Every year, we ship billions of packages to our customers around the world and we aim to have every single order arrive undamaged and in good condition. That means we think carefully about how the millions of different products sold in Amazon’s stores should be packaged and protected in transit.
We’ve created machine algorithms to help ensure customers’ items are packed appropriately, and if there’s any space left over inside the package, it’s filled with essential protective packing when needed. Over the last three years, we’ve invested in new technology to match optimum package size with customers’ products, and since 2015 Amazon has reduced the weight of outbound packaging per shipment by more than 38%. That has avoided the use of more than 1.5 million tons of packaging material.
And we’re also getting much better at reducing those occasions when customers receive products from us in boxes that are bigger than they should be. When packages are the right size, we can fit more of them in every van, leading to fewer deliveries, which helps us with our goal to be net-zero carbon by 2040.
Why does excess packaging happen?
The millions of different products available for our customers to purchase 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 more than 80 different packaging formats available in our European fulfilment centres – from small card envelopes to very large boxes – sometimes a particular product can be difficult to pack efficiently. For example, ironing boards, ladders, tennis rackets and garden tools such as rakes are an awkward shape, and some bulky, heavy, and yet fragile items may only fit in the very largest box available. With our goal to ensure that items reach our customers safely and securely, some high-value items are also shipped in packaging that conceals their contents.
Sometimes customers will receive a very small item that’s inside a card envelope and will ask why we’ve used packaging that’s bigger than the item it contains. In fact, that approach is deliberate. Very small items can easily be lost in transit or damaged by mechanical sorting systems. We need to ensure that the packaging is large enough to take a label with a customer address, and strong enough to withstand processing by our automated systems. Very small envelopes can become jammed in machinery or lost inside delivery vehicles.
There are also safety rules for shipping certain products like lithium batteries or flammable gases, which can pose a risk to health, safety, property, or the environment while transported and may have regulatory requirements requiring the type of packaging used. Amazon ships these items in strong and solid packaging according to these regulations, and this packaging can be larger in size. Another factor is that more than half the products sold on Amazon are from third-party selling partners, many of which are small and medium-sized businesses. Some of those sellers ship goods directly to Amazon customers, which means we don’t have any control over how they package those 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 appropriate packaging is unavailable at the packing station.
What are we doing about it?
The first step we’ve taken is one that has a positive impact across all of our packaging: removing single-use plastic where possible and switching to 100% recyclable paper and cardboard alternatives across Europe. For example, in the UK we stopped packing items in single-use plastic delivery bags for orders from Amazon or third-party sellers that are despatched from Amazon fulfilment centres. Instead, we’re packing these orders with paper bags or envelopes, both of which are easily recycled with your regular household recycling. All paper bags, cardboard envelopes and cardboard boxes used by Amazon in Europe are 100% recyclable. We have also replaced plastic air pillows used to secure items inside the box with 100% recycled and recyclable packing paper.
Switching to card envelopes is particularly important, because 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 it’s less likely customers will receive big and bulky deliveries. If it’s feasible for us to swap a box for a lighter, flexible and more efficient cardboard envelope or paper bags we will aim to do so, as long as the items inside remain protected and secure.
The best way to reduce packaging is to remove the need for any additional packaging from Amazon at all. We are working with manufacturers to increase the amount of what we call ‘Ships In Own Container’ items. We encourage vendors and sellers to supply their products within packaging that’s already robust enough to withstand transit and doesn’t require an Amazon box, envelope or bag. All that’s needed from Amazon is a delivery label and the product can be shipped as-is, with no additional packaging materials.
The way forward
An important new development is in automation. We are testing new technologies that create bespoke paper-based packaging for each individual customer order, ensuring that packaging fits the contents.
Build-on-demand technologies that create a unique package for each customer order have the potential to help us eliminate excess packaging altogether.
By inventing new ways to package products using less material, excess packaging should increasingly be the exception and, in the future, packages should arrive on our customers’ doorsteps in packaging that is a perfect fit.
Read more about sustainability at Amazon.