Amazon Prime packages are loaded on a cart for delivery in New York.
Enlarge Icon
Amazon Prime packages are loaded on a cart for delivery in New York.
Credit: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File

After the online shopping binge, a plastic packaging hangover

We’re entering the biggest shopping season of the year. For many people, that means online shopping — packages piled on doorsteps, delivery cars and vans whipping down streets.

But what do we do with the packaging after we rip it open?

The tl;dr version:

  • Boxes can be recycled. But envelopes are complicated.
  • The mixed paper and plastic enveloped have to be trashed.
  • Amazon has an all-plastic mailer that looks like it could be recycled. But like other flat plastics, these mailers actually muck up the recycling machinery. Cities like Seattle want us to take these kinds of plastics to a recycling bin in a store.
  • Amazon has a new all-paper mailer. It's fully recyclable, but it's also heavy, so Amazon may choose to use it less frequently.

A (very) brief history of the plastic bubble mailer

It is up to Amazon to ensure that the millions of things it sells reach their destinations in good shape. Delivery is expensive, so the company also focuses on efficiency. Recently, that focus on efficiency has meant a change away from the smiley cardboard box.

Amazon created a plastic mailer that is light and protective. About a quarter of the stuff it used to ship in a box is now coming to us in these envelopes.

The little bubble mailer has solved some of Amazon’s delivery problems.

But the burden of disposing that mailer falls on consumers — many of whom are confused about which bin to put it in — and on the local governments tasked with managing waste.

Where does it all go?

Most of us want to believe in recycling. We toss it in the bin, expecting that our waste will be transformed into something new.

We enjoy having a garbage bin that is much smaller than our recycling bin.

And because of our confusion over where to put flat plastics like Amazon plastic mailers, our plastics are accumulating in both the recycling and the trash.

But all of our trash and recycling ends up somewhere. We visited the landfill and recycling plant to see where many plastic mailers actually end up.

Pat McLaughlin, the boss at Cedar Hills Regional Landfill, took us to watch the garbage being released from the transfer trailer. One look was enough: the vast majority of what we throw away is plastic.

“Most everything came here in a plastic bag and inside that plastic bag were more plastic bags," McLaughlin said. “There’s a lot of what we call single-use plastic bags and film that don’t belong here.”

Plastics like bubble mailers and plastic bags don't have to be in the landfill. They can be recycled.

But there’s a catch — they don't belong in your curbside recycling bin.

What happens when you throw a plastic bubble mailer in the recycling?

At a Recology recycling facility in south Seattle, the contents of recycling bins fly by on a conveyor belt. Workers use both hands to grab the stuff that’s not recyclable and throw it in the trash.

Most of what they have to pull out is plastic. And it's a job for people because the machines inside this facility cannot do it.

There is a machine that separates paper from plastic, but it works for things like plastic bottles, not thin plastics like Amazon's ubiquitous plastic mailer.

So the plastic gets into the paper stream, where it's not supposed to go. It also wraps around the discs of the separator — so workers have to stop the machine, climb into it and cut the plastic off.

As we watched, a little white plastic bubble mailer vaulted up and over the separator, heading for the paper recycling system. We also watched mailers evade capture by another set of grasping workers and head off to be baled up with the paper.

Once in the bale, the plastic devalues the paper it's with. And if the paper recycler decides the bale is too contaminated, the whole thing is send to a landfill.

So those plastic mailers that we put in the curbside bin, hoping they will find a new life, actually sabotage our recycling efforts.

Okay, so where do Amazon plastic mailers go?

Governments want us to take flat plastics to recycling bins inside stores, where they can be recycled into things like plastic decking without going near a municipal facility.

However, most people don't do this: only an estimated 5 percent of recyclable plastic makes its way to a store bin.

Amazon’s new packaging does allow the company to be more efficient, but it has a hidden cost. The influx of plastic packaging makes it difficult for recycling plants to do their work, making recycling more expensive and less effective.

And most of these mailers end up in the landfill.

Listen to this week's episode of Primed to learn more about Amazon's secret packaging design laboratory and what happens to packaging after we throw it away.

Music this episode includes Ripples on an Evaporated Lake by Raymond Scott.