Amazon has revealed further insights into its sustainability strategy for its packaging, including designing for kerbside recycling, machine learning algorithms for right-sizing purposes, and its Ship in Own Container programme hoped to eliminate unnecessary packaging.  

Nearly 49% of Amazon’s shares voted in favour of the retailer addressing its use of plastics at its Annual General Meeting in May 2022, says Oceana. This was accompanied by a report suggesting that Amazon had generated around 709 million pounds of plastic waste through e-commerce sales in 2021, exceeding its 2020 estimate of 599 million pounds by 18%.  

At the time, Matt Littlejohn, senior vice president for Strategic Initiatives at Oceana, commented: “The science is clear, the type of plastic used by Amazon for its packaging is a threat to the oceans. Customers and shareholders are calling for the company to act. 

“It’s time for Amazon to, as it has on climate, step up and commit to a global reduction in its use of plastic packaging.” 

Now Amazon claims to be working towards both minimised waste and damage-free delivery by optimising the type, material, and weight of additional packaging and limiting additional packaging to the necessary applications for safe product delivery. It also declares its own aspiration for increased kerbside recyclability and reduced carbon emissions for its packaging.  

To achieve this, the company is reportedly pursuing a science-based approach with lab testing, machine learning, materials science, and manufacturing partnerships.  

In one initiative, it hopes to tailor its packaging for recyclability through kerbside recycling programmes by phasing out flexible bags – containing both plastic and paper and described as 99% harder-to-recycle – in favour of more recyclable alternatives. One example is its paper padded mailer, which rolled out across the US and Canada in 2022.  

It is made of four layers of paper and a water-based cushioning material – which, much like other paper coatings and print inks, have been designed to separate during the recycling process. Apparently, it maintains the flexibility of previous packaging while providing the same recyclability as corrugated boxes and taking up less space, both in transit and within recycling bins.  

The development follows Amazon’s admission that, while its plastic film is recyclable at drop-off store locations, it was not yet suitable for kerbside recycling as of the publication of its 2021 Sustainability Report. Nevertheless, it states that, excluding coolants, all the materials used in Amazon’s one-way delivery packaging in the EU is kerbside recyclable, and that 92% of packaging material weight in the US and Canada (minus coolants and produce bags) is compatible.  

In another accusation, Greenpeace has previously argued that the plastics Amazon uses are completely unrecyclable or otherwise invaluable to recyclers. Nevertheless, Amazon is underlining its work with The Recycling Partnership and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition to improve recycling infrastructure. 

Furthermore, Amazon’s Ship in Own Container (SIOC) programme is set to deliver products in the manufacturer’s own packaging without the application of additional packaging. The initiative hopes to cut down on packaging weight and unnecessary material usage.  

In one example, the company reports that the SIOC packaging for a Samsung 49” Series 5 TV removes nine extra packaging components and reduces packaging volume by 69%, as well as cutting out 87% of shipped air compared to standard packaging. 

By identifying, evaluating, and certifying items already packed in shipping-suitable materials, it aims to expand its SIOC programme and encourage selling partners and vendors to adapt their packaging to meet these standards. 

Amazon also reports that it uses machine learning algorithms to match each individual product with its most efficient and protective packaging option. Lightweight packaging such as flexible paper bags and envelopes – which are up to 90% lighter than rigid corrugated boxes of a similar size, the company claims – are apparently prioritised wherever possible. 

Where multiple items have been ordered, the algorithms seek to reduce empty space in boxes as much as possible. This optimisation is reported to save space and limit the number of delivery vehicles on the road to the necessary amount.  

Similarly, its web-based PackOpt tool notes the order patterns at individual facilities and, based on that information, aims to optimise the cardboard box options available. The process claims to have saved a yearly 60,000 tons of cardboard in North America and lessened cardboard waste from 7% to 10% annually. 

According to Amazon, it has avoided a global 37,150 metric tons of plastic since 2020, and eliminated two million tons of packaging materials from its operations and reduced packaging weight per shipment by 41% since 2015. It is thought that, in 2022, 11% of shipments were delivered with no additional Amazon packaging; 49% were delivered in flexible packaging; and 40% were delivered in corrugated boxes. 

Notably, though, the NewClimate Institute and the Carbon Market Watch previously accused several companies of exaggerating their sustainability claims by 60% –  Amazon was one of them. The company did not publicly disclose its carbon footprint until 2019, at which point it did not share its plans for future reporting or reaching net zero; it later admitted in its 2021 Sustainability Report that its carbon footprint had grown by 18% that year. 

Looking forward, Amazon has joined the US Department of Energy’s BOTTLE Consortium with the goal of developing new chemical upcycling strategies for plastics that will facilitate bio-based and biodegradable plastic recycling with a net-zero carbon impact. 

Other companies are revising their own sustainability strategies. Walmart, for example, is giving consumers the option to turn down single-use plastic bags and consolidate online orders for multiple items into fewer boxes.  

It also seeks to right-size its packaging to reduce oversized packaging waste by up to 26%, and it states its intention to ship items from fulfilment centres and stores in recyclable paper bag mailers to eliminate 65 million plastic equivalents from circulation in the US.

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