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Amazon's Plastic Mailers Are Creating A Problem For Recycling Centers

by Rudy Sanchez on 02/13/2019 | 2 Minute Read

Amazon sells and ships a lot of stuff, and Prime members can order almost anything and have it delivered in a couple of days, with no purchase minimum required. While this is great for sales, especially when it comes to impulse buying, it also creates a packaging and shipping problem.

That cute case for your new iPhone you just ordered? That doesn’t come shipping-ready to Amazon’s warehouse, and it must be picked and packaged prior to shipping. In the past, it might arrive in an over-sized cardboard box with air pillows or craft paper, but in the last year, Amazon transitioned away from that in favor of plastic mailers.

Well, it turns out these small plastic mailers are creating problems for recycling facilities because they’re not easily recyclable. The mailers themselves have to get sorted separately, which is not only labor-intensive but will disrupt sortation and keep larger bundles from being recycled. Even the attached shipping label needs to be removed before it goes to a sortation center.

Unaware of the problem, consumers toss these mailers into their curbside recycling bins, and sorting machines are unable to detect them, so they end up in paper bales, contaminating the whole bundle. Likely, they are destined for a landfill.

Plastic mailers do have a few advantages—not only do they protect small items, but they also weigh less, and it uses up less fuel to move them resulting in fewer greenhouse emissions.  They can also fit more shipments inside the usual trucks or freelance Amazon Flex delivery vehicles.

Amazon is aware of the problem, and spokesperson Melanie Janin told the Washington Post that the company is “scaling capacity of a fully recyclable cushioned mailer that is recyclable in paper recycling streams.”

Given Amazon’s size, it can put resources and pressure on manufacturers to streamline packaging that not only is cost-effective and efficient but also greener. In the meantime, it appears that in attempting to use less cardboard, they've created their own version of recycling whack-a-mole.