Amazon should offer a plastic-free packaging choice at checkout – not force us to pollute

Up to 22.44 million pounds of Amazon’s plastic packaging ended up in the world’s freshwater and marine ecosystems as pollution in 2019

Andrew Sharpless
Wednesday 30 June 2021 10:42 BST
Attenborough addresses world leaders as G7 summit draws to close

Early Portuguese explorers of Latin America noticed a change in the seawater off the coast of Brazil. Still, out of sight of land, the ocean water becomes drinkable. It is the taste of the biggest river in the world. Even 100 miles off the coast, the Amazon makes its immense presence felt. It’s big enough to change the ocean.

Its namesake is doing the same thing now. But it seems the saltwater signature of the online retailer is not sweetwater – it’s plastic pollution.

Amazon has chosen to fill many of the billions of packages it will ship this year with plastic packaging, often in the form of small air-filled pillows. Amazon is using a material that lasts for centuries after its single use. This is bad design. Throw-away plastic packaging produces a very predictable outcome. It pollutes.

If you don’t like what ocean plastic pollution is doing to your ocean today, then prepare yourself for what Amazon’s extraordinary growth could do to your future ocean. The company’s total annual revenue increased by more than $100 billion (£72 billion) or 38 per cent from 2019 to 2020. Unless we take action, economy-wide estimates are that plastic production will quadruple by 2050.

Research suggests that only 9 per cent of all the plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. The rest ends up in landfills, incinerators, or the environment, where it often washes into the sea. There it breaks down into smaller and smaller particles, but those particles are still plastic.

And it harms and even kills. The examples are everywhere. In South Carolina, a sea turtle centre found almost 60 pieces of plastic that a loggerhead sea turtle defecated during its rehabilitation. In Florida, a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle was found entangled in a plastic bag that had become filled with sand. The turtle was dead – likely drowned from the weight of the bag. In New Jersey, a plastic bag was the only item found in the stomach of a dead pygmy sperm whale. A beaked whale died in 2019 after ingesting 88 pounds of plastic.

The evidence is not just these anecdotes. Studies estimate that 90 per cent of all seabirds and more than half of all sea turtles, have ingested plastic. A recent report by Oceana, the international ocean conservation NGO I lead, found nearly 1,800 cases of plastic ingestion and entanglement by sea turtles or marine mammals from 2009 to 2020 in our survey of 13 different USA government agencies and marine life organizations. Eighty-eight per cent of the affected animals are species listed as threatened or endangered by extinction under U.S. law.

Amazon’s choice to use plastic throwaway packaging is contributing to this horrible problem. Up to 22.44 million pounds of Amazon’s plastic packaging ended up in the world’s freshwater and marine ecosystems as pollution in 2019, according to Oceana’s estimates. This is roughly equivalent to a delivery van’s worth of plastic being dumped into major rivers, lakes, and the oceans every 70 minutes. The company’s choice to use plastic film is especially egregious. Only 4 per cen of plastic film was recycled in the United States, according to a 2017 industry report.

Oceana and our allies are making a simple ask of Amazon: Give customers a plastic-free choice at checkout. Don’t force us to accept a package full of plastic pollution. Give us the freedom to choose an Amazon package that is healthy for the ocean.

Why does Amazon – a company famous for giving people countless product choices – not do this already? Because it’s impossible? No, they can do it. In fact, they’ve already eliminated plastic packaging in India.

They could do it for the rest of the world too.

Amazon has the system-wide engineering skill, the resources, and the market position to lead the transition that will save the ocean from plastic pollution. What’s missing, it seems, is the will to act.

On 5 July, outgoing CEO Jeff Bezos will make way for Andy Jassy to usher in a new leadership regime. As only the second CEO in Amazon’s 27-year history, Jassy inherits one of the most valuable companies in the world and the responsibility to solve its enormous plastic problem. The timing of this transition fortuitously comes just as environmental advocates around the world begin to observe Plastic-Free July.

Mr. Jassy has said: “One of the mistakes that leaders make sometimes is they get too far away from the details of the business.” Amazon’s new CEO cannot continue to ignore this detail: the company’s unhealthy reliance on plastic packaging. A leader bold enough to drive more than $13.5 billion (£9.76 billion) in annual operating profits is certainly bold enough to order that his company gives customers a plastic-free choice at checkout.

Some early Portuguese explorers called the Amazon “Rio Santa Maria del Mar Dulce” or Saint Mary’s River of the Freshwater Sea. That’s a beautiful name. Sadly, today the online Amazon signifies a Plastic Sea.

Andrew Sharpless is CEO of Oceana

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