Are Amazon’s packages as recyclable as the company claims?

A group of PIRG volunteers investigated — and they tracked Amazon’s plastic packaging to some surprising places.

Oceana | Used by permission

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Amazon claims that many of the packages the company delivers are widely recyclable, either through curbside recycling programs or store drop-off. But are they really?

A group of PIRG volunteers in California and I investigated — and we found that, even when we followed Amazon’s guidelines, the packaging we tried to recycle ended up in some surprising places. Spoiler alert: Not the local recycling center. Here’s what happened:

Whether your Amazon package arrives in a cardboard box stuffed with plastic air pillows, a paper mailing envelope, or a plastic mailing envelope, it all comes labeled with that familiar “chasing arrows” recycling symbol. It also directs you to a website, how2recycle.info, to learn more about how to recycle it.  

Cardboard boxes and paper mailers (shown below, left) have a standard chasing arrows symbol, which indicates the product is widely recyclable and can be placed in most curbside bins. That makes sense; cardboard and paper are easily recycled.

The plastic mailing envelope (shown above, center and right) and plastic air pillows have the same chasing arrows symbol. But on this packaging, the symbol contains the phrase “store drop-off.” 

This slight difference in labeling suggests that yes, the product is recyclable, but it can’t be placed in your curbside bin. Instead, you need to go online to look up the closest store drop-off location that accepts plastic bags. 

So that’s what our volunteers did. When we visited how2recycle.info, we were redirected to bagandfilmrecycling.org. There, we plugged in a set of zip codes to find the closest drop-off locations, which, in Los Angeles, turned out to be local Target, Sprouts, Kohls or Vons stores. The website also recommended calling the relevant store first to confirm that it’s still participating in the program.

Can you drop off Amazon packaging at store drop-off recycling bins?

We started dialing. We asked: “Does this store really accept Amazon packaging? What do you do with the plastic? Does it really get recycled?”

We called stores listed on the bagandfilmrecycling.org website in 49 different zip codes in California. Of the 33 stores we called, 20 said they do not accept Amazon plastic bubble-lined bags. 

Hmm.

We went to the stores to see for ourselves.

Our volunteers went to Target, Sprouts and other stores across the Los Angeles area.

Every store listed on the website did, in fact, have a bin for plastic bags, which the website indicates should also work for recycling Amazon packaging. The one at my local Sprouts said “Recycle Plastic Bags Here.”

So, the people answering the phones at the stores were evidently ill-informed. That doesn’t serve Amazon customers very well, who may end up discouraged enough to throw their plastic packaging in the trash.  

But the story gets worse.

Once dropped off, do Amazon plastic packages actually get recycled?

Now that we knew we could drop off Amazon packaging in stores, our next question was: Where does the deposited plastic actually go?

To find out, the PIRG volunteers put small electronic tracking devices into Amazon bubble-lined plastic bags or air pillows, both of which are labeled for store drop-off. We removed the shipping labels, wrapped each packaging bundle in plastic grocery bags to prevent the tracking device from falling out, and dropped them in different plastic recycling drop-off bins across the greater Los Angeles area, in sites all recommended by how2recycle.info

Here are the locations where those bundles ended up

  1. Packages and packaging material dropped at a Target in downtown Los Angeles ended up in a Sylmar landfill north of the city.
  2. Packaging dropped off at a Sprouts in Culver City, California, ended up in a plastics recycling center in Mexico, which has come under fire by Mexican environmental groups for supposed “greenwashing.”
  3. Packaging dropped off at a Kohls in Northridge, California, ended up in the Antelope Valley landfill north of L.A.
  4. Packaging dropped off at a Winco in Norco, California, ended up in the Trex Valley Warehouse in Nevada, which is a self-described recycling center. 
  5. Packaging dropped off at a Target in La Verne, California, ended up in a shipping container at the Port of Los Angeles.
  6. Packaging dropped off at a Sprouts in Torrance, California, ended up at the Waste Management Carson Transfer Station — and then the tracker died. 
  7. Packaging dropped off at a Target in Westwood, California, ended up in the DeGarmo Dump Transfer Station in Sun Valley on the northern outskirts of L.A.
  8. Packaging dropped off at an Albertsons in San Clemente, California, ended up in a shipping container in the Port of Los Angeles. 
  9. Packaging dropped off a Gelsons in Dana Point, California, ended up at the San Juan Capistrano landfill.
  10. Packaging dropped off at a Target in Vista, California, ended up at the Santee landfill.

Of the 10 plastic items dropped off in recycling bins with a tracker, four ended up in a landfill, two ended up in a waste transfer center (meaning they’re likely headed to a landfill), two went to out-of-state or out-of-country recycling centers, and two were last tracked in the Port of Los Angeles headed to who knows where. 

None of them ended up in California recycling centers.

Our partners at the Last Beach Cleanup did a similar experiment with plastic grocery bags and other plastic packaging. They found that four out of five of the trackers they placed in plastic packaging in recycling drop-off bins went to landfills or incinerators, while one went to the same recycling center in Mexico as ours (the one that’s been accused of greenwashing).

What does this mean for recycling plastic packaging?

These small-scale experiments suggest that the store drop-off system for recycling plastic film is failing. 

Of course, there are some unknowns here. 

It’s possible that all the test items that were sent to landfills got contaminated with food waste or other trash and were rendered nonrecyclable — though it seems unlikely that this would happen in every case. 

It’s also possible that the trackers themselves were detected as contamination — but if that were true, we would have seen them arrive at a recycling center before being flagged. 

The most likely scenario is that this packaging is not getting recycled because there just isn’t a market for recycling plastic film.

And though some of the plastic items did end up in a recycling center, it’s a problem that none of them went to a recycling center in California. Rather than clean up our own mess, we’re simply shipping it to other states or other countries. And because our regulators don’t have jurisdiction outside of the U.S., sending our plastic to other countries makes it even harder to know if it’s actually getting recycled.

Amazon’s system for recycling its packaging — which demands considerable time and effort from the consumer — is failing on both the front end, where consumers get bad information about the program, and on the back end, where nothing, according to our test, is getting recycled in-state. 

So what can we do about it?

Eliminate single-use plastic packaging

No matter how much Amazon and others say their packages are “recyclable,” plastic never has been widely recycled and likely never will be. The better approach to plastic packaging is to just stop using it. 

That’s why PennPIRG is calling on Amazon to eliminate single-use plastic in their shipments in the U.S.

Amazon has already committed to stop using most single-use plastic in shipments within Germany and India. And biodegradable and recyclable alternatives to single-use plastic film are available now and are already being used by companies – including Amazon. There’s just no excuse for Amazon to keep using plastic packaging in the U.S.

It’s time for Amazon to commit to phasing out plastic packaging in the U.S. Add your name to our petition today.

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Author

Jenn Engstrom

State Director, CALPIRG

Jenn directs CALPIRG’s advocacy efforts, and is a leading voice in Sacramento and across the state on protecting public health, consumer protections and defending our democracy. Jenn has served on the CALPIRG board for the past two years before stepping into her current role. Most recently, as the deputy national director for the Student PIRGs, she helped run our national effort to mobilize hundreds of thousands of students to vote. She led CALPIRG’s organizing team for years and managed our citizen outreach offices across the state, running campaigns to ban single-use plastic bags, stop the overuse of antibiotics, and go 100% renewable energy. Jenn lives in Los Angeles, where she enjoys spending time at the beach and visiting the many amazing restaurants in her city.

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