Skip to main content

Shareholders push Amazon to reveal its plastic footprint

Shareholders push Amazon to reveal its plastic footprint


There are disputed estimates of the company’s plastic problem

Share this story

If you buy something from a Verge link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Amazon Fulfilment Center In Sosnowiec
Amazon fulfilment center in Sosnowiec, Poland, in May 2019.
Photo by Beata Zawrzel / NurPhoto via Getty Images

A group of shareholders has asked Amazon to disclose how much of its plastic packaging winds up in the environment. The retail giant’s plastic pollution could damage the company’s reputation or lead to financial penalties from regulatory action or clean-up costs, according to the shareholder proposal. So they’d like to see a report published by December that shows how much plastic waste the retail giant is responsible for and what it’s doing to reduce plastic packaging.

Amazon has stayed pretty tight-lipped about its plastic problem. It was accused of generating 465 million pounds of plastic packaging waste in 2019 by the nonprofit organization Oceana. More than 22 million pounds of that trash wound up in freshwater and marine ecosystems, according to the Oceana report

“What you don’t measure you cannot manage.”

Amazon clapped back to say that the report was overblown. The company told The Verge in a statement at the time that it only used about a quarter of the plastic that Oceana said it does. If that’s the case, then the company used about 116 million pounds of plastic in 2019. But Amazon did not confirm that figure with The Verge or in its opposition statement to the new shareholder resolution. (The company did not respond to another inquiry from The Verge today.)

“What you don’t measure you cannot manage,” Anne Schroeer, a director of strategic initiatives at Oceana, said to The Verge last year. “Obviously, it would be much better if Amazon would publish their plastic footprint.”

If the shareholder proposal passes a vote, that could finally happen. The proposal was led by the shareholder activist group As You Sow. The organization filed similar proposals with at least nine other companies this year, including Walmart, Target, and McDonald’s.

Amazon is believed to use more flexible plastic packaging than nearly any other company, according to the activist shareholders. While Amazon’s plastic mailers might have the classic “chasing arrows” symbol associated with recycling, they can’t actually be recycled in most curbside pick-up programs. Very few customers drop off the mailers at a location that can actually process them, according to a survey of 600 Amazon Prime customers conducted by Oceana. 

Only about 9 percent of plastic waste has ever been recycled, according to a big 2017 study published in the journal Science Advances. But plenty of it has wound up in ocean garbage patches, in animals’ bellies, and even into our own bodies as microplastic.