As reported by the CBC News, journalists working for Marketplace recently conducted an investigation into where Amazon Canada returns ultimately end up and what kind of effect they have on the environment.
As part of the investigation, Marketplace journalists bought one dozen items from Amazon including, but not limited to, a backpack, some toys, a printer, and a coffee maker. The journalists installed hidden GPS trackers on the items and returned them in the same condition they were received in.
Tracking the items, the journalists discovered that only 4 of the 12 items purchased and then returned to Amazon were resold — the backpack which was seemingly in pristine condition but was argued as being defective upon receipt by Amazon was sent to a landfill, and the other items sat in Amazon warehouses or stayed in transit for months after they were returned.
According to Kevin Lyons, an associate professor at New Jersey’s Rutgers University and an expert in supply chain management and environmental policy, a whopping 30-40% of all merchandise sold online is returned, whereas brick-and-mortar stores see less than <10% sales returns in comparison.
When an item is returned to Amazon, and if the retailer deems that it cannot be resold to end-users, it is either sold by the truckload to liquidators, recycled, or sent to landfill (even liquidators send what they cannot sell to landfill).
Optoro, a tech firm specializing in streamlining the process of sorting through sales returns, estimates that $400 billion worth of items sold are returned to retailers every year, the majority of which are items sold online. These returns generate 5 billion pounds of waste — most of it e-waste — which is sent to landfill in the U.S.
“Our recycling system, not only in Canada but around the world, is extremely, extremely broken,” said Meera Jain, an eco-blogger and avid Amazon shopper who was disappointed to learn about the fate of a significant percentage of Amazon returns.
Jain talked about the drawbacks of the free-returns policy pioneered by Amazon and adopted by many other eCommerce websites, and how reselling, re-gifting, or somehow re-homing items you don’t want would be preferable to the alternative of returning them, which might end up harming the environment.