In Mashable’s series Wasted, we dig into the myriad ways we’re trashing our planet. Because it’s time to sober up.
Amazon has become an increasingly ubiquitous part of our lives, as more and more people receive weekly — and even daily — packages from the company. But as these packages pile up on doorsteps all over the world, a glaring issue has emerged: How do you recycle all those damn mailers?
Given the huge variety in packaging, the answer isn’t so clear.
Amazon does have guidelines around the topic, but David Pinsky, a senior plastics campaigner at Greenpeace, doesn’t think they’re very useful.
“While it is helpful to provide this information, does Amazon actually expect customers to reference this website and follow the steps (sometimes multiple in the case of its Prime Now insulated pouch) to attempt to recycle its packaging?” Pinsky, who works to make large companies reduce their single-plastic use, wrote in an email.
Instead, large corporations like Amazon need to take responsibility by getting rid of throwaway packaging and switching to reuse and refill systems, Pinsky explained.
Amazon does offer a program called Frustration-Free Packaging, or packaging made up of 100% recyclable materials without any unnecessary shipping boxes. And it’s working, to some extent. Since 2008, Amazon says programs such as FFP have “eliminated more than 665,000 tons of packaging materials — more than 1.18 billion shipping boxes.”
What’s more, in 2018, Amazon debuted a fully recyclable paper padded mailer.
But these sustainability efforts might not be going far enough. As the Washington Post reported, in an effort to pack more shipments into delivery planes and trucks, Amazon is using more small plastic mailers rather than cardboard boxes.
Many of the plastic mailers it uses (like its regular and bubble-lined plastic bags) include plastic film. Amazon notes on its website that some cities have curbside recycling programs, and if your city doesn’t, Amazon provides a website to find a drop-off location (which the website says refers to retail stores, municipal recycling centers, and private recyclers) that will take plastic film.
But there aren’t that many cities with curbside recycling programs that accept plastic film, says Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist who works on plastic waste issues at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental advocacy organization. When it comes to recycling centers, even if they do accept plastic film, it can be hard, if not impossible, to process, as they often get caught in the center’s machinery, a spokesperson from the recycling, landfill, and compost operator Recology wrote in an email.
To avoid this problem, Recology workers try to manually remove loose plastic film before it enters the machinery, but this doesn’t always work.
“Amazon packages represent a challenging new packaging trend,” the Recology spokesperson explained.
And then there’s the paper address label. If it’s a self-adhesive label, it’s probably not recyclable, Hoover says.
“It’s pretty upsetting to see Amazon has gone in this direction by putting more single-use plastics on the market,” Pinsky says.
Although online shopping has become the de-facto way of living, it shouldn’t just be the customer’s responsibility to figure out how to recycle. Companies need to step up, too, Hoover says.
In the meantime, here’s how you can properly recycle Amazon’s packaging.
1. Paper padded mailer
Amazon says these paper padded mailers are recyclable, just like cardboard boxes and other paper items.
Paper products should be accepted by most curbside recycling programs, says Pinsky similarly.
2. Bubble-lined plastic bag and plastic bag
Some cities offer curbside recycling, Amazon writes on its website. If your city doesn’t, Amazon provides a website where you can enter your zip code to find a drop-off location that accepts plastic film, which these bags contain.
Still, it’s questionable if some drop-off locations will accept bubble-lined plastic bags, Pinsky says. Hoover advises people to check drop-off centers’ websites to see what they can recycle.
3. Cardboard box and cardboard folder
Cardboard boxes and folders can be recycled in most curbside recycling, Amazon states on its website. It also says to remove any tape before recycling.
Still, you should check with your local government to see what is recyclable and learn how and if you’re supposed to prepare these materials in a particular way, Hoover says.
For example, New York City advises people to flatten cardboard boxes and then tie them together with strong twine before setting them out for recycling.
If you have an extra box lying around, you can also give it a second life. Just fill a box with items you wish to donate, print out a label for free, and ship it at no cost to you through UPS or USPS. Your old things will be re-homed to charities through Amazon’s partnership with Give Back Box, and you can write off the donation on your taxes.
5. Packing paper
Packing paper is recyclable through most curbside recycling programs, Amazon writes on its website.
6. Air pillow
Amazon suggests you either recycle its air pillows curbside, if possible, or find a drop-off location that accepts them. Like Amazon’s plastic bags, air pillows contain plastic film, which means it’s harder to recycle.
When you are able to recycle them, Hoover suggests first popping the air out of the pillow and then bringing it to a drop-off location.
7. Bubble-lined paper mailer
Paper mailers with air bubble padding are not recyclable and should be put in the trash, Amazon says on its website. However, Amazon also says you can check with your local recycling program for more details but doesn’t explain what they mean by this.
Pinsky, for his part, advises throwing out these mailers.
8. Prime Now gel pack
Gel packs are not recyclable and should be thrown out, Amazon’s website states.
9. Amazon Fresh dry ice plastic film
This plastic film covers the dry ice blocks used to keep Amazon Fresh groceries at the right temperature. It can’t be recycled, Amazon’s website says.
10. Prime Now Paper Bag and Amazon Fresh Paper Bag
Since they’re paper, Amazon’s Prime Now and Fresh Paper Bags are recyclable through most curbside recycling programs.
11. Prime Now insulated pouch
Amazon’s Prime Now insulated pouches are tricky to recycle. Amazon recommends that you first take out the insulating pad from the plastic mailer and cut the pad open to remove the plastic film. Then it says you can recycle the plastic film and mailer where #4 plastic is accepted, and the natural fiber pad where #60 cotton is accepted.
Amazon should list #4 film plastic on its website not #4 plastic, as many curbside programs accept rigid #4 plastic, but will not take any film plastics, Hoover wrote in an email.
12. Amazon Fresh water bottle
This is just a water bottle and can be recycled in most curbside recycling programs. Amazon states on its website that these water bottles are used to cool items like food, but you can also drink the water, so don’t let it go to waste.
13. Foil bubble insulation bag
Amazon says foil insulation can’t be recycled and should be thrown out.
14. Amazon Fresh Cardboard Box
The Amazon Fresh Cardboard Box can be recycled like Amazon’s Prime Now and Fresh Paper Bag, however, you should take off the tape before you recycle it, Amazon’s website states.
15. Amazon Fresh dry ice pouch
The Amazon Fresh dry ice pouch can’t be recycled, so you have to chuck it in the trash can.