Amazon’s plastic packaging problem is growing, Oceana report finds

The report found that Amazon produced 709 million pounds of plastic packaging waste in 2021, up 18 percent from the 599 million pounds Oceana estimated it produced in 2020.

Image Credit: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

Amazon produced enough plastic packaging in 2021 to wrap the Earth more than 800 times in air pillows.

That’s one of the alarming statistics from Oceana’s third annual report on the plastic packaging waste generated by the e-commerce giant. 

“The science is clear, the type of plastic used by Amazon for its packaging is a threat to the oceans,” Oceana’s Senior Vice President for Strategic Initiatives Matt Littlejohn said in a press release emailed to EcoWatch. “Customers and shareholders are calling for the company to act. It’s time for Amazon to, as it has on climate, step up and commit to a global reduction in its use of plastic packaging.” 

The report found that Amazon produced 709 million pounds of plastic packaging waste in 2021, up 18 percent from the 599 million pounds Oceana estimated it produced in 2020. What’s more, calculations based on a 2020 peer-reviewed study published in Science found that as much as 26 million pounds of that waste will end up in the oceans or other bodies of water. 

This is particularly concerning because the leading type of plastic Amazon uses in its packaging is plastic film, which has been shown to harm marine life. A 2021 study cited by Oceana found that plastic film was the most common type of plastic found in nearshore ocean ecosystems and that film-based bags, wrappers and industrial packaging were the first, fourth and eighth most frequent plastics found in the environment overall. 

The report comes two days after a blog post from Amazon about its plans to reduce plastic. In the post, Amazon said it had reduced its packaging weight per shipment by more than seven percent during 2021 and had therefore only used 97,222 metric tons (approximately 214 million pounds) of single-use plastic in shipping last year. That’s 495 pounds less than Oceana’s estimate. 

Littlejohn explained the discrepancy in a statement. 

“Oceana’s estimate includes all sales through Amazon’s e-commerce platforms globally, whereas Amazon’s figure only includes plastic packaging used for all orders sent through Amazon-owned and operated fulfillment centers across its global operations network,” he said. “This excludes orders made on Amazon’s e-commerce platforms and fulfilled through third-party sellers. It is unclear how much of Amazon’s total sales are sent through the company’s fulfillment centers. Amazon has declined to disclose this information to Oceana.”

He further noted that the company did not account for a 22 percent growth in sales between 2020 and 2021, which would inevitably increase its plastics footprint. That said, Oceana did credit the company for offering an estimate of its single-use plastic use, something it had not done before. 

In the blog post, Amazon also promised to do more to reduce plastic packaging, such as reducing the size of packages to better fit products, using alternative materials like padded paper, increasing the recycled content ratio of its U.S. packaging film from 25 to 50 percent and working with the industry on plastic pollution solutions. 

“While we are making progress, we’re not satisfied. We have work to do to continue to reduce packaging, particularly plastic packaging that’s harder to recycle, and we are undertaking a range of initiatives to do so,” Amazon said. 

However, Oceana wants to see Amazon set specific plastic reduction targets, as it has for greenhouse gas emissions with its pledge to be net-zero by 2040. 

“While Oceana acknowledges that the company has taken an important step towards increased transparency, it is disappointing that Amazon continues to deny that single-use plastic pollution is a problem that merits specific global reduction goals,” Littlejohn said in a statement. 

Oceana is calling on Amazon to take three specific steps to reduce plastic packaging:

  1. Set a target of cutting plastic packaging by at least one third of 2022 levels by 2030.
  2. Publish a verified report on the plastic packaging used for all items shipped through its website.
  3. Publish a report on the climate impact of all products shipped on the website, including the plastic packaging. 

Oceana is not alone in wanting action from Amazon. More than 740,000 Amazon customers want zero-plastic packaging options, according to The Hill. Further, nearly 49 percent of shares voted in favor of a plastic packaging reduction resolution at Amazon’s May 2022 Annual General Meeting, Oceana said in the press release. The measure ultimately failed to pass.


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