Every week Amazon – the world’s biggest online retailer – sends tens of thousands of brand new laptops, TVs, books and other perfectly good products straight into landfill, or to be destroyed.
A shocking investigation by ITV has revealed how millions of new, unused or returned goods are ending up in bins destined to be dumped and burned. According to one account from a previous employee, the company sends Dyson fans and hoovers as well as Apple Macbooks and iPads to landfill or to be destroyed. Other items headed for the bin included unopened and unused face masks meant to keep people safe from Covid-19.
The revelations make a mockery of Amazon’s claims that it’s committed to being a zero waste organisation.
Why does Amazon destroy or throw away perfectly good products?
ITV’s investigation found a leaked document that showed more than 130,000 items that were marked “destroy” in one week in April, in one UK warehouse. The same document found that just 28,000 items in the same period were labelled “donate”. While Amazon clearly tries to do the right thing by donating some of the goods it doesn’t need – the scale of the amount being donated dwarfs the amount being trashed.
Multiplied by the number of Amazon’s operations around the world, the total numbers are frankly dizzying. But why does the company do this at all?
One reason might be that the stock is considered “unsellable” because it’s outdated or has been returned. And even if it’s in pristine condition, it may be simply more expensive to store while waiting for a buyer than to destroy.
What is clear is that Amazon, like all global corporations, works within a business model built on greed and speed.
Under this model, the shelf space in warehouses becomes more valuable than the items themselves. And the quicker items can be sold or destroyed, the quicker it can make space for more products – and the higher the companies’ profits.
The environmental and human cost of Amazon’s wastefulness is staggering
The practice of destroying unsold stock isn’t really new. Fashion companies have long been known to burn unsold or returned stock. In fact, most corporations making consumer products have a major problem with overproduction and oversupply – often leading to shockingly wasteful practices.
This overproduction wreaks havoc on our environment. It’s also awful for the people who are involved in mining the materials the products are made from, or those manufacturing the goods.
This is particularly true when it comes to tech products. The average laptop contains dozens of rare and precious metals. Overproduction of tech means ever higher demand for these metals – leading to more mining that uses child labour, or more justifications for mining that disrupts important ecosystems at the bottom of the sea.
And let’s not forget the costs to our overstretched waste system either. It’s well known that Amazon isn’t paying its fair share of taxes – taxes that are sorely needed for the safe disposal of waste like this, which can itself be complex and environmentally-damaging.
What Amazon is doing is not just foolish, or bad for the environment, it’s downright immoral
Not only is throwing away millions of products a complete waste of precious resources and human labour – the things don’t even get to be used at all, by anyone.
The pandemic has shone a light on the hardship faced by many families. Thousands of children don’t have proper learning equipment like laptops or computers, and just months ago this country was plunged into a crisis where we had a chronic shortage of personal protective equipment.
Amid all this, a company owned by the richest man in the world is throwing away brand-new items, to protect its profits. And all the while, Amazon workers continue to suffer poor working conditions and increased injuries during busy times; their hard work exploited for a small elite’s fortune.
So while the environmental impacts of destroying unused stuff are mind-boggling, what’s really scary is what this says about our society – how we value things, and workers, and how we help people in times of need.
How can this be stopped?
Other countries have laws to prevent this type of appalling waste, and our government needs to bring in similar legislation immediately.
Even more important than this, Amazon needs to know just how outrageous this looks for them – or it’ll only find more workarounds to continue its wasteful practices. For example, in Germany there are laws to stop Amazon from destroying new products. But early investigations from Greenpeace Germany show that the company is already finding ways around this – like forcing workers to cut up clothing so the company is legally allowed to destroy it.
Exposing the company’s awful policy to destroy millions of items of unsold stock will make a huge difference in forcing a change. And pushing Amazon to do better will force other companies to think more carefully about their business models and waste management plans.
Just imagine if we get Amazon to end its wasteful practices, it could be the beginning of a real sea change across the country – where companies can’t just get away with throwing their responsibility in the bin.