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A Crisis of Convenience: Why Your Amazon Box Is Going Straight into the Trash

Frontier Group intern Olivia Holmes wrote this blog post.

You don’t need statistics to see how waste from Amazon’s expansive online shopping empire is affecting recycling. You only need your own two eyes. 

Compacted recycling used to take on a greyish tone, but at least one recycling plant operator has reported that the new color of our recycling is brown -- a visual reminder of just how many boxes we order online. 

In 2018, Amazon Prime delivered an estimated 5 billion packages to consumers around the world, and accounted for 40% of all online sales in the United States. That equates to roughly 13 million packages a day, and this number doesn’t even include all the Amazon packages delivered to consumers without Prime subscriptions. Alongside this rise in online shopping, recycling facilities have reported that more and more cardboard boxes are being delivered for processing. This isn’t necessarily surprising. After all, why wouldn’t people choose the convenience of two-day shipping straight to their doorsteps? Providing a world of consumer goods available at one’s fingertips, Amazon has revolutionized online shopping.

We now need a revolution to the nature of domestic recycling. More than that, we need a revolution in how much we consume and how much we throw away -- regardless of how that material is ultimately disposed of. 

While, generally speaking, cardboard boxes are among the most easily recycled materials and one of the few recyclable materials that still generate profit, increases in the popularity of Amazon and other online shopping sites are necessitating major shifts in recycling efforts. Until recently, China took the weight of this adjustment off our shoulders by taking much of our recycling. But with new international recycling regulations and an ever-growing stack of cardboard boxes, the United States is forced to take a serious look at the downfalls of our current recycling system. 

In 2017, over 67,000 tons of paper and paperboard were generated in the United States, with around 65 percent of this material recycled. Cardboard constitutes the single greatest source of this material. However, because we throw all recyclable materials into the same bin (single-stream recycling), cardboard is often smeared with food, stuck to unrecyclable plastic products or littered with other contaminants. 

Until recently, we weren’t aware that this was a problem. As is true with most recyclables produced and consumed in the United States, much of our recyclable material has, until recently, been shipped to China for processing. Beginning in the late 1990s, Chinese businesses realized that large cargo ships that had delivered Chinese consumer goods to America could easily return with recyclable material. Single-stream recycling could still be rendered profitable as Chinese firms were willing to pick through our recycling to find the profitable material and incinerate or landfill the rest, to the detriment of the environment. The United States was left with little incentive to develop expansive recycling infrastructure to accommodate the growing rate of generation of recyclable material. By 2017, only 633 recycling facilities existed across the US for all types of recyclable materials. 

However, China’s new policy on foreign recycling has drastically altered the fate of the Amazon box. In 2018, China announced that it would no longer be purchasing recycling with over a 0.5% contamination rate, along with various types of plastics. This decision was the result of growing concerns about the environmental fate of un-recyclable plastics shipped alongside recyclables such as cardboard, aluminum cans and plastic bottles. Essentially, China finally began rejecting trash that we had considered recyclable for many years. As a result, domestic recycling facilities in the U.S. have been left to manage huge amounts of contaminated single-stream recycling

In the wake of this crisis, many cities are left paying to continue their recycling programs when, in the past, they may have been able to send recycling over to China for free. Other cities are sending more recycling to landfills, incinerating materials that could be recycled, or even stopping their recycling programs altogether. This means that cardboard, one of the most easily recyclable materials, may never even see the inside of a recycling facility. 

As a major producer of consumer recyclables, how does Amazon fit into this crisis? Despite this seemingly bleak situation, some view China’s new ban on many recyclables as an opportunity for cities and states to develop better recycling infrastructure. This can also extend to companies with a stake in domestic recycling. Amazon has taken steps in this direction; in 2018 the company funneled $10 million into the Closed Loop Fund, which finances the development of domestic recycling services. However, this is only a drop in the bucket for a company of Amazon’s size. $10 million equates to only 0.2 cents for every Prime package they shipped last year. To aid this crisis, and maintain the “recyclability” of their packages, Amazon needs to do a lot more. 

But the problem is bigger than just Amazon. Amazon has fueled a consumer culture that generates a huge amount of recyclable material in the form of cardboard. Single-stream recycling, while convenient, has contributed to making recycling unprofitable as a domestic industry. To accommodate the shifting and growing flow of recyclable material, America will need to radically rethink its recycling programs and infrastructure and create new markets for recyclable materials. 

Amid an explosion of online shopping and rapid shipping, however, the way we deal with our trash isn’t the only thing we need to rethink. Maybe, to end the waste and pollution that results from sending our trash to landfills or incinerators, we need to think outside the box and take a serious look not just at how we recycle, but also at how we consume.

Photo: Pixbay user Ben_Kerckx