Illustration by Katie Ferreol

Amazon Should Be At The Forefront Of A Plastic-Free Future

Keeping in consideration Amazon’s market influence and its devastating contributions to environmental degradation and the climate crisis, the e-commerce giant can, and more importantly should, be at the forefront of a plastic-free future.

Apr 18, 2021

For most people, the year 2020 was difficult. But for Jeff Bezos and Amazon, it turned out to be remarkably financially rewarding. His company's global revenues increased by 38 percent from the previous year and Amazon sold over 1.5 billion items during the holiday season of 2020 alone. Did you need a book, a disposable surgical mask, a new phone or a freakishly expensive hand sanitizer?
Amazon was most likely your online shopping destination. Consumer comfort and, consequently, corporate benefit rose from the nature of the pandemic, where many were confined indoors for extended periods of time. And, sadly, plastic. Lots and lots of plastic.
Of course, Amazon is only one of many businesses that uses plastic packaging to ship their goods. However, considering its immense scale and scope, the organization should be leading the charge to eliminate single-use plastic packaging for the goods it sells globally. Amazon says it has eliminated single-use plastic packaging at more than 50 of its distribution centers in India as an example of what is possible. Elsewhere, it still has a long way to go.
Amazon used an approximate 465 million pounds of plastic packaging in 2019. Up to 22 million pounds of Amazon's plastic packaging waste ended up as garbage in freshwater and marine environments around the world. In 2021, these figures are expected to increase. The company has stated it uses flexible packaging to help protect the climate and environment but has not publicly disclosed the data underlying this claim, which questions the motive of such a statement.
Packaging is the main market for plastic resins in the United States, accounting for 31 percent of the total market share in 2019. Food and beverage packaging accounts for a large portion of this, but e-commerce packaging is increasingly expanding. Plastic contaminates and accumulates in terrestrial and marine food chains and in the water supply until it enters the atmosphere in the form of macroplastics or microplastics. When plastic particles decay, new surface areas become visible, allowing additives to begin to leach from the particle's center to the atmosphere or the human body. Therefore, this problem contributes to the ongoing climate crisis. Plastics have even been found in human placentas. These plastics have the ability to disrupt the endocrine system and microplastics that enter the human body through direct ingestion or inhalation may cause inflammation, genotoxicity, diabetes and autoimmune disorders, among other health effects.
Moreover, plastic pollution is an environmental justice problem. In 2018, China stopped accepting the world’s waste including plastic, paper and textile. This meant that plastic waste would go to more vulnerable communities in Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia. Often, for disposal purposes, this waste would be burned and the subsequent release of toxic gases affects the vulnerable in these countries. Further, large corporations push to maintain the plastic pollution status quo, as it generates a higher profit margin. Certainly, consumers should bear some responsibility for plastic waste. With Amazon’s large and efficient distribution network, customers pay for convenience. It also has a diverse range of products; it sells its own goods as well as acts as a clearinghouse for other companies. Small and medium-sized companies sold an average of 6,500 items per minute on Amazon in the 12 months leading up to May, according to an Amazon report from 2020.
When it comes to environmental issues, good solutions are generally multifaceted. We need policies that reduce single-use plastic at the source and encourage the use of recycled alternatives. Furthermore, Amazon and other e-commerce firms should provide customers with the option of plastic-free delivery. For those who choose to opt out of plastic packaging, Amazon should provide discounted delivery in order to incentivize customers to move toward minimal plastic usage. For secondary shipping, i.e. shipping directly from sellers rather than Amazon, the company might create a plastic-use index that informs customers how much single-use plastic is used in a shipment.
Further, with the impressive intellectual capital at its disposal, Amazon should invest not only in developing safer, more environmentally-friendly biodegradable plastics and sustainability research, but also consider how the e-commerce giant can radically realign economic benefits to incentivize businesses and customers to minimize single-use plastics. Amazon has so much market influence that it can exert considerable pressure on other e-commerce giants and market players to make these improvements. More importantly, Amazon has the moral obligation to do so, given the vast natural resources it has polluted and exploited. By using its influence, Amazon can avoid the need for government intervention.
Stefan Mitikj is a staff writer. Email him at
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