Last updated on April 10, 2021.
In my last article, I wrote about giant retailer Walmart and its role in the packaging industry. Today I explore the packaging impact of the largest online retailer, Amazon. They have a number of sustainability initiatives and appear to be very transparent on their website in their efforts toward sustainability. But is it enough?
“Reducing packaging waste, one package at a time at Amazon, we obsess over providing a great packaging experience to our customers.”
Packaging for online shopping is different
Packaging at the retail store level is designed to stand out on the shelf to entice consumers to buy it. Sometimes packaging is oversized to prevent theft. With online shopping, these are not issues since the consumer is seeking the products directly. “This allows brands to rethink the optimum packaging for the use of the product, freeing designs from shelf height or having to maintain a visual size comparison with competitive products,” wrote Lisa McTigue Pierce in The Future of Packaging.
“The primary challenge we see is that packaging designed for brick-and-mortar retail is in many cases not optimal for online fulfillment. Packaging designed to stand out on a retail shelf is often oversized, with expensive “romance” design aesthetics, redundant features to prevent theft and not capable of surviving the journey to the customer.” -Brent Nelson, Amazon
Frustration-Free Packaging Program
Like Walmart, retail companies work with Amazon to optimize and reduce packaging. Amazon’s Frustration-Free Packaging Program (FFP) began in 2008. This program offers more sustainable packaging that is right-sized, reduces damage during shipping, is made of 100% curbside recyclable materials, does not contain plastic clamshells or wire ties, and is easier to open. Amazon collaborates with manufacturers to help them innovate and improve their packaging, reducing frustration, and cutting waste and costs. “Since 2015, we have reduced the weight of outbound packaging by 33% and eliminated more than 880,000 tons of packaging material, the equivalent of 1.5 billion shipping boxes,” Amazon states. The following are examples of companies working with Amazon to achieve these objectives.
Philips Norelco One Blade Shaver
One Amazon Frustration-Free Packaging case study was the Philips Norelco One Blade shaver project. The plastic clamshell used to both advertise from the store shelf and prevent theft wasn’t necessary for direct purchasing and shipping. Philips reduced the number of packaging components from 13 to 9 and reduced the packaging volume by 80%.
Philips Hue Smart Lighting
Again, Philips worked directly with Amazon to greatly reduce its packaging waste and volume for this product. Even though the same amount of packaging components were used, the packaging volume and air were vastly reduced and the frustration-free version is mostly recyclable cardboard instead of plastic.
The packaging for toys is often designed to draw the consumer’s attention on the shelf, but this isn’t necessary for online retail settings. So Fisher-Price was able to reduce its packaging components from 19 to just 1, reduce packaging volume by 88%, and reduced the amount of air shipped by 99%!
Hasbro also works with Amazon on packaging design:
Frustration-Free Packaging Program Certification
Today, this program requires certification. In 2019, Amazon updated the program’s guidelines which included instructions about how to calculate recyclability, product-to-packaging ratio, and requirements for oversized items. Suppliers on Amazon had to switch to the appropriate packaging or pay a surcharge on each item shipped. But Amazon works directly with manufacturers to innovate and improve their packaging functionality in order to certify, according to Amazon’s sustainability report. They have testing facilities that identify steps manufacturers can take to improve their packaging. Now more than 2 million products qualify under the FFP program.
Overall, the FFP program sounds great, but I find that products with this option are difficult to find. That may be because the option is not offered since many companies are certified to use Frustration-Free Packaging automatically. But next time you’re ordering from Amazon, if this option is available, please select it and avoid packaging waste! Here’s what you’ll see if it is an option:
Current Packaging Sustainability Initiatives
Amazon’s packaging sustainability mission is “to optimize the overall customer experience by collaborating with manufacturers worldwide to invent sustainable packaging that delights customers, eliminates waste, and ensures products arrive intact and undamaged.” Additionally, Amazon committed $10 million to the Closed Loop Fund; they’ve committed funding to support The Recycling Partnership in its effort to improve recycling across the United States; they are a member of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC). Amazon also uses the How2Recycle labeling system mentioned in my post about Walmart packaging.
Plastic Air Pillows
More often than not, however, it seems that Amazon ships items with what are called ‘air pillows,’ those plastic bags filled with air to cushion products. In theory, these can perhaps be reused or recycled through a place that accepts plastic bags for recycling (note that those are likely not recycled). But largely, they add to the plastic bag waste stream and pollute our waterways. The use of these is the exact opposite of sustainability.
In another order, Amazon used a box closer to the size of the item package, and thus did not use air pillows. I wish they ship products like this more often.
What to do with Amazon Packaging
It can be confusing and overwhelming to figure out what to do with all that packaging. Note that Amazon makes no attempt to reclaim its packaging for reuse or direct recycling. This is a missed opportunity to greatly reduce the impact of its packaging. The packaging is solely the consumer’s responsibility.
They have a page that helps you figure out what to do with their packaging. You can view each type of packaging Amazon that uses in its shipping and delivery, and see how they suggest you dispose of it. Their cardboard boxes and brown paper packaging are recyclable in most municipal recycling systems. However, their common bubbled and plastic shipping bags are difficult to recycle. You have to take them to a specific location that collects those types of plastic films, such as Publix which I mentioned in a previous post.
But Amazon’s priority is profit
In many ways, I am excited about all of the things Amazon is doing for sustainability. Amazon will always be looking at profit first, and overall they could do so much more. They should be more directly involved with Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which I wrote about in a previous post. Amazon encourages and advises its suppliers to follow EPR concepts, but the company does not have a take-back program for its own shipping packages.
Many consumers want to buy products that are sustainable and eco-conscious, but often don’t know what options they have. Amazon could make a significant difference just by overtly advertising their sustainable packaging options and Frustration-Free Packaging (FFP) program. I suspect many people just throw away much of the packaging they receive only because they don’t know what else to do with it.
Overall, Amazon is not doing enough. They, alone, have the ability to change the entire packaging industry.
The most important thing you can do for the environment and your finances is to buy less. You can try to avoid purchases from Amazon and instead choose a local retailer. When you do make purchases, be a conscious consumer. Next time you order from Amazon, look for the FFP option if it’s available. Recycle all cardboard and recyclable mailers in your curbside recycling or at your local recycling center. Save the plastic mailers and recycle them at a local grocery store that accepts them. Last, but not least, the Plastic Pollution Coalition currently has a petition asking Amazon to stop using single-use plastic packaging. I’ve signed, will you please sign too?
Below, I’ve listed several companies that sell environmentally friendly packaging for shipping. There is no reason that companies like Amazon can’t switch to those types of mailers.
In my next post, I’ll explore companies that already have sustainability built into their products and unique packaging solutions. In a future post, I’ll address whether online shopping or in-person shopping is better for the environment.
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“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky
Companies that sell eco-friendly shipping packaging:
Ranpak paper packaging
Uline carries a line of paper cushioning products
Western Pulp sells molded fiber packaging