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James Byrne headshot

How AI Helps Amazon Improve Sustainable Packaging

Artificial intelligence has helped Amazon boost sustainable packaging options while slashing waste, but there's still room for improvement on this front.
By James Byrne
Sustainable Packaging

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has an oft-repeated mantra that “it’s always day one” at his company. On that point, sustainable packaging at the e-commerce giant has been on the radar for some time.

As far back as 2008, the question of how to improve packaging was on the Bezos’ mind. Trying to unwrap heavily packaged Christmas presents with his kids was one reason he understood the need to transform Amazon’s packaging and get rid of what many have called “wrap rage.”

The result was what Amazon now calls “frustration-free packaging.” This means packaging that is easier to open, fully recyclable and avoids hybrid materials. More recently Amazon has turned to artificial intelligence (AI) to help make a dent in the company’s packaging waste, an equally compelling problem for the company given its large environmental impact.

Over the last five years, AI applications have helped Amazon achieve a 33 percent reduction in packaging requirements. That’s a saving of more than 915,000 tons of packaging material, which equates to the elimination of 1.6 billion shipping boxes. This was achieved through a partnership between its packaging experience team and its Amazon Web Services business to create a machine learning system for packaging requirements. The team used SageMaker, a cloud-based machine learning app, to automatically optimize packaging choices at fulfillment centers. What this has ultimately enabled is a greater flexibility in how every order is packaged for delivery.

AI quietly leads the way on sustainable packaging

AI has enabled Amazon to make more sustainable packaging decisions instantly. To have a human manually sort out the right packaging for every order at Amazon would simply be unworkable. This is because of the sheer size and variability of its product catalogue, which changes by the day, Kim Houchens, director of customer packaging at Amazon, told Fast Company.

Matthew Bales, a research science manager in Amazon’s customer packaging team, expressed similar sentiments in his interview with FastCo — remarking that it would take a human “greater than the time we have here on Earth” to do what AI algorithms can achieve effortlessly. With deliveries in July of this year estimated to have been over 415 million packages, it’s easy to see why AI is a compelling tool for Amazon to improve its sustainable packaging performance. Simply put, AI leads to more packaging innovation, which can handle the sheer volume and complexity of shipping requirements that Amazon’s business model demands.

According to the company, AI algorithms optimize Amazon’s packaging in numerous ways. For instance, the algorithms can specify padded mailers instead of boxes for certain items or deliveries, making packages lighter. This means more packages can fit on every truck, thereby reducing the amount of packaging that will ultimately need to be recycled. In turn, this decreases the overall carbon footprint per item while slashing delivery costs, a triple bottom line success story.

The algorithms also make decisions using real-world customer complaints data. This helps Amazon identify items that are usually overpackaged, as identified by customers. The algorithms can also suggest items in the cart that can be packaged together. Flexible items that can be packed around rigid items, for instance, help eliminate extra deliveries, boxes and mailers. The algorithms also feed into Amazon Prime Day, an annual sale for Amazon Prime subscribers.

Amazon’s climate pledge and how sustainable packaging fits in

This all fits into Amazon’s Climate Pledge Friendly program. This pledge is part of the company’s commitment to reach the Paris Agreement a decade early, with a target of being net-zero carbon by 2040. By introducing a climate friendly labelling system, Amazon says it hopes to steer shoppers toward more sustainable purchases. Incentives are now in place to encourage selling partners to invest in lower carbon products and to create more compact products that will need less packaging.

In addition, there is the company’s new partnership with the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. The partnership is designed to help encourage more sustainable products and procurement practices, which can help boost the circular economy.

Barriers to circular packaging

Depending on the source cited, Americans recycle 60 to 70 percent of cardboard, but that percentage is dropping — largely due to the surge in online orders, USA Today reports. Brick-and-mortar retailers and grocers, which could easily bale used cardboard boxes and sell them to recyclers, have been a large part of this recycling success story in the past.

Amazon, however, lacks physical stores where packaging could be returned for recycling or reuse. Meanwhile, Walmart, which says it is striving to lead on packaging waste, has recently been expanding on-site recycling facilities and hosting events at stores to educate consumers about recycling.

Amazon’s progress on AI, while successful, still faces huge challenges in improving its recycling and circularity performance. For example, the Washington Post, which Bezos owns, has noted that while Amazon's lightweight plastic mailers lead to a boost in shipping efficiency, they aren’t sortable in most recycling waste streams. The company continues to innovate and says it will do its part to improve both its sustainable packaging and recycling performance, but much work lies ahead.

Image credit: Unsplash

James Byrne headshot

James has been writing about investing and sustainable finance and development for over ten years. With a background in sustainability consulting, his book 'Green your business now', was used as the basis for a sustainable business accreditation scheme in the U.K. He also helped PepsiCo with branding and investment strategy for its Tropicana product line as part of its Performance with Purpose agenda. His views on sustainable development and responsible investing have been featured in Morningstar magazine and the UKs Urban Design Journal, an organization that promotes sustainable development. He has an active interest in ESG having written for ESG investor platform Curation, where he helped curate content used in environmental risk briefings for FTSE100 companies. Topics James has covered include governance issues, renewable energy adoption, accessible design, sustainability reporting and climate related financial risk disclosures.

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