Amazon’s plastic use surges despite global cutback initiatives

Amazon's journey towards global sustainability hits a snag on home soil, as a recent report unveils a surge in plastic waste across the United States.

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As Amazon strides toward sustainability on a global scale, its environmental footprint in the United States presents a paradoxical challenge. The retail behemoth, known for its swift and expansive delivery network, has made commendable progress in reducing plastic packaging worldwide. However, a recent report by Oceana, a prominent U.S. marine conservation group, sheds light on an unsettling trend: a significant uptick in plastic waste generated by Amazon within the U.S., even as the company pledges to phase out plastics internationally.

In 2022, Amazon’s plastic footprint in the U.S. swelled to 208 million pounds, likened to the staggering weight of nearly 14,000 large African elephants. This 9.8% increase from the previous year starkly contrasts with the company’s global efforts, which saw an 11.6% reduction in plastic packaging. Europe, in particular, witnessed Amazon’s shift from plastic delivery sleeves to more sustainable paper and cardboard alternatives, spurred by stringent EU regulations targeting single-use plastics.

Oceana’s analysis, grounded in industry data and Amazon’s market disclosures, underscores the dire environmental ramifications of such plastic reliance. The group estimates that a portion of Amazon’s global plastic packaging, up to 22 million pounds, inevitably finds its way into waterways and oceans, posing a severe threat to marine ecosystems. This aligns with a 2020 study published in Science, which revealed that 11% of global plastic waste entered aquatic environments in 2016, highlighting the urgent need for corporate accountability in addressing plastic pollution.

Matt Littlejohn, Oceana’s senior vice-president of strategic initiatives, criticized the persistent use of non-recyclable plastic films, emphasizing Amazon’s capacity for innovation. “Amazon is one of the most innovative companies on the planet… They have just got to get on with solving it. They know what to do,” Littlejohn stated, calling for the company to extend its European plastic reduction success to the U.S. market.

Amazon has contested Oceana’s findings, labeling the analysis as “misleading” and underscoring its global achievements in diminishing plastic usage. While the company refrained from providing specific U.S. data to counter the report, it highlighted initiatives aimed at reducing per-shipment packaging weight, which have purportedly eliminated over 2 million tons of packaging material since 2015. Amazon also spotlighted its inaugural automated U.S. fulfillment center in Ohio, which has pioneered the replacement of plastic fillers with paper alternatives, as part of its broader mission to “reduce or eliminate packaging altogether, including the use of single-use plastic.”

The discourse surrounding Amazon’s plastic practices unfolds against a backdrop of increasing awareness and concern over plastic pollution’s pervasive impacts. From urban litter to the contamination of remote polar regions, the presence of microplastics in the environment—fragmented particles found in human bloodstreams, placentas, and the very air we breathe—signals a pressing ecological crisis that transcends corporate boundaries.

The imminent UN negotiations in Canada for a comprehensive treaty to curb plastic pollution represent a pivotal moment in the global environmental agenda. Activists and environmental groups advocate for a robust treaty that not only restricts single-use plastics but also overhauls a frequently misleading recycling system. In a symbolic gesturem Agenda Antárctica has redesigned Antarctica’s unofficial flag to reflect the continent’s microplastic contamination, a poignant reminder of plastic’s far-reaching effects.

Graham Bartram, the vexillologist behind the original and redesigned flags, said: “I don’t think plastics are inherently evil; they can be very useful, but we can use them sensibly… Let’s face it: we only have one planet, it’s not like we have a back-up plan of moving to another one next door.”

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