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The first wave of ecommerce businesses had at their core a utopian belief that they would do no harm, they would save the Earth, they would benefit everyone and they would, accordingly, usher in a new, socially responsible corporate culture.

Didn’t quite work out that way. I don’t doubt that Brin, Bezos, Jobs et. al. had good intentions. The astounding success of their businesses (and the Internet as a whole) has created some problems for the entire planet.

The packaging that your iPhone, Amazon Echo Dot and the like is big business. According to a report by BusinessWire, it will be worth about $148 billion by 2024 with year-over-year growth of 3.0%. Not bad.

Nearly $150Bn worth of packaging means we have a lot of recycling to do. But recycling is not, and has never been, easy. The recent switch to polymer bags by Amazon is to be lauded. But, and it’s a heavy but. The new packaging jams up existing recycling machinery. Further, the simple act of affixing a paper label to an otherwise-recyclable plastic mailer renders it un-recyclable.

Plastic is so cheap and enduring that many companies use it for packaging. But consumers are prone to put plastic sacks into recycling bins. Plastic mailers escape the notice of sorting machines and get into bales of paper bound for recycling, contaminating entire bundles, outweighing the positive effect of reducing bulky cardboard shipments, experts say. Paper bundles used to fetch a high price on international markets and had long sustained profits in the recycling industry. But mixed bales are so hard to sell — because of stricter laws in China, where many are sent for recycling — that many West Coast recycling companies must trash them instead. (Packaging is just one source of plastics contamination of paper bales bound for recycling.)

“As packaging gets more complex and lighter, we have to process more material at slower speeds to produce the same output. Are the margins enough? The answer today is no,” said Pete Keller, vice president of recycling for Republic Services, one of the largest U.S. waste haulers. “It’s labor- and maintenance-intensive and frankly expensive to deal with on a daily basis.”

— Washington Post

The solution? Yeesh. Not an easy answer. Amazon is forced by some countries to pay for its contribution to ecological contamination, such as in Canada. This doesn’t apply to the US and it’s unlikely to happen under the current Trump administration. Perhaps Amazon’s (and other mega-ecommerce retailers) can explore an interesting option:

“They could do a reverse distribution, taking materials back to their distributions system. Those collection points become very important to make it convenient for consumers,” said Scott Cassel, chief executive of the Product Stewardship Institute, a membership-based nonprofit focused on reducing the environmental impact of consumer products. “But it would cost them money.”

Further Reading: