­cent of plas­tic film ac­crued by U.S. house­holds is re­cy­cled through col­lec­tion pro­grams at gro­cery and big-box stores, ac­cord­ing to a 2017 Closed Loop re­port about U.S. re­cy­cling. The other 96 per­cent be­comes garbage, even if put into curb­side re­cy­cling, and ends up in land­fills.

Some coun­tries put the onus on com­pa­nies to take greater fi­nan­cial and man­age­ment re­spon­si­bil­ity for their prod­ucts af­ter con­sumers have fin­ished us­ing them. In these sys­tems, com­pa­nies pay fees based on how much waste their prod­ucts and pack­ag­ing con­trib­ute.

To com­ply with its le­gal obli­ga­tions, Ama­zon pays these fees in some coun­tries out­side of the United States.

Amid the im­mense patch­work of U.S. re­cy­cling laws, such re­quire­ments have not yet gained fed­eral fa­vor, ex­cept for spe­cific, toxic and valu­able ma­te­ri­als such as elec­tron­ics and bat­ter­ies.

The phys­i­cal lock­ers Ama­zon main­tains for con­sumers to return prod­ucts could ac­cept used pack­ag­ing, ex­perts sug­gested, adding that Ama­zon could com­mit to re­cy­cling that plas­tic for future use in its ship­ping mail­ers.

“They could do a re­verse dis­tri­bu­tion, tak­ing ma­te­ri­als back to their dis­tri­bu­tions sys­tem,” said Scott Cas­sel, of the Prod­uct Stew­ard­ship In­sti­tute, a non­profit fo­cused on re­duc­ing the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of con­sumer prod­ucts.

ALEX KRAUS/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Ama­zon’s new blue-and-white plas­tic ship­ping en­ve­lope isn’t eas­ily re­cy­cled.

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