New investigation calls for accountability: Amazon's plastic packaging isn't as recyclable as it claims

A delivery wrapped in plastic packaging with an Amazon logo

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Feeling guilty about all those blue-and-white plastic Amazon bags piling up around the house? Fear not — they can be recycled! At least, that’s what the packaging says.

For years now, Amazon’s plastic bags, bubble-lined mailers, and air pillows have featured the ubiquitous “chasing arrows” recycling symbol along with the words “store drop-off.”

The idea is simple: Since most curbside recycling programs don’t accept this type of plastic — it’s too expensive to process and can clog machines — consumers can instead leave it at retail stores across the country. From there, this plastic, known as “film,” will go to a specialized facility and be turned into new products.

The problem, however, is that the system doesn’t seem to be working.

An investigation published Tuesday by the nonprofits Environment America and U.S. Public Interest Research Group, or U.S. PIRG, suggests that only a small fraction of Amazon’s plastic packaging makes it to a material recovery facility, the term for operations that sort glass, metal, plastic, and other items for recycling.

The packaging is much more likely to end up in a landfill, incinerator, export terminal, or in the hands of a company that downcycles plastic film into things like benches.

The report adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that store drop-off programs are an ineffective solution to the escalating plastic pollution crisis. According to environmental groups, these programs help justify the ongoing production of single-use plastic, helping manufacturers and retailers evade accountability while alleviating consumer guilt.

“The store drop-off system is really not working, and plastic film is not recyclable,” said Jenn Engstrom, state director of U.S. PIRG’s California chapter and a co-author of the report.

To find out what happens to Amazon’s plastic packaging, U.S. PIRG and Environment America attached small tracking devices — mostly Apple AirTags — to 93 bundles of Amazon plastic packaging marked for store drop-off and deposited them at retailers in 10 states.

These stores, which were listed in an online directory, included mostly supermarkets like Safeway, Sprouts, Publix, Fred Meyer, QFC, and Whole Foods, although some bundles were placed at outlets like Kohl’s or Home Depot.

A delivery wrapped in plastic packaging with an Amazon logo
Robert Michael / Picture Alliance via Getty Images

The report authors were able to determine the fate of about half the bundles, since, as expected, many of the trackers likely died before reaching a final destination. Of those that survived, 13 went to a landfill, two went to a waste incinerator, and three went to the Port of Los Angeles, suggesting that the bundles were destined for processing or disposal overseas.

Only four trackers eventually made their way to a material recovery facility that sorts plastics for recycling. U.S. PIRG and Environment America said they were able to contact three of those facilities: Two specifically said they do not accept Amazon packaging, and the third said it accepts only paper and cardboard.

Two dozen trackers ended up in the hands of Trex, a company that makes benches and decking out of discarded plastic. But U.S. PIRG and Environment America question whether Trex is using Amazon packaging in its products; the contents of store drop-off bins are often littered with food and beverages, likely rendering this plastic too contaminated to use in manufacturing.

Trex did not respond to Grist’s request for comment, but a similar company reports getting 70 to 80 percent of its plastic from “back-of-the-house shrink wrap,” referring to the material wrapped around shipping pallets, which tends to be cleaner than postconsumer plastic.

Meanwhile, a Trex executive told Bloomberg News last year that there is not enough demand for recycled material to make store drop-off successful.

“All the claims the companies are making are just greenwashing,” he told Bloomberg. “Recycling’s failed.”

While USPIRG and Environment America’s investigation may be the largest of its kind, it isn’t the first to find flaws in the store drop-off system. Last year, Bloomberg tracked 30 bundles of packaging and wrappers marked with the store drop-off icon and found that 13 of them — more than 40 percent — ended up at U.S. landfills.

Just four made it to locations that can recycle plastic. A similar effort from ABC News found that about half of 46 bundles of plastic bags went to landfills and incinerators, while only four went to facilities “that say they are involved with recycling plastic bags.”

