How Amazon's freezer bags heat the earth

Part two of HEATED's investigation into Prime Now's silver grocery delivery bags.

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ICYMI: Yesterday’s issue investigated, from a waste perspective, the silver freezer bags that come in Whole Foods delivery orders from Amazon Prime Now. It revealed that the bags are not recyclable, despite claims by both Amazon and Insulated Products Corp (the company that makes the bags) that they are. I recommend reading it before reading today’s issue.

It was a fun and easy issue, relatively speaking. Today’s issue is more serious and sciencey. It’s the important part, though—it examines how Amazon’s mass production of things like single-use freezer bags pose a significant threat to the climate, and explores how both Amazon and its consumers can do better. I tried to make it easy, but maybe drink some coffee first? Or don’t. I’m sure it’s fine.

Let’s get to it.

A new waste stream, delivered to your door

Remember when Whole Foods grocery delivery from Amazon Prime Now didn’t exist? Remember when the entire concept of getting groceries delivered to your home on-demand didn’t exist?

It wasn’t that long ago. In 2015, online grocery delivery services were barely a thing.

When the market started to gain steam in 2016, though, participating grocery companies had a choice. They could deliver groceries in the same paper bags they were already using, and transport them in the same type of refrigerated trucks they got groceries in. Or they could skip the trucks, and add a new layer of packaging that could keep things cold.

In Amazon and Whole Foods’ case, they chose to add that layer of packaging. And the layer they chose was a non-recyclable, single-use item, with no easy option to return it to the company.

Thus, Amazon created a new market for a particular type of single-use packaging, and an entirely new type of waste stream—neither of which existed four years ago.

Three of Insulated Products Corp’s brolic CooLiner bags, sent with my Amazon Prime Now order from Whole Foods. Bananas for scale, and because bananas are great.

More packaging waste, more emissions

If Amazon continues to rely on single-use, non-recyclable material to insulate and ship groceries—and demand for its Prime Now grocery delivery service continues to grow—the increase in new freezer bags won’t just fill up landfills. It will hurt the fight to stem the climate crisis, said Susan Collins, the executive director of the Container Recycling Institute.

By creating demand for this new petroleum-based product, and thus a new waste stream, Collins said Amazon is adding to the carbon intensity of the entire grocery production life cycle. That’s important, she said, because “The production of all of our stuff is our number one creator of greenhouse gases.”

People usually don’t talk about climate change this way, but it’s true. We usually talk about greenhouse gas creators by sector—the transportation sector, the electricity sector, the farming sector, the manufacturing sector. But in 2009, Collins noted, scientists at the EPA decided to look at carbon emissions in a different way: “If all the trucks are out there, using the roads, what's in the trucks? If all those factories are out there spewing toxins, what are the factories making? If these power plants are burning carbon, what are they powering?”

It’s our stuff. The study found that the way Americans procure, produce, deliver and dispose of goods and services accounted for nearly half of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The most climate-damaging part of that process, however, is not the way consumers use and dispose of stuff. It’s not even the way companies transport our stuff. The study found that by far, the most climate-damaging part of the supply chain is the way manufacturers make our stuff.

“I've seen so many life cycle studies on packaging materials, and it always comes out the same,” Collins said. “If you break down the greenhouse gas data, it is the very first phase—the extraction or mining of the material—that is always the biggest, and dwarfs all the other phases.”

The issue is not just that Amazon’s freezer bags are non-recyclable. It’s that they’re not made of recycled material. That means every time another bag is made, materials have to be extracted from the earth. By relying on freezer bags made of non-recycled material, Amazon is increasing demand for extraction: the most greenhouse-gas intensive phase of the goods production cycle. And by making it impossible to recycle that material, Amazon is ensuring that extraction will have to continue for it to continue its delivery business.

This new waste stream of freezer bags might not be the biggest deal right now. Only 10 percent of shoppers in the U.S. regularly order their groceries online, and Amazon makes up only one portion of that.

But the online grocery market’s value is expected to quadruple over the next few years, according to Business Insider’s 2019 Online Grocery Report.

