Environment: Conversation with Amazon Customer Service about Plastic-free Packaging

Environment: Conversation with Amazon Customer Service about Plastic-free Packaging

Introduction

My relationship with plastics is a constant battle caught somewhere in between the extremes – “I hate you because you pollute seas” and “I use you because I don’t know how to replace you.” I’m sure people who have been living a zero-plastic or zero-waste life will cringe when they read the second part of the statement. I know there are many ways to reduce plastics. I say no to straws, I use cloth or jute bags. I reuse old plastic bags every time I go shopping, I refuse plastic wrappings for my veggies but these measures couldn’t even touch the tip of the plastic-iceberg at my home.

This is the sad reality of the shop from where I usually buy household items. Almost every item comes packed up in one or more layers of plastic.

All the photos used in this collage were taken with the verbal consent of the owner of the shop. These are used for demonstration purposes only.

And this is how items arrive at our homes when we make online orders from e-commerce platforms like Amazon.

All the photos used in this collage are from orders placed in January 2020 or before. These are used for demonstration purposes only.

Why I Decided to Chat with the Amazon Customer Service?

So when I stumbled upon this link that claimed that a simple chat with Amazon customer service is enough to get plastic-free or minimal-plastic packaging for all my future orders with Amazon, I was really happy. At least, all those plastic wrappings from my online orders will be gone, right? 

I decided to contact Amazon customer service to verify this info. I was hoping to find some solution similar to these:

  1. An option at the user level to opt for plastic-free or minimal-plastic packaging for all my future orders
  2. An option at the user level to opt for negligible or zero packaging in all my future orders(with an option to opt-out in case of products that require privacy)
  3. A label that helps me distinguish between sellers who pack in an eco-friendly way and those who don’t so that I can select an eco-friendly seller for all my future orders manually  

The Chat with Amazon’s Customer Service

This is how our chat went. The name of the Amazon representative is removed to avoid any privacy issues.

Fake News

Clearly, the above Reddit link and screenshot was fake news. I’m glad that I got it verified. But as soon as the chat ended, the pessimist inside my head started commenting sarcastically: “All businesses are driven by their desire for profits. You were too naïve to believe they would allow it.” To be honest, I was disheartened. The only way I can have a plastic-free experience from Amazon is if:

  • I order a plastic-free product and
  • The seller “chooses” to pack without plastic   

The first point is totally understandable. I usually order books from Amazon. I was also planning to order some eco-friendly products made from biodegradable materials. These are plastic-free products. But if the seller chooses to pack them in plastics, they will come home covered head to toe in plastics. What use is my switch to biodegradable products then?

Amazon’s Initiatives to Eliminate Single-use Plastics

Is there any other option? I was desperate to hear some happy news. I googled a bit more. I found two articles from Amazon about their initiatives to provide plastic free packaging.

The first article, titled ‘Moving towards plastic free packaging’ was about their sustainable packaging initiative started in September, 2019.  

Important points from the article are quoted below:

  • “Amazon India unveils long term sustainable packaging initiatives; aims to eliminate single-use plastic packaging by June 2020.”
  • “Paper cushions to replace plastic dunnage in all Amazon India Fulfilment Centers by end of the year.”
  • “With recent efforts, less than 7% of the packaging in Amazon India Fulfilment Centers is single-use plastic in nature.”
  • “The company will collect plastic equivalent to all the plastic packaging material used by the Amazon Fulfilment network in India from September 2019.”
  • “This environment-friendly and fully recyclable packaging solution has already been launched in select fulfilment centers (FC) and will be extended across all FCs of Amazon in the country by the end of the year.”
  • “The company has ensured that its packaging material in the form of corrugate boxes and paper cushions contains as high as 100% recycled content and is also fully recyclable. The plastic currently used in packaging mailers and bubble bags is made of 20% recycled content, and is also recyclable.”

Yay! Even the fact that they were trying to implement these ideas made me happy. But the second article, really caught me by surprise. In this article, titled “Amazon India successfully eliminates 100% single-use plastic in packaging across its Fulfilment Centers” Amazon claimed that they had achieved their targets mentioned in the first article. Hey, that’s great!

The Ground Reality

But… the recent orders that I made from Amazon didn’t look much different from the older ones! They all had plastics!

A few doubts popped into my head:

  • Are they not considering these plastic packets as single-use because they are recyclable? But that’s not much right? Statistics says that the total % of plastics that ever got recycled were meagre. A significant change will be possible only if we stop producing and using new plastics. Creating and packing with new plastics with the excuse that they are recyclable is not an effective strategy for plastic elimination at all.
  • Are these orders not packed by Amazon fulfilment centers? But how to distinguish this?
  • Was these orders packed directly by sellers? What is Amazon’s policy regarding this?

I went back and re-read the articles. I found these lines from the second article.