Jan Dell, an independent chemical engineer and founder of the environmental nonprofit The Least Beach Cleanup, has been deploying her own trackers too.

Since December 2022, she hasn’t traced a single bundle of film labeled for store drop-off to U.S. facilities that can turn the material into new bags. Twelve bundles have been sent to a landfill or waste station, and one to an incinerator. Four appeared to have traveled to Mexico, Vietnam, or Malaysia, countries that generally lack adequate recycling infrastructure.

“They’re absolutely lying with these labels,” Dell said. The store drop-off system has “never worked, it was never true.”

The labels in question are produced by an initiative called How2Recycle, which began selling them to big companies in 2012 — supposedly to clear up confusion among consumers and retailers about which products could be recycled.

The initiative issues several versions of the recycling icon, with the one marked “store drop-off” reserved for products, like plastic bags and film, that aren’t accepted in curbside recycling programs.

The store drop-off labels direct consumers to How2Recycle’s website, which links to a directory of retail locations with collection receptacles.

Until last year, that directory was found at BagandFilmDirectory.org and featured more than 18,000 locations — but the consulting firm managing it shut it down following ABC News’ investigation, citing a lack of “real commitment from the industry,” as well as insufficient funding.

Many of the locations listed did not actually have a receptacle, while the Target and Walmart locations appeared to be disposing of, rather than recycling, much of the film they received.

“There’s more of an illusion of stuff getting recycled than there actually is because there is an imbalance in supply and demand,” Nina Butler, CEO of the consulting firm, told ABC News. How2Recycle now links customers to a different directory hosted at Earth911. How2Recycle did not respond to Grist’s request for comment.

As scrutiny has increased over the use of the store drop-off label, some companies have pledged to stop using it altogether. Mondelez, which owns brands including Oreo and Ritz, said in March 2023 that it plans to phase out the label by 2025.

Dell said she’s also noticed the label’s disappearance from packaging sold by Target and Georgia Pacific, a company that sells toilet paper, paper towels, and other pulp products. Target and Georgia Pacific did not respond to Grist’s request for comment.

Amazon, for its part, did not respond to Grist’s questions about its use of the store drop-off label. When Dell asked the company, during a Zoom meeting in 2020 that she shared with Grist, to provide evidence that its packaging is widely recycled through the store drop-off program — as required by California law — an Amazon spokesperson told the state recycling commission that the company has “really high confidence that store drop-off is a solution that is available in California.”

Pat Lindner, Amazon’s vice president of mechatronics and sustainable packaging, told Grist that the company has no control over how its packaging is handled “once it has been disposed of by municipalities or recycling centers.”

A spokesperson said the company is investing in better recycling infrastructure while also reducing plastics use overall.

As of last year, for example, Amazon has eliminated plastic from shipments delivered in Europe, likely in response to EU regulations banning several categories of single-use plastic. The company also eliminated plastic packaging in India after Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to ban single-use plastic nationwide by 2022.

In the U.S. last year, Amazon launched an automated fulfillment center in Euclid, Ohio, that uses paper exclusively instead of plastic packaging, and the company said it’s ramping up a program to ship items in their original packages instead of extra plastic ones.

The company also said in a 2022 sustainability report that it was “phasing out padded bags containing plastics in favor of recyclable alternatives,” but the spokesperson did not address Grist’s request to clarify the timeline for this transition.

Environmental advocates agree that Amazon has made progress, but say it should be doing more to reduce the hundreds of millions of pounds of single-use plastic trash it generates every year — and that it should remove the How2Recycle symbol from its packaging.

In California, where state legislation often sets a national standard, a truth-in-advertising law signed by the governor in 2021 may soon restrict the use of store drop-off labels unless companies can prove that the system is effective.

A separate law will require single-use plastic packaging sold in the state to be demonstrably recycled at least 65 percent of the time by 2032, a threshold that may push manufacturers toward paper, which is far easier to recycle.

Article Details

March 26, 2024 7:22 AM
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