Much of the focus in the tech policy community on the negative externalities of “Big Tech” companies is on the online harms they cause. Concerns ranging from protection of our private data to algorithms controlling our online activity are, of course, very worrying. However, it is important to also consider the environmental impact these companies have in the world every day.
When it comes to e-commerce platforms such as Amazon, a key impact comes in the form of packaging. Every time a customer orders a package online, it arrives inside of real, tangible packaging, and because this packaging is often difficult to recycle, it becomes waste. At the same time e-commerce companies are profiting off of increased sales, they are increasing waste. Major e-commerce platforms are not doing enough to make their products easy to recycle for the consumer, nor to improve the recycling infrastructure that their products are processed in every day.
Recycling in the US poses a challenge to many consumers, largely due to the variability of recycling programs. Only about half of Americans have automatic access to curbside recycling, and not all of them use it. Access is not the only thing that varies—rules can change from one town to the next. This variability is a problem because a mistake is costly; recycling materials incorrectly can actually do more harm than good, and the average US contamination rate is 17%.
Given this confusing state of affairs, many conscientious consumers simply don’t have the time required to figure out what they can and can’t recycle, or they recycle items incorrectly, causing the whole batch to be thrown out. There is also a lack of infrastructure and funding for local recycling programs, meaning it is often cheaper for municipalities to send waste to a landfill than to recycle it. Local programs are bearing the brunt of paying for recycling, and they can’t always afford it. Because of these challenges, only 32% of potential recyclable materials are being captured in curbside programs in the US.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only made this issue more urgent. E-commerce sales have soared during the past few years; in the US in 2020, online sales made up 14% of all sales across the economy, up from 9.9% in 2018. As Amazon and other e-commerce giants continue to grow, so too does the amount of packaging circulating the country every day—in 2020, 4.2 billion Amazon parcels were shipped, up from 1.9 billion in 2019. This increase in e-commerce packaging has led to an increase in the amount of waste across the country, and the increase in waste has challenged local recycling programs as shutdowns and changing rules make it more expensive to recycle than ever before.
Amazon takes the top spot in the US e-commerce market. It made up 47% of the US e-commerce retail market in 2020 and is expected to surpass 50% in 2021. Despite its huge share of the market, the steps it is taking towards improving recycling are not enough. With every package, customers must look up whether they can recycle each piece and if so, where. Some items, like plastic films, can only be recycled at specific drop off locations and others can’t be recycled at all. Steps like these mean it is less likely that customers will actually recycle each portion of their packaging; despite Amazon’s efforts to make most items recyclable, materials still often end up in the trash or recycled incorrectly, causing more harm than good.
Other e-commerce companies have even less information available about how to recycle their packaging. Despite commitments to sustainability, top e-commerce companies like Walmart and Apple have little guidance available online or on their packaging about whether the packaging that their goods travel in is recyclable.
This system is unsustainable. Consumers can no longer be expected to do the heavy lifting when it comes to recycling alone, and local programs are struggling to keep up with the increase in waste driven by rising online orders. The e-commerce companies that profit off of this growth have a responsibility to improve the recycling process for their packaging. They can do this both by making recycling easier and more convenient for their customers and by investing in the improvement of recycling infrastructure across the country.
Amazon has taken some initial positive steps that can be mirrored by other e-commerce companies. For example, they maintain a website providing instructions on how to recycle various packaging. Other e-commerce companies should use Amazon’s website detailing recycling information for its packaging as a model to create their own guides. By having information related to each specific piece of packaging, they make it easier for customers to understand what to throw in the trash and what to put in the recycling bin.
Of course, solutions related to education that tackle the problem at the consumer level can only do so much—to really improve recycling and move our society towards a circular economy, we will need broader intervention and standardization of recycling processes across the country.
E-commerce companies should invest in these improvements. One way to force these companies to invest is through extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws. These laws shift the financial responsibility for recycling packages from the consumers, through their tax dollars, to the producers. Maine is leading the way on making producers pay for recycling. Earlier this year, they passed a landmark law that forces companies to pay a fee for the packaging sent into the state of Maine, and the fee is used to cover the cost of recycling those materials, taking the burden off municipalities. Other states are following suit—Oregon recently passed a similar law, and EPR laws are in the works in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.
E-commerce companies affect our physical world every day, often more than we realize. Their packaging makes up a huge portion of the items being recycled in the US, an amount that has only grown during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because these e-commerce companies profit while creating immense waste, so too do they have a responsibility to clean up that waste, whether it be by improving the ease of recycling for their consumers or investing financially in recycling infrastructure. By holding e-commerce companies accountable for the packaging they produce, we can push us all towards a cleaner, more waste free world.