“Amazon India has taken several steps to achieve complete elimination of single-use plastic in its own fulfilment network. The first milestone towards this goal was achieved in December 2019 when the company replaced plastic packaging material, such as bubble wraps and air pillows, with ‘paper cushion’ in its packaging. The company then introduced 100% plastic-free and biodegradable paper tape earlier this year, which is used to seal and secure customer shipments. Additionally, the company has replaced thin cling films for customer deliveries among other material with packaging options that are not single-use plastic in nature. All other plastic packaging material originating from the Amazon Fulfillment Centers is 100% recyclable through available collection, segregation and recycling channels. Amazon India continues to educate sellers, who directly fulfill customer orders, to join in this directional change in packaging.”

Did you see that highlighted portion? The first line in the highlighted section clearly states that Amazon Fulfillment centres still use some amount of plastic in their packaging. As I already mentioned above, producing new plastics, even the ones that are 100% recyclable, is not a proper solution. Especially in a country like India that has no or highly inefficient systems for collection, segregation and recycling of waste. Now let’s examine the second line in the highlighted section. Amazon says they have removed all single-use plastic packaging across its fulfilment centers. But as customers, we are still far from a plastic-free experience, until the sellers pack differently. Until then, our Amazon orders might still look something like this:   

All the photos in this collage were taken from orders placed and delivered after June 2020. These are used for demonstration purposes only.

Suggestions as a Consumer

As I already mentioned, switching to 100% recyclable plastics in the fulfillment centres won’t make much difference. Big companies like Amazon should aim for a zero-plastic or minimal-plastic policy for their packaging.

The fact that Amazon intends to “educate” the sellers makes me happy. But isn’t a policy change more effective? Can’t it be one of the guidelines given to the sellers? Can’t packing in biodegradable packets be a mandatory condition that sellers have to fulfill? Can’t Amazon supply(or help in procuring) the biodegradable packaging materials currently being used in their fulfilment centers to these sellers as well? I understand that this is a big chain of logistics to figure out. But if anyone can figure it out, it’s Amazon, right? They are one of the five big companies in the world. They already have a huge chain of logistics in place. I know it won’t be a piece of cake. But if they wish to do it, it’s doable, right? Imagine the huge reduction in single-use plastics all across the globe, if a company like Amazon goes plastic-free in its packaging!

The ground reality that even a customer service representative associated with the company is not able to give any assurances about such plans makes me sceptical. In fact, the representative talked about it in the future tense and not as a plan currently under implementation within the company.

Conclusion

But hey… we all have an eternal optimist also inside us, right? So do I. I’m really going to hope that someday, in the nearby future, within a few years, companies all across the globe, not just Amazon, will pack without plastics. I hope they will switch to bio-plastics and other biodegradable materials. Also product designs should prioritize minimum packaging and minimum wastage measures. I’m glad that Amazon has these initiatives in place, I hope they become effective soon. Meanwhile, let’s keep on working individually or in groups with our local bodies and NGOs to catalyze these positive changes.

Feedback Request

  • What are your thoughts about these initiatives by Amazon? Have you experienced any difference in the way your recent orders’ were packed?
  • What are your thoughts about the plastic-based packaging system in general, not just in online stores but also at each brand and product level? Do you think businesses, their product-designers and marketing agencies will someday soon give priority to eco-friendly packaging options instead of plastic?
  • Do you know any companies that use bioplastics for packaging?

Let me know in comments. It will help me to get educated further on this topic. Also, maybe I will find some interesting environment heroes and ventures I’m not currently aware of. Thanks in advance. 🙂

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New Year Wishes!

Since it’s the last blog of the year I just wanted to add a short personal message. There is no easy way to say this. 2020 was a really hard year and we have no clue what’s in store for us in 2021, the good and the bad. But to all of us out there struggling, striving despite all the odds I want to say – You are a fighter! You deserve a self-pat on your shoulders for walking through it all. Please give a big hug (personally if it’s possible, otherwise virtually maintaining the social distance) to all your loved ones who pulled you through this year. They deserve it. If you are an essential worker, please take a bow. You are our heroes. I mean it. My heart goes out to all the families who lost a loved one this year.

I hope the pandemic will be a great realization for us. I hope we will heal. I hope we will change for the better. If there is something that I have learned from this year, it is this. Man is no island. We need our families and our close-knit circle of friends. We are indebted to every human doing his/her work because they are also doing it for us. Last but never the least, environment is not a side project or hobby we can ignore and pick up at our leisure. It should be our top-priority because we are a part of it.

Here’s a video that inspired me this year:

Hope you all had a great Christmas time. Happy New Year in advance! 🙂

Stay safe! Be kind! Love… live and let live!

Disclaimer:

  • I have taken Amazon as an example in this blog because I’m an active user of their services. The same suggestions apply to all online and offline businesses. This is not an attempt to defame any individual or business. I’m stating my concerns as a consumer and as an environment-conscious citizen. Please consider this as a rating or review from the consumer.
  • The rights of all the shared videos and Instagram posts belong to their respective owners.

References:

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