Although the plastic packaging delivered by Amazon is stamped with recycling arrows, a new report suggests that only a fraction of it actually gets recycled.

The report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group comes at a time of growing public awareness of single-use plastic waste, even as ecommerce companies continue to lure consumers with the promise of fast, easy shopping. Meanwhile, researchers warn that micro- and macroplastics are increasingly showing up in human tissue, dust, water, alpine snow and even clouds.

Estimates from PIRG and others, including Oceana, suggest that in 2021, 3.4 billion pounds of plastic waste were generated globally from ecommerce. Of that total, Amazon contributed roughly 709 million pounds — enough to circle the Earth more than 800 times — in the form of its air pillow packaging.

Worse, those numbers are expected to double by 2026, according to Jenn Engstrom, an author of the report and director of CalPIRG.

Although the paper and cardboard items Amazon uses for packaging can be placed in curbside bins and generally get recycled, plastic packaging (air pillows, bubble wrap, plastic film) must be brought to drop-off locations, such as those at Safeway or Target stores, where it is shipped to its final destination.

The packaging notes the store drop-off requirement within the printed recycling arrows and often includes instructions such as “remove paper label before recycling.”

However, the question remains as to how many consumers bring their plastic waste to drop-off locations or take the time to remove “contaminants” such as paper labels, tape and glue that can prevent the item from being recycled.

To assess the success of the drop-off-to-recycle scenario, Engstrom and colleagues and volunteers from across the country adhered Apple trackers to 93 plastic items.

They found that most of the waste didn’t get recycled (perhaps not surprising, since people ordering online are seeking the convenience of having items delivered instead of venturing out in the first place).

Only four of 93 plastic packaging items were confirmed to have ended up in a materials recovery center that sorts plastic for recycling. Thirteen were trucked to landfills. Two were tracked to an incinerator to be burned, and three went to the Port of Los Angeles — presumably destined for overseas locations such as Malaysia or Vietnam. The rest of the tracking devices were lost or died en route.

Roughly a quarter ended up at a company called Trex — with sites in Nevada and Virginia — that uses plastic film to create decking. The company grinds the plastic film into pellets, then mixes it with sawdust to create composite boards.

Engstrom said it is unclear how much of the consumer packaging is actually used by Trex. According to her report and the company’s guidelines, the plastic film must be “free of food or liquid contamination,” and “labels should be removed if possible.”

Pat Lindner, an Amazon spokesperson, said in a statement that the company “is continuously reducing packaging waste and working to make recycling easier for customers, however, we do not have control over how packaging is handled once it has been disposed of by municipalities or recycling centers.”

She said the company has started “a multi-year effort to transition U.S. fulfillment centers from plastic to paper for our delivery packaging.”

Jan Dell, director of Orange County-based Last Beach Cleanup and former member of California’s Statewide Commission on Recycling Markets and Curbside Recycling, said the results were not surprising.

In 2021, Dell worked with Bloomberg Investigates to track Amazon plastic pouches, and “they went to landfill, incineration and export,” she said.

“These companies know that consumers are confused by the recyclable labels and are mistakenly putting the pouches and films in curbside bins,” she said. “They are wrecking curbside recycling through costly and dangerous contamination.”

Plastic film in curbside bins destined for recycling centers is problematic for materials recovery facilities. The film can jam up the machinery — not only potentially destroying expensive technology but imperiling workers — or, because of its light weight, get sorted into paper waste and contaminate it, making it unsellable.

“We can all exist with a lot less plastic in our lives,” said Robert Reed, a spokesman for Recology, a California materials recovery company.



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