Amazon shifting to recycled paper filling for packages in North America

Amazon is making a significant change in its packaging approach by replacing plastic air pillows with recycled paper in North America, aiming for better environmental sustainability and improved functionality.

The company revealed on Thursday that 95% of the plastic air pillows have already been swapped for paper filler in North America, with a goal of completely eliminating them by the end of the year.

"We want to ensure that customers receive their items undamaged, while using as little packaging as possible to avoid waste, and prioritizing recyclable materials," Amazon stated.

This move represents Amazon’s largest effort to reduce plastic packaging in North America so far, expected to eliminate almost 15 billion plastic air pillows annually.

Amazon indicated that nearly all Prime Day deliveries next month will be devoid of plastic air pillows.

Environmental group reactions

Environmental groups have long criticized Amazon's plastic use. Oceana, a nonprofit organization, has been particularly vocal, releasing reports on the company's plastic packaging practices.

Matt Littlejohn, senior vice president of strategic initiatives at Oceana, acknowledged Amazon's progress but called for further action.

"While this is a significant step forward for the company, Amazon needs to build on this momentum and fulfill its multiyear commitment to transition its North America fulfillment centers away from plastic," Littlejohn said in a prepared statement. "Then, the company should expand these efforts and also push innovations like reusable packaging to move away from single-use packaging everywhere it sells and ships."

Amazon has also seen support from its investors, who have pushed the company to outline its waste reduction strategies.

In 2022, Amazon disclosed its single-use plastic usage for the first time, reporting 85,916 metric tons—a decrease of 11.6% from 2021—after investors demanded more transparency on waste reduction plans.

The shift away from plastic air pillows began in October at an automated fulfillment center in Ohio. Amazon used this location to test and refine the process, finding that the paper filler, made from 100% recyclable content, provides equal or better protection during shipping compared to plastic air pillows.

Christian Garcia, an employee at Amazon's fulfillment center in Bakersfield, California, noted that the new paper filler is easier to handle and that the updated machinery provides more workspace, simplifying the packing process.

Broader waste reduction initiatives

In addition to these changes, Amazon is pursuing other waste reduction initiatives, such as shipping items without additional packaging. In 2022, 11% of all Amazon packages worldwide were shipped without extra delivery packaging.

Amazon is also experimenting with new technology from artificial intelligence and robotics company Glacier to automate the sorting of recyclables and collect real-time data on recycling streams. Additionally, the company is collaborating with the U.S. Department of Energy on new materials and recycling programs.