E-commerce titan Amazon destroys millions of items a year at just one of its fulfillment centers in the United Kingdom, according to an ITV report published on Monday.
Footage taken inside the company’s warehouse in Dunfermline, Scotland, shows boxes marked “destroy” filled with everything from “smart TVs, laptops, drones, hairdryers, top of the range headphones, computer drives, books galore, thousands of sealed face masks” to countless other products, ITV reported. The items consist of those that had damaged packaging, were never sold, or were returned by buyers, and virtually any of it could have been donated to a charitable organization or another useful purpose. ITV tracked trucks carrying the goods scheduled for destruction and found that while some of them headed towards recycling facilities, other products were traced to landfills (which Amazon denies are the ultimate destination for the goods).
Destruction of retail goods is a phenomenon by no means limited to Amazon. According to Deutsche Welle, there are no European Union-wide estimates of goods burned, trashed, recycled, or otherwise disposed of each year. The estimates that do exist vary widely as companies are generally not required to disclose how much is wasted: The French government estimated that some $689 million in goods were destroyed in 2014, while the German government estimated the toll at around $8.34 billion in 2010. Those figures are generally considered to be wild underestimates. Deutsche Welle reported that returned products comprise an overall tiny amount of destroyed merchandise in the EU, and other reasons they are wasted include damaged or blemished packaging, overproduction, mislabeling, obsolescence, and deliberate destruction to keep prices high.
In the case of Amazon, ITV reported, the huge amount of waste stems from third-party retailers that sell via Amazon’s marketplace and have the e-commerce giant handle logistics like storage and shipment. There are fees associated with taking up space in the company’s warehouses, and when goods don’t get sold, retailers begin racking up fees that outpace any possible returns. Many of those third-party retailers then opt to destroy the products, particularly when they were acquired for relatively cheap from overseas manufacturers or resellers, rather than find another way to recoup their investment.
Other investigations have turned up similar results. In 2019, CBS reported, journalists posing as Amazon employees found that the company’s facilities in the UK and France routinely dispose of massive amounts of stock, with one facility reportedly wasting 293,000 items in a nine-month period. One French TV network found “revolting massive destruction of new products” at Amazon facilities in France in 2019 amounting to over 3 million items a year. In May 2021, Greenpeace Germany said it had learned that despite a recent law prohibiting destruction of intact goods, in Germany there is “currently no legal ordinance on duty of care, which is why no penalties are imposed.” Greenpeace also said that Amazon planned to evade the law with tactics like destroying the items themselves so they qualified as waste, such as by slicing up clothes and textiles with scissors.
Apple MacBook Air Laptop
The M1 chip delivers 3.5x faster performance than the previous generation all while using way less power. Get up to 18 hours of battery life.
One ex-employee of the Amazon facility in Dunfermline told ITV that their “target” was generally to flag 130,000 items a week for disposal, with up to 200,000 items destroyed during peak weeks.
“There’s no rhyme or reason to what gets destroyed,” that former employee told ITV. “Dyson fans, Hoovers, the occasional MacBook and iPad; the other day, 20,000 Covid (face) masks still in their wrappers... Overall, 50 percent of all items are unopened and still in their shrink wrap. The other half are returns and in good condition. Staff have just become numb to what they are being asked to do.”
“Stuff that’s not even single use but not being used at all, straight off the production line and into the bin,” Sam Chetan Welsh, a spokesperson for Greenpeace, told ITV. “As long as Amazon’s business model relies on this kind of disposal culture, things are only going to get worse. The government must step in and bring in legislation immediately.”
An Amazon spokesperson told ITV that Amazon is “working towards” throwing out zero items and that nothing is sent to a landfill “in the UK.” The spokesperson added that sometimes items are sent to power facilities that burn garbage as fuel for electrical production, a practice that is more environmentally friendly than just piling it in garbage dumps or landfills but far, far worse than never having produced an unnecessary product in the first place.
“We are working towards a goal of zero product disposal and our priority is to resell, donate to charitable organisations or recycle any unsold products,” the spokesperson told the network. “No items are sent to landfill in the UK. As a last resort, we will send items to energy recovery, but we’re working hard to drive the number of times this happens down to zero.”
According to the Herald, Amazon said that the Lochhead Landfill, where ITV tracked some products arriving, is also part of the Dunfermline Recycling Centre.
ITV reached out to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office and was told they’re “just going to have to look into and get back to you,” with Johnson adding: “Obviously we don’t like stuff going to landfill under any circumstances that’s why we have the landfill tax and landfill credit scheme, and everything else.” Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told the network he is “surprised... I think Amazon should do the right thing and it would be very disappointing if this is true.”
Mark Ruskell, the Scottish Greens environment spokesperson and a member of the Scottish Parliament for Mid Scotland and Fife, told the Herald, “Amazon’s net profit has soared during this crisis while many people have struggled to make ends meet. It’s therefore obscene that this multi-billion corporation finds it more profitable to put unused items in the bin than help people out. It is a damning indictment of our economy that the throwaway culture is put before people’s needs.”
“Even if it is not reflective of wider Amazon policy, the company must answer for why the Dunfermline warehouse has such high levels of waste and so little is resold or given to charities,” Ruskell added.
Amazon generates massive amounts of garbage even when products are sold and reach consumers. While delivery services can actually be more environmentally friendly than brick-and-mortar retail, Amazon’s emphasis on speed coupled with high demand can undermine any gains by increasing the amount of transportation needed to get products to houses. Earlier this year, Bloomberg reported that surges in online shopping during the pandemic combined with plummeting recycling rates had caused the price of recoverable corrugated cardboard in the U.S. to skyrocket.