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.
Amazon, of course, is only one company among thousands using plastic packaging to ship its products. But given its enormous size and reach, the company should spearhead the elimination of single-use plastic packaging worldwide for the products it sells. As a sign of what is possible, Amazon says it has phased out single-use plastic packaging at its more than 50 fulfillment centers in India.
Elsewhere, it still has a long way to go.
In the United States, Amazon advertises its packaging as recyclable, and points consumers to chain retailers and supermarkets with drop-off recycling programs. But these programs will generally not accept air pillows and envelopes unless the paper labels are removed entirely. Challenges created by the pandemic and decidedly stubborn adhesive also make this endeavor anything but “Frustration-Free,” despite Amazon’s certified claims.
And Amazon may own Whole Foods, “the first and only certified organic national grocery store,” as the company puts it, but a trip down most of the aisles demonstrates the ubiquity of single-use plastic packaging — from the produce section, where you can find pre-cut fruit in plastic containers, to the deli counter, where your sliced turkey is placed in a plastic bag.
There are several routes Amazon — and other e-commerce companies — can take to reduce their plastic footprint. First, and easiest, these companies should honor consumers who want plastic-free shipping. Amazon should offer reduced shipping costs for those who want to forgo plastic packaging. For secondary shipping (meaning shipping directly from sellers, not Amazon), the company could develop a plastic-use index that allows consumers to know how much single-use plastics those businesses use in a package.
Amazon should also put to work its in-house brain trust — the company is one of the biggest employers of Ph.D. economists in the United States — to develop more economic incentives to help consumers and corporations break free of single-use plastics. Finally, the sustainability research arm of Amazon Science could hire applied scientists to create packaging that breaks down safely on land and in the ocean.
Amazon has such enormous market power that it could do much to force these changes throughout the economy. This would sidestep the need for government action.
We know Amazon has the capabilities. Its accomplishment in India is one example. And the company claims to have eliminated more than one million tons of plastic, cardboard and paper from its packaging since 2015. Now it needs to build on that record. By eliminating single-use plastics globally, Amazon could be the model for other multinational companies, as well as part of the solution instead of a major contributor to the plastic problem.
Dr. Pamela L. Geller is an associate professor of anthropology and Dr. Christopher Parmeter is an associate professor of economics at the University of Miami.
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