Amazon’s new streamlined packaging is jamming up recycling centers

Amazon's new plastic packaging should be recycled at grocery store dropoffs, but much of it is finding its way into recycling centers and jamming the machines. (123RF)

Over the past year, Amazon has reduced the portion of shipments it packs in its cardboard boxes in favor of lightweight plastic mailers, which enable the retailing giant to squeeze more packages in delivery trucks and planes.

But environmental activists and waste experts say the new plastic sacks, which aren’t recyclable in curbside recycling bins, are having a negative effect.

“That Amazon packaging suffers from the same problems as plastic bags, which are not sortable in our recycling system and get caught in the machinery,” said Lisa Sepanski, project manager for King County Solid Waste Division, which oversees recycling in King County, Washington, where Amazon is based. “It takes labor to cut them out. They have to stop the machinery.”

The recent holiday season, the busiest for e-commerce, meant ever more shipments — creating a massive hangover of packaging waste. As the platform behind half of all e-commerce transactions in 2018, according to eMarketer, Amazon is by far the biggest shipper and producer of that waste — and a trendsetter, meaning that its switch to plastic mailers could signal a shift across the industry. Other retailers that use similar plastic mailers include Target, which declined to comment.

The problem with the plastic mailers is twofold: They need to be recycled separately, and if they end up in the usual stream, they gum up recycling systems and prevent larger bundles of materials from being recycled. Environmental advocates say Amazon, as the industry giant, needs to do a better job of encouraging consumers to recycle by providing more education and alternative places to bring that plastic for recycling.

“We are continually working to improve our packaging and recycling options, and have reduced packaging waste by more than 20 percent globally in 2018,” said Amazon spokeswoman Melanie Janin. She added that Amazon provides recycling information on its website. (Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Amazon’s goal to reduce bulkier cardboard is the right move, said a number of waste experts. And plastic mailers have some positives for the environment. They take up less space in containers and trucks than boxes, making shipping more efficient. Fewer greenhouse gases are emitted — and less petroleum consumed — by the production, use and disposal of plastic film compared with recycled cardboard, said David ­Allaway, senior policy analyst for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Materials Management Program.

Plastic is so cheap and enduring that many companies use it for packaging. But consumers are prone to put plastic sacks into recycling bins. Plastic mailers escape the notice of sorting machines and get into bales of paper bound for recycling, contaminating entire bundles, outweighing the positive effect of reducing bulky cardboard shipments, experts say. Paper bundles used to fetch a high price on international markets and had long sustained profits in the recycling industry. But mixed bales are so hard to sell — because of stricter laws in China, where many are sent for recycling — that many West Coast recycling companies must trash them instead.

Another problem with the new padded plastic mailers is that Amazon and other retailers affix a paper address label that renders them unfit to be recycled, even at a store drop-off location. The label needs to be removed, separating the paper from the plastic, in order for the material to be recyclable.

For now, those padded plastic Amazon mailers can be recycled once consumers remove the label and bring the mailer to drop-off sites found outside some chain stores. Clean, dry and in aggregate, such plastic can be melted and made into composite lumber for decks. Cities with plastic-bag bans, like Amazon’s hometown of Seattle, contain fewer drop-off sites.

Only 4 percent of plastic film accrued by U.S. households is recycled through collection programs at grocery and big-box stores, according to a 2017 Closed Loop report about U.S. recycling. The other 96 percent becomes garbage, even if put into curbside recycling, and ends up in landfills.

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