Every year we ship billions of packages to our customers around the world and we aim to ensure that every order arrives safe and sound. This means that we think carefully about how the millions of different products sold in Amazon stores should be packaged and protected in transit.
We’ve created machine algorithms to help ensure customers’ items are packaged appropriately, and if there’s space left inside the package, it’s filled with essential protective packaging in case of need. Over the past three years, we’ve invested in new technologies to match optimal package sizes to customer products, and since 2015, Amazon has reduced outbound packaging weight per shipment by more than 38%. This avoided the use of more than 1.5 million tons of packaging material.
And we also strive to drastically reduce the occasions when customers receive our products in larger boxes than they should be. When packages are the right size, we can fit more in each van, reducing the number of deliveries, helping us reach our goal of being zero carbon by 2040.
Why does excessive packaging happen?
The millions of different products that our customers can buy on Amazon can vary in size and shape, from tiny (for example, earrings or SD cards) to very large items such as gym equipment. Items also require different amounts of padding and protection.
Even though we have over 80 different packaging formats available in our European distribution centers – from small cardboard envelopes to very large boxes – it can sometimes be difficult to pack a particular product efficiently. For example, ironing boards, ladders, tennis rackets and gardening tools such as rakes are awkwardly shaped, and some large, heavy, yet fragile items may only fit in the very large box available. In an effort to ensure that items reach our customers safely, some high value items are also shipped in packaging that conceals their contents.
Sometimes customers will receive a very small item that is inside a card envelope and ask why we used a larger wrapper than the item inside. In fact, this approach is deliberate. Very small items can easily be lost in transit or damaged by mechanical sorting systems. We must ensure that the packaging is large enough to hold a label with a customer address and strong enough to withstand processing by our automated systems. Very small envelopes can get stuck in machines or get lost inside delivery vehicles.
There are also safety rules for the shipment of certain products such as lithium batteries or flammable gases, which may present a risk to health, safety, property or the environment during transport and may have requirements regulations requiring the type of packaging used. Amazon ships these items in strong, sturdy packaging in accordance with these regulations, and this packaging may be larger. Another factor is that more than half of the products sold on Amazon come from third-party selling partners, many of which are small and medium-sized businesses. Some of these sellers ship goods directly to Amazon customers, which means we have no control over how they package these items, although we do encourage the use of more sustainable packaging.
Finally, there are rare instances where we have the wrong product dimensions in our systems or where the most suitable packaging is not available at the packing station.
What are we doing about it?
The first step we have taken is having a positive impact on all of our packaging: eliminating single-use plastic where possible and switching to 100% recyclable paper and cardboard alternatives across Europe. For example, in the UK, we have stopped packing items in single-use plastic delivery bags for orders from Amazon or third-party sellers that are dispatched from Amazon fulfillment centres. Instead, we pack these orders with paper bags or envelopes, both of which are easily recyclable with your usual household recycling. All paper bags, cardboard envelopes and cardboard boxes used by Amazon in Europe are 100% recyclable. We have also replaced the plastic air cushions used to secure the items inside the box with 100% recycled and recyclable wrapping paper.
The switch to cardboard envelopes is particularly important, as these envelopes are versatile, strong and sturdy enough to hold multiple items, including some that would previously have been packed in a much larger cardboard box. These new lightweight packaging formats mean customers are less likely to receive large, bulky deliveries. If it is possible for us to exchange a box for a cardboard envelope or lighter, flexible and more efficient paper bags, we will endeavor to do so, as long as the items inside remain protected and secure.
The best way to reduce packaging is to remove any extra packaging from Amazon. We are working with manufacturers to increase the quantity of what we call “Ship in Own Container” items. We encourage suppliers and sellers to provide their products in packaging that is already sturdy enough to withstand transportation and that does not require a box, envelope or Amazon bag. All Amazon needs is a shipping label and the product can be shipped as is, with no additional packaging materials.
The path to follow
An important new development concerns automation. We test new technologies that create bespoke paper packaging for each individual customer order, ensuring that the packaging matches the content.
Build-to-order technologies that create unique packaging for every customer order have the potential to help us eliminate excess packaging altogether.
By inventing new ways to package products using less material, over-packaging should increasingly be the exception and, in the future, packages should arrive at our customers’ doorsteps in perfectly fitting packaging.
Learn more about sustainability at Amazon.