Christina Petsoulis, MJLST Staffer
Amazon. One of the 21st century’s most novel inventions. Amazon now dominates e-commerce, with 43% of money spent online coming from Amazon sales. The online retail giant has, without a doubt, changed the way society operates – in some ways, for the better, while in others, for the worse.
Amazon’s carbon footprint is nothing short of concerning, especially with its continued expansion of Prime services. Expedited shipping means more cars and trucks on the road for delivery services, and increased waste from packages that are not as consolidated as they could be. Amazon packaging demands billions of boxes each year, with over 5 billion Amazon Prime packages alone sent worldwide in 2017. In fact, 64% of American households have Amazon Prime, and traditional brick-and-mortar retailers are closing down in every market as a result of the shift toward online retail shopping.
Some experts argue that having individual consumers drive to, and shop at, traditional brick-and-mortar retailers is more inefficient than consolidating packages for delivery. I find this argument unpersuasive, as consumers tend to make small purchases each time they shop online, requiring multiple shipments per week per consumer. Moreover, while online retail continues to gain dominance, traditional retail still exists and has shipping and packaging demands of its own. This situation, in essence, doubles consumer ‘demands.’
But most of Amazon packaging is recyclable, so we’re good, right? Not exactly. First, just 34% of solid waste is recycled (attributable to both consumer behavior and access to municipal recycling services). 80% of solid waste is recyclable with just 28% of it actually being recycled. Second, the vast majority of U.S. recyclables are sent to China for processing, which is problematic because China has announced that it will no longer import foreign garbage. In fact, China has banned importation of particular paper and plastic products, leaving the U.S. to deal with its own trash. With increased waste management demand and decreased capacity to deal with it, big questions remain as to how federal, state and local government will fare the storm.
Is Amazon liable for the vast quantities of trash it introduces into the market? Will Amazon be asked to alter business behavior, such as cut down on its packaging materials or enforce package consolidation policies? These types of requirements counter Amazon’s business interests, as the dominant draw of Amazon is individualized, convenient, fast shipping. Amazon’s model facilitates individual gain (i.e. $7.99 water bottle shipped day-of-order for free) at the expense of our environment’s health (i.e. one over-sized cardboard box ending up in a landfill). The epitome of a negative externality. It seems unlikely that any sort of regulation on packaging, shipping, and handling would stand a chance in light of consumer gravitation toward online shopping.
Government has tried to regulate Amazon, but not necessarily for environmental reasons. For example, the Federal Trade Commission has probed Amazon’s pricing practices as it expands its markets beyond e-commerce, threatening companies such as Netflix and Apple with its video services.
Surely, Amazon is not the only actor in the issue of environmental costs associated with e-commerce. But with 43% of online purchases coming from Amazon, it’s hard not to point fingers at a company so heavily dominating the marketplace.