And guess which company is expected to lead the way?

It doesn’t have to be this way

I’m sure there are only grocery delivery services that send things in similar single-use, non-recyclable insulation bags, made of non-recycled material. But this newsletter is targeting Amazon’s bags in particular, because, well, those are the bags that I decided to investigate. Also, because Amazon is the biggest online grocery deliverer.

Amazon also just does not have to be doing this. There are myriad ways to reduce the demand for material extraction that comes with all these bags. One of those options is simply providing the option for re-use. Amazon could put monetary deposits on the bags and have people return them for cash. It could have a packaging drop-off box at every one of their Whole Foods locations. Weekly or monthly customers could put bags out by their doors for delivery people to pick up when they drop new ones off. None of these are currently options Amazon offers. (I’ve heard from readers that some Whole Foods stores have accepted freezer bag returns, and others have rejected them).

Amazon could also just use some of its billions of dollars in profits to change the materials it uses for grocery delivery. “I get fresh fruits and vegetables delivered to my doorstep every week by Farm Fresh, and they put it all in a cardboard box that’s not taped up, just folded,” Collins said. “I empty the box, fold it and store it under my couch, and put it out on our doorstep for Farm Fresh to pick up when my next order arrives. And these boxes get used over and over. If Farm Fresh can do it, Amazon can do that.”

Amazon could also spend some of its billions doing research about how to truly recycle some of these multi-material packages. They could also provide better, more accessible information to its consumers on how to actually recycle its materials.

But those last two options are the very least it could do—and in a way, the very worst it could do. Because for decades, the manufacturing and packing industries have tried to sell recycling as consumer burden, in an explicit attempt to get people to buy more stuff and take the blame for waste production off themselves. So long as consumers blame themselves for not recycling, they are not thinking of the corporations who continue to extract materials to make stuff that’s impossible to recycle.

Want to be a more environmentally conscious consumer? Remember that, and demand better.

HOT ACTION: Grocery edition

I have received so many emails containing suggestions for actions consumers like us and corporations like Amazon can take to reduce packaging waste. You guys really are my most valuable resource, and you make my job easier. So thank you.

Here are a few I pulled from the bunch.

From California-based reader Cooper Wetherbee:

[This type of packaging] is something that was bothering me about my Imperfect Produce deliveries too, but before I got a chance to complain, Imperfect actually dropped a card in my produce box mentioning that they will take back the bags for reuse if left on the doorstep the day of your next delivery.

Obviously easier to do this when deliveries are scheduled for regular intervals, but might be an interesting Heated Action campaign to have people pressure Amazon to commit to a similar pickup/reuse policy.

From Colorado-based reader Jeanne Robinson:

I receive fish deliveries from Wild Alaskan Company, and I emailed them to ask about their insulting materials. They appear to be Styrofoam wrapped in green plastic. [But] the Styrofoam-looking material is actually biodegradable (corn?) and can go in compost. I did a test—it dissolves in water. The green plastic I take with other plastic bags to my grocery store which recycles it. Not only that, their fish is delicious—a plug!

Maybe Amazon Prime could look into this.

From Illinois-based reader Kevin Robinson (no relation to the above Robinson, just a weird coincidence):

1) While it's important for all of us to have a stake in climate change and the environment, whether you ordered those groceries or not doesn't really matter. Retail change won't save us—we need wholesale change to accomplish the kind of transformation we're seeking. The fact that you're crunched for time and need to eat while you work is the fault of capitalism, not a moral failing on your part.

2) With that in mind, Twitter says you live in D.C. Did you know that Safeway allows you to shop online (from one of their conveniently located, unionized stores) and will pack your groceries for pick (on foot, bike or public transit) or have them delivered? We order groceries online from Mariano's (a unionized Kroger brand in Chicago) and everything comes in recyclable paper bags, that I also use to light my grill and my outdoor fireplace on cool nights.

Also, just a quick P.S., I still haven’t heard from Amazon or IPC. If they ever get back to me, I’ll let you all know.

OK, that’s all for today—thanks for reading HEATED!

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See ya tomorrow!