Amazon’s return policy saves money at the expense of our environment

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Sylvia Ho

Amazon’s return policy inevitably makes climate conservation efforts regress.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, online shopping on Amazon has become a staple of daily life. Whether it’s clothing, fresh groceries or electronics, you’ve undoubtedly seen an endless stream of Amazon’s iconic smile-adorned packages on your doorstep. But what happens when that new jacket doesn’t fit? Or your new Nintendo Switch makes you want to switch to another console? You turn to Amazon’s handy-dandy, easy-to-use return policy, of course! And that’s when the destruction begins.

Amazon has grown from a company formed in Jeff Bezos’ garage to a multibillion-dollar corporation that dominates the online retail marketplace. Many dark sides have emerged alongside Amazon’s evolution, one of them being their seemingly innocuous return policy and the amount of waste it sends to landfills worldwide.

According to Amazon’s website, “Items shipped from Amazon.com can be returned within 30 days of receipt of shipment in most cases.”

Consumers nationwide have taken advantage of this convenient return policy, ordering things that they don’t need and getting their money back when they return the item. In general, holiday e-commerce returns are expected to swell more than 10% over last year, according to the inventory auction service B-Stock, and UPS estimates it will bring a record-high 60 million parcels back to sellers this returns season. This general trend of high returns is made of mostly Amazon purchases. The record spike in sales and returns is because there is no hesitation of buying an item on Amazon because people know that they are easily able to return an item and get their money back completely.

Inmar Intelligence, a data services company, conducted a survey of around 1,000 people in 2021 about their online shopping experiences. They found that “nearly 55 percent of respondents made online purchases knowing they were likely to return at least some of the items purchased.”

All of this data begs one question: where are all of these returns heading? A 2020 investigation by the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission and Seattle-based Basel Action Network found that a majority of Amazon returns go straight to landfill after GPS trackers were placed in different Amazon return packages. Sending all the refunded items to the landfill is often much more cost-effective than reselling them.

This is due to the costs associated with maintaining such items: on top of paying for storage, Amazon would be liable for any damage present on the item by reselling the item. Maintaining an individual item isn’t much effort, but considering the bulk of returns that come in, the more profitable thing to do is to dump. The mindset of today’s generation, as opposed to the mindset of older generations, is one that thinks more for the short term as opposed to the long term.

“We’re so obsessed with convenience and affordability, that in the long run, we’re probably going to end up spending more money on things that break when we could have invested upfront in something that would last for a longer time,” said Annie Nguyen, an AP Environmental Science teacher at Dougherty Valley High School, who said Amazon’s go-to business model is the perfect match to this new mindset.

The record spike in sales and returns is because there is no hesitation of buying an item on Amazon because people know that they are easily able to return an item and get their money back completely.”

“This ‘use and throw’ consumer ideology has contributed to the purchases and returns of more low-quality items to which Amazon would be losing money to restore,” Nguyen said.

With more and more trash building up, landfills have no choice but to get rid of waste, by taking the compostable trash, burying it underground and letting it decompose. This buried trash has adverse effects on the surrounding environment.According to the Acciona Foundation, “Landfill sites are partially responsible for global warming as they generate and release biogas into the atmosphere, . . .  a mixture formed primarily of methane gas (CH₄) and carbon dioxide (CO₂).”

These effects don’t bother most San Ramon residents right now, but they may soon cause a noticeable change in the quality of life. “As it rains, and the water kind of runs off of the trash pile, it takes with it some of these chemicals that have been degrading over time,” Mrs. Nguyen explained.

“And if that leaches into the soil, it can cause soil contamination, even groundwater contamination if it goes even deeper into the Earth.”

The soil contamination can cause most plants in the area to die out, as they lack the necessary nutrients required for survival.

The accumulation of chemicals into soil and groundwater isn’t the only issue: in the long term, it could also include chemicals that are known to cause respiratory issues.

Jim Puckett, the CEO and founder of the Basel Action network, explains the work of his foundation in helping bring new legislation on an international level: “I work a lot on permitting the export to dump it on developing countries, and we’ve been pretty successful at demonizing that.”

The materials that are used to manufacture these products are also incredibly problematic. “The most important solutions are those that don’t focus on single-use plastic,” Puckett stated.

Puckett’s proposals are that we shouldn’t find ways to compensate for the problem but instead fix it at the source.

“The solutions are upstream in designing products and moving to a lease-based economy, those sorts of things,” he said. “We’re not looking for new hiding places, new types of landfills, new types of incinerators.”

“Every product that you enjoy has a lifecycle. It has to be produced at great environmental cost. And then it has an end of part of its life cycle that also has great environmental cost,” he added.

While landfills will inevitably stay here for the distant future, countries such as Denmark have come up with solutions to put landfill waste to good use. CopenHill, located in Copenhagen, is an eco-friendly trash reproduction center that turns waste into energy through advanced incineration practices. The country has gone even further to build a recreational ski hill on top of the waste reproduction center.

We need to take an active role in deciding the future of our environment. Legislators, billionaires and people of every demographic must commit to preserving whatever remains of our environment, even if that means giving up conveniences like same-day delivery. It is our job to help incentivize these companies and legislators by having peaceful protests and rallies for improvements such as robust recycling, limits on pollutants and alternate and eco-friendly products. We must pressure, influence and lobby towards key environmental issues in order to successfully progress as a society.

The accumulation of chemicals into soil and groundwater isn’t the only issue: in the long term, it could also include chemicals that are known to cause respiratory issues. ”

From a consumer standpoint, people should not purchase items carelessly while relying on the return policy.

As citizens, we should follow the steps of Denmark and push for more eco-friendly solutions to disposal. While the issue is just one in a great list of environmental harms and may not affect us directly, if it is prolonged, we will face the repercussions in terms of pollution of our atmosphere and essential resources. Many beloved landmarks and areas of land will become  sites for waste storage and incineration. Next time you order something on Amazon, reconsider the need for the item, the environmental cost of possibly returning the item, as well as the moral duty humans have to protect the planet we call home.

This story was originally published on Wildcat Tribune on April 11, 2022.