Environmental group says Amazon's use of plastic skyrocketed last year

Up to 23.5 million pounds of plastic from retail giant Amazon entered waterways across the globe last year, according to a report published Wednesday from environmental group Oceana.

Amazon, the world's largest retailer, produced a total of 599 million pounds of plastic waste in 2020, a 29 percent increase from 2019, following a surge in e-commerce shopping during the pandemic. Only a small portion of the plastic waste entered the world's oceans and waters, but that was an increase from 22.4 million pounds in 2019.

The e-commerce industry as a whole produced 2.9 billion pounds of plastic in 2020, Oceana reported, with China and the U.S. leading with the highest amount of waste generated globally.

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Only 9 percent of plastic is ever recycled, with the rest going to incinerators, landfills or the oceans — where marine life is often killed when sea critters consume it or become entangled in the garbage.

Amazon was criticized by Oceana for what it described as a leading role in polluting the world with plastic. Amazon has made big commitments to ban single-use plastic in India and Germany, but not the rest of the world.

"They just need to step up," said Matt Littlejohn, the senior vice president for strategic initiatives at Oceana, to The Hill. "They've made pretty meaningful commitments in Germany and India. If they can do it in Germany, they can do it globally. And we found customers want this ... they want plastic-free alternatives."

In a statement, Amazon contested Oceana's data of Amazon's plastic production, saying the group's estimate was 300 percent higher Amazon's own estimate. In an email, an Amazon spokesperson criticized the Oceana report for relying on industry reports and market share data to estimate Amazon's production.

 

Littlejohn, who acknowledged that Amazon did not share data for the Oceana study, said it was based on trade data and a report published in the journal Science last year called "Predicted Growth In Plastic Waste."

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He also said that even if Oceana's estimate was off, Amazon was still contributing to a great deal of plastic pollution.

He also called on the company to release their own data, or at least share it.

"They should quantify their footprint and say what it is," he said. "It's not very useful for us [when] trying to show the extent of the problem."

An Amazon spokesperson said the company welcomed "informed, constructive dialogue with NGOs and others on these issues," but criticized Oceana's methods.

"Amazon shares Oceana’s ambition to protect the world’s oceans and respects their work but, for a second year, their calculations are seriously flawed," the spokesperson said, saying most plastic pollution comes from the takeout and fast food market. ""Amazon is making rapid progress in reducing or removing single-use plastics from packaging materials around the world."

Billions of pounds of plastic pollution enter the world's oceans every year, and plastic production is expected to quadruple by 2050. While most plastic is not recycled, Amazon uses a type of plastic in the category of plastic film, which is difficult to recycle.

On Amazon's Second Chance webpage, the company advertises how customers can recycle its products and give them a second life. But Oceana sent "secret shoppers" to 186 stores that claim they recycle Amazon packaging products.

The shoppers found 41 percent of stores did not accept Amazon plastic for recycling and 80 percent of managers said they were not familiar with the recycling program.

Oceana also interviewed 1,400 Amazon shoppers, and roughly 74 percent of them put Amazon plastic into municipal recycling bins, meaning the waste likely ended up in landfills or the environment.

Amazon has reduced plastic waste in India after the government announced it would ban single-use plastic. The retailer swapped out bubble wraps and air pillows for paper cushions and announced all other packaging material was 100 percent recyclable.

The company is doing the same in Germany, where it produced 88 million pounds of plastic waste in 2020.

The Amazon spokesperson mentioned they were also making big commitments in Europe, Japan and Australia, including by switching to paper-based mailers and paper packing material instead of plastic ones.

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Through its "frustration-free packaging" program, which Amazon rolled out in 2008, the company says it has reduced 1 million tons of packaging material since 2015, increased recycled content of plastic film products to 50 percent in 2021, and converted more than 40 percent of packaging material to recyclable plastic padded bags.

"Together, these improvements are expected to eliminate more than 25,000 metric tons of new plastic each year," the company says on its website.

But customers surveyed by Oceana say they want Amazon to do more to reduce plastic waste. And more than 740,000 people have signed onto a petition on change.org to get Amazon to offer plastic-free packaging options.

Littlejohn said current forecasts show a dramatic increase in plastic waste in the coming years, which could become increasingly dangerous for the environment if companies like Amazon don't do more to curb pollution.
 
He called on Amazon, which is "defining how products are packaged," to "offer a plastic-free option at checkout, not just because their customers want it, but because our oceans need it."
 
"We've really gotten into plastics because scientists say this is such a problem," he said. "And we think Amazon can show the way."
 
Oceana echoed those calls for more major reform.

"The company is now defining how products are packaged. It must stop hiding behind false and ineffective solutions, like plastic film recycling, and instead, do what it is doing in India and in Germany all around the planet," said Littlejohn. "We’re calling on Amazon to offer a plastic-free option at checkout — not just because their customers want it, but because our oceans need it."

The Hill has reached out to Oceana and Amazon.

This story was updated 3:19 p.m.