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Tide of Plastic: Amazon’s Plastic Waste Soars in 2021, Says Report

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Ocean conservation group
has a message for
: Slash the plastic packaging that is polluting the world’s waterways and seas and threatening marine life. 

According to a new report from the organization, Amazon (ticker: AMZN) produced an estimated 709 million pounds of plastic packaging waste—which includes mailers, Bubble Wrap, inflatable pillows, film, and other types of protective packaging—in 2021, a jump of 18% from 2020.

Amazon, however, said Oceana’s numbers are “exaggerated and inaccurate” and based “on a lot of assumptions.”

“While we share Oceana’s commitment to protect the world’s oceans and respect their work, they continue to release flawed data and overinflated information about our business,” Amazon said, adding: “Since we have the actual data and numbers to do the calculations, we know that our figures are accurate.”

On Tuesday, Amazon published a blog outlining how the company is reducing its packaging.

In 2021, the retailer said it used 97,222 metric tons—about 214 million pounds—of single-use plastic for its “outbound packaging,” which “represents the vast majority of our plastic packaging footprint.”

Oceana welcomed the new information. “After refusing for years to be transparent about its global plastic packaging footprint, Amazon has taken a step in the right direction by disclosing information on the amount of plastic packaging it uses for part of its business,” Matt Littlejohn, Oceana’s senior vice president for strategic initiatives, said in a statement.

But, he added, the reported figure of roughly 214 million pounds isn’t directly comparable to Oceana’s estimate, which was calculated by analyzing e-commerce and packaging market data and includes all sales through Amazon’s e-commerce platforms globally.

Littlejohn said it was disappointing that Amazon “is not stepping forward and making a commitment on plastic, like many other big companies are.”

Oceana said that up to 26 million pounds of Amazon’s plastic waste produced in 2021 would end up in the world’s oceans and waterways and that the type of plastic used by the giant retailer—plastic film—can be damaging to marine life. Whales, dolphins, and turtles are especially at risk from eating plastic film. 

Every year, an estimated 33 billion pounds of plastic leak into oceans—roughly equivalent to dumping two garbage trucks full of plastic into the oceans every 60 seconds, Oceana said. 

“It’s a crisis for the oceans,” said Littlejohn. “It’s important, given Amazon’s pre-eminent role as the world’s largest retailer, that they show the way forward.” 

As for how much ends up in oceans and waterways, Amazon reiterated that Oceana’s estimates are inaccurate and an oversimplification.

The international advocacy group called on Amazon to reduce the total amount of plastic packaging it uses by at least a third below 2022 level by 2030; publicly report on its plastic footprint; and report on and take responsibility for the climate impact of all its products sold through the e-commerce website and the packaging used for shipping the items.

Plastic bags and packaging film are among the least recyclable plastic products.

Craig Cookson, senior director of plastics sustainability at the American Chemistry Council, an industry group representing plastics manufacturers, said plastic film and flexible plastics “aren’t commonly recycled curbside across the U.S.” but that the industry is working to change that.

“Plastics don’t belong in the ocean,” he said. “They have a lot of great uses, but we need to do a better job as an industry and society in recycling our plastics.”

Jan Dell, an independent chemical engineer and founder of the nonprofit the Last Beach Cleanup, disputes claims that plastic pouches and air bags, such as those used by Amazon, are recyclable. The retailer should shift its plastic packaging from plastic film to paper and cardboard, which is recyclable, she says, adding: “There’s an obvious alternative; a good solution.” 

In a statement emailed to Barron’s, Amazon said it is “working to minimize its packaging altogether” and that its “plastic mailers and air pillows have the How2Recycle label and can be dropped off for recycling at participating Store Drop-Off locations.” In cases where the company can’t eliminate the packaging materials altogether, Amazon is “looking into replacing plastics with existing alternative material options that are more readily recyclable today.”

Investors are increasingly paying attention to the issue of single-use plastics and waste. In May, nearly half of Amazon’s shareholders—48.9%—voted in favor of a non-binding shareholder resolution from As You Sow, supported by Oceana, calling on the company to address its growing plastic packaging problem. 

“It’s clear, based on the response we’ve gotten to the campaign, that more and more investors are concerned about the plastic pollution crisis and want Amazon and other companies to take action to address it,” said Littlejohn.

Plastics are mostly made from fossil fuels, and only a fraction are recycled. One reason is that it is much cheaper to make most types of plastic from scratch than it is to recycle used plastic into something new. The price of virgin plastic has fallen thanks to cheap natural gas from fracking. 

According to the most recent data estimates available from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), just three million tons, or 8.7 percent, of the plastic that was discarded in the U.S. in 2018 was recycled.  

Write to Lauren Foster at


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