The dark side of free Prime Day returns

Exposé shows one Amazon facility shreds up to 130,000 products a week

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Kevin O'Reilly
Director, Campaign for the Right to Repair

Author: Kevin O'Reilly

Director, Campaign for the Right to Repair

(617) 286-4658

Started on staff: 2018
B.S., B.A., cum laude, University of San Diego

Kevin helps run U.S. PIRG's Right to Repair campaign. He got his start as a Change Corps organizer, where he worked with Mighty Earth to call on Bridgestone to stop deforestation and human exploitation for natural rubber. He also led an effort to get a majority of both houses of the Massachusetts state Legislature to co-sponsor the 100% Renewable Energy Act. Kevin lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, where he enjoys reading, running and rooting for his Oakland A's from afar.

Amazon Prime Day, the unofficial American celebration of endless consumption, has come and gone. Maybe you got a killer deal on a new TV or a new toaster, but when you opened the box, it didn’t turn out to be the product you were hoping for. So you decided to send it back. 

What happens after that? A shocking new report found that a single Amazon facility throws away millions of unused products each year, meaning your unused stuff could be headed for the landfill.  

New hobby, new stuff

My new year’s resolution was to learn to cook. Over the past six-plus months, I upgraded from frozen quinoa burgers to serious meals: braised carnitas tacos with homemade slaw, grilled swordfish with cherry tomato confit (that’s pronounced con-fee for my fellow cooking neophytes), even a frozen cherry granita with lime-infused, hand-whipped cream.

In addition to the new dishes and tastes, I’ve been introduced to a whole new world of stuff. To unlock your food’s flavor, it seems, you need a Le Creuset Dutch oven and a Vitamix blender. Do you have a good kitchen knife? What about the right containers to store your leftovers? The pile of must-haves amassed into a mountain in my mind. 

So imagine my excitement when I found out my brother and his girlfriend, in the process of moving into a new home and combining their wares, planned to toss a bunch of extra kitchen gadgets. “Don’t do it!” I exclaimed, “I’ll give that stuff a new home.”

Look at that haul!

I hauled back good-as-new plates, bowls and napkins, a hand-mixer, all sorts of lidded Pyrex containers, and my personal favorite: a crème brûlée blow torch.

Of course, I didn’t end up with every tool recommended for aspiring chefs. Enter Amazon Prime Day. The onslaught of discounted gadgets could make a serious dent in that never-ending list. Bon Appetit even released a handy guide highlighting the best Prime deals. It was tempting to buy all this stuff, since it was just a few clicks away.

Primed for the trash

For many, Prime Day offers deals too enticing to ignore. Even if you steer clear of Amazon.com, many prominent news outlets cover the sales as thoroughly as the State of the Union address. Who can say no to a $50 Instant Pot? Or Sony noise-canceling headphones for $88? And with free returns, you can always send them back for a full refund.

The problem with these “free” returns is that our planet shoulders the cost.  

A former employee of the Dunfermline, UK, Amazon fulfillment center revealed that staff were routinely told to destroy unused products — some of them returned, some brand new, and many still in their original packaging. According to that former employee, the warehouse-wide quota was 130,000 products destroyed each week. 

This is appalling. 

We need a better way to handle our stuff 

On U.S. PIRG’s Right to Repair Campaign, we work to extend the lifespan of our electronics by making sure that we have the repair materials we need to fix stuff when it breaks. Proper repair is vital. If every American extended the average lifespan of their smartphones by just one year, we could save the carbon emissions equivalent of taking 636,000 cars off the road for a year.

But even in cases where a lack of good repair options leads to their early disposal, our phones or tablets or washing machines were used for some period of time. The same cannot be said for the laptops, power drills and jewelry Amazon reportedly throws out daily. 

We dug into the earth to extract the needed resources, consumed energy and created industrial waste to manufacture the thing, and burned the fuel needed to transport it from the factory floor to an Amazon fulfillment center to the customer before going back to Amazon and finally ending up in the landfill. We did all of that for a product that never saw the light of day.

Why not donate these items to someone who can use them? As Right to Repair Campaign Senior Director Nathan Proctor told VICE, “companies don't want a secondary use market of equipment that undermines the sale of new goods. By taking some amount of products out of circulation, it supports the markets that they're trying to create.” 

Vendors would rather sell you a new thing that will be stocked on the shelf in a day's time. That constant churn of products drives their bottom line, so it makes sense for companies to continue this cycle of overproduction and needless destruction. 

But this cycle can’t last forever. The rare earth metals that power our devices will eventually run out. The atmosphere will only tolerate so much carbon before our planet becomes uninhabitable. Our current rate of consumption is not sustainable.

We need to value the things that we make and the earth that allows us to make them by making devices last as long as possible. We need to fight our impulses for more stuff and make do with the abundance already at our fingertips. We need to hold accountable the powerful interests that pressure us to buy more and toss more. 

One of the things I love about cooking is experimenting. A recipe is simply a set of guidelines to use as a starting point. Don’t have lemons? Those two limes in your fruit basket will do. And don’t just zest them — squeeze the juice on the finished product for an extra kick of acidic goodness. Some of my favorite meals have come from combining the leftovers and odds and ends in my kitchen and pantry. They may not be as glamorous as a dish cooked from scratch, but they are dang tasty.

We should look at our ever-growing collections of stuff with a similarly creative eye. Do we really need those new headphones, or can we make do with the ones we already have? A simple repair could make them good as new. That’s one less device we have to mine, manufacture and transport. 

I’ll take that over free shipping any day.

Kevin O'Reilly
Director, Campaign for the Right to Repair

Author: Kevin O'Reilly

Director, Campaign for the Right to Repair

(617) 286-4658

Started on staff: 2018
B.S., B.A., cum laude, University of San Diego

Kevin helps run U.S. PIRG's Right to Repair campaign. He got his start as a Change Corps organizer, where he worked with Mighty Earth to call on Bridgestone to stop deforestation and human exploitation for natural rubber. He also led an effort to get a majority of both houses of the Massachusetts state Legislature to co-sponsor the 100% Renewable Energy Act. Kevin lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, where he enjoys reading, running and rooting for his Oakland A's from afar.