Elsewhere, it still has a long way to go.
In the United States, Amazon advertises its packaging as recyclable, and points consumers to chain retailers and supermarkets with drop-off recycling programs. But these programs will generally not accept air pillows and envelopes unless the paper labels are removed entirely. Challenges created by the pandemic and decidedly stubborn adhesive also make this endeavor anything but “Frustration-Free,” despite Amazon’s claims.
And Amazon may own Whole Foods, “the first and only certified organic national grocery store,” as the company puts it, but a trip down most of the aisles demonstrates the ubiquity of single-use plastic packaging — from the produce section, where you can find pre-cut fruit in plastic containers, to the deli counter, where your sliced turkey is placed in a plastic bag.
There are several routes Amazon and other e-commerce companies can take to reduce their plastic footprint. First, and easiest, these companies should honor consumers who want plastic-free shipping. Amazon should offer reduced shipping costs for those who want to forgo plastic packaging. For secondary shipping (meaning shipping directly from sellers, not Amazon), the company could develop a plastic-use index that allows consumers to know how much single-use plastics those businesses use in a package.
Amazon should also put to work its in-house brain trust — the company is one of the biggest employers of Ph.D. economists in the United States — to develop more economic incentives to help consumers and corporations break free of single-use plastics. Finally, the sustainability research arm of Amazon Science could hire applied scientists to create packaging that breaks down safely on land and in the ocean.
Amazon has such enormous market power that it could do much to force these changes throughout the economy. This would sidestep the need for government action.
We know Amazon has the capabilities. Its accomplishment in India is one example. And the company claims to have eliminated more than one million tons of plastic, cardboard and paper from its packaging since 2015. Now it needs to build on that record. By eliminating single-use plastics globally, Amazon could be the model for other multinational companies, as well as part of the solution instead of a major contributor to the plastics problem.
Pamela L. Geller is an associate professor of anthropology and Christopher Parmeter is an associate professor of economics at the University of Miami.
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