The Detroit Post
Sunday, 28 November, 2021

Do Amazon Returns Go To Landfill

Paul Gonzalez
• Monday, 26 October, 2020
• 8 min read

Marketplace journalists posing as potential new clients went undercover for a tour at a Toronto e-waste recycling and product destruction facility with hidden cameras. CBC News is concealing her identity because both this company and others that help Amazon dispose of or resell its online returns are afraid they'll lose their contracts if they speak publicly.



Hidden cameras and secret GPS trackers reveal that some products sent back to Amazon Canada are being liquidated by the truckload and even destroyed or sent to the landfill. Eco-blogger Me era Jain was extremely disappointed to learn about how some Amazon returns are being shredded for recycling, or sent to landfill.

Jain likes the convenience of online shopping but worries about Amazon's carbon footprint. Kevin Lyons, an associate professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey who specializes in supply chain management and environmental policy, says that 30 to 40 per cent of all online purchases are sent back.

Of the 12 items returned, it appears only four were resold by Amazon to new customers at the time this story was published. Marketplace producers purchased a backpack just like this one on Amazon, and returned it in brand-new condition with a hidden tracker inside.

Marketplace journalists purchased three skids of Amazon returns at one of these auctions, and then asked a veteran liquidator to assess their value. Roy Birkbeck, who has been in the liquidation business for 27 years and has several stores across the country, says he regularly sees tractor trailer loads of online returns.

Amazon, however, did write the playbook on free returns, says Jason Goldberg, chief commerce strategy officer at Publicist Group, a global marketing and advertising agency. The tactic of enticing customers to buy more than they need and return what they don't want “has had tragic repercussions for the environment and business,” he says.

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Until recently, the option to have the item shipped back to the seller was three times more expensive than letting Amazon deal with the return. Amazon's senior public relations manager Alyssa Bronikowski said in a statement that Marketplace's investigation is inconsistent with the company's findings.

By one recent estimate, they accounted for 5 billion pounds of land filled waste in the U.S. alone and an additional 15 million tons of carbon emitted into the atmosphere. At a time when consumers and companies are otherwise rethinking consumption choices in light of climate change, e-commerce returns amount to a hidden environmental crisis.

Younger shoppers in particular are more inclined to treat online purchases as rentals, or to buy clothing to try on, then return what doesn’t fit or look good. The logistical burden of these returns is so heavy it’s inspired an entire industry devoted to dealing with unwanted stuff.

In 2017, Otero Inc., a company that helps retailers manage their returns, estimated that only 10% of the merchandise it handles ends up back on the shelves. But the high cost of transporting, sorting, and repackaging those goods also ensures that billions of pounds of returns end up in landfills and incinerators.

Making matters worse, getting those products from a dissatisfied customer's home to wherever they’ll end up is a carbon-heavy process. Even as companies like Amazon .com Inc. transition to more sustainable packaging, returns will continue adding to their resource usage.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. Only half of returns make it back onto shelves, the company estimates.

The rest, due to circumstances such as damages or opened boxes, take a different path. Once a product is returned, the retailer has to foot the cost for assessing the item and repackaging it.

A recent retail survey found that less than half of all goods can be resold at full cost. And if it's cheaper for the retailer to throw out returned goods rather try to resell them, they end up in the trash.

The returns process has become even more complicated as people continue to shop online. The National Retail Federation estimates 15% to 30% of items bought online will be returned -- about $32 billion worth.

Many retailers that were focused on building out the right technology and logistics to handle online sales ignored some problems that were created by e-commerce growth, according to Robin Moore, Co-founder and CEO of Otero. “They simply accept it as a price of doing business,” says Jonathan Byrnes, a senior lecturer at MIT's Center for Transportation & Logistics.

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Startup Happy Returns helps digitally native apparel retailers process their returns by providing customers physical locations where they can drop off items they want to send back. It lets Amazon customers return purchases at its stores -- and Kohl's gets a boost in foot traffic.

Online shopping has created a boom in perfectly good products ending up in dumpsters and landfills, according to Adrian Basil, an environmental journalist and managing editor of Corporate Knights magazine. Amazon has faced accusations of destroying returned items in both France and Germany.

British luxury fashion brand Burberry is going to stop burning unsold clothes, bags and perfume, and will instead focus on recycling and donating their leftover product. Basil spoke to The Current's Laura Lynch about how consumers can fight the rise in waste.

How is the boom in online shopping influencing how much good product just goes to waste? The increase of the volume of returns has exploded by 95 per cent over the last five years.

It actually costs a lot of companies more money to put somebody on the product, to visually eyeball it and say, Is this up to standard, is it up to code? We're buying more of our clothing online, but it's actually hard because you don't really know exactly the sizing.

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We will buy a medium, small and large or, you know, an 8, 10 and 12, and try them all on and then return the two that don't fit. The Current's Ben Jamieson went dumpster diving with a seasoned scavenger.

They were caught burning billions of dollars of clothes. And it was a scandal, you know, for people in the clothing industry.

Finding out, if you're a shopper, that billions of dollars are being burned because they do not want this ending up on the market, and undervaluing their clothes on shelves this year. Patagonia has started an online and a physical store for products that are maybe slightly damaged that they have repaired.

France is banning … having those go to landfill. Stores will sometimes dump returned goods rather than go through the process of checking and repackaging them.

Why won't company give the clothes to charities? But it's really symptomatic of a larger issue with kind of our consumer culture right now.

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And, so I would encourage you to partake in it and to look for brands that are actually part of the circular economy, that are, like Patagonia, repairing, refurbishing and fixing goods at the end of their life so that they can have a second life.

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