Amazon’s waste scandal: awful, but what next?

To one inured to environmental scandal, the ITV News story that Amazon’s Dunfermline warehouse targets 130,000 items a week for destruction is one of the few genuinely shocking environmental stories of the last six months.  There is a powerful economic beauty and convenience to just-in-time delivery and the logistics and warehousing systems that enable it. They have also made Amazon one of the largest companies in the world.

However, the fact that the final step of working out the logistics of getting unsold goods to secondary markets rather than destroying them smacks not of a smart business model but poor prioritisation, as well as mis-aligned market incentives at best, and executive level mismanagement at worst.

The response so far has come from the highest levels, with Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, describing it as ‘bizarre and unacceptable’. Meanwhile, Kwasi Kwarteng, the Secretary of State for Business, said he was ‘very surprised’, that it ‘would be very disappointing if this is true’, and that ‘Amazon should do the right thing’.

Other government sources were reported to say legislation may be needed if Amazon does not change, potentially following France’s lead where it has been made illegal to send unsold non-food products to waste – businesses must instead reuse, recycle, or redistribute everything to those in need.

Amazon’s response to ITV News stated:

We do not send a single item to landfill in the UK. Every year we donate millions of products to charities across the country. We’ve got more work to do but our goal is to get to zero product disposal.

The ITV report contradicts Amazon, saying there is evidence non-electrical goods go to landfill. Irrespective of this is the fact that those items sent for destruction and not going to recycling or landfill will be heading for incineration – where roughly 6% of all the United Kingdom’s (UK) waste is sent.

So what next?

Pending discussions with Amazon, Her Majesty’s (HM) Government may be tempted to follow France’s lead and draft an isolated piece of legislation addressing this single issue.

Yet, this isolated action would itself be a waste. Instead, the Amazon revelation should be used to revive the work initially launched by Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, to overhaul the UK’s waste system, since continued by George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and Rebecca Pow, Parliamentary Under Secretary at the same department. 

Some of the proposals have no doubt run into the sand; however, they should be dug out forthwith – the opportunity to effect improvements through a degree of standardisation with how waste is treated across local authorities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should not be neglected.

The UK may not go as far as Sweden, whose waste management systems are so well rounded that they import waste. However, HM Government should certainly get the UK’s own waste management systems in order. This includes the responsibilities of producers, retailers, incentive schemes for things like bottle returns and the issue of waste exportation to countries unable to handle it appropriately.

As the late Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the European Union (EU), often said: ‘Europe will be forged in crises’ and although this is perhaps more a scandal than a crisis, it also affords a mini-opportunity, this time for the UK.

William Young is a William Stanley Jevons Associate Fellow in Environmental Security at the Council on Geostrategy. He is also Director of BloombergNEF.

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