Monday, April 28, 2014

Amazon Economics vs. the Good Green Earth

It’s everywhere. Stacked on countertops, spilling from overfull trash cans, hiding behind furniture where exuberant housecats batted it months ago. Every week, it seems I remove another garden-sized trash bag full of it. It’s packaging. Paper wrappers, heavy cardboard boxes, manila envelopes. I practically need a backhoe to shovel all this packaging from my house to the trash, and more seemingly arrives every single day.

Since I started accepting review books six years ago, I’ve received literally thousands of individually wrapped packages. I cannot count how many books I’ve received, much faster than I can read them, and I’ve graduated to reviewing CDs, DVDs, software, small electronics, kitchen utensils… In short, anything I’m qualified to review, at manageable risk, I’ll accept. (I appreciate manufacturers seeking my opinions on diapers and feminine hygiene, but I’ll pass.)

But every review product comes individually packaged. Even products originating from the same handling source get their own boxes, envelopes, mailing tubes, or whatever. I enjoy receiving these products, because I enjoy helping quality products find their market, plus my entertainment budget approaches zero. But shipping waste exceeds food packaging, damaged goods, and any other household waste I produce. I cannot calculate how much shipping trash I discard weekly.

Technology advocates tout this as commerce’s coming wave. Brick-and-mortar retailers will dwindle, providing only perishable foods and other high-turnover goods, while Amazon, eBay, ModCloth, and One Kings Lane will dominate consumer retailing. Yet every time I think of that, I look at the overwhelming piles of waste I produce: besides packaging, consider the carbon burned in shipping, the warehouse worker-hours, the costly road maintenance. E-commerce produces too damn much waste.

Industrial capitalism has long struggled with its waste output. This might’ve seemed like an academic discussion in early capitalist days, when heavy industry meant the occasional coal-burning Sheffield factory or sloppy Rockefeller oil field. But changing commerce models have diversified waste production patterns. Anyone who’s ever received one of Amazon’s famous shipments, overstuffed with absurdly unnecessary packaging, has participated in the problem.

Though most shipping material is produced from paper pulp, and is nominally recyclable and biodegradable, that doesn’t soothe my doubts. Unlike metal recycling, which pays modestly, paper recycling has vast marginal costs, meaning you only get paid at hugely high volumes; most recyclers buy paper at pennies per ton. High storage costs, bulky transportation, and low return means most paper never gets recycled, going straight to the landfill.

It’s hardly better there, though. Because space is valuable, most landfilled garbage gets pressed down, buried deep, and covered with more trash. More than about eight or ten feet down, landfill environments are anaerobic, meaning airtight, inaccessible to the oxygen which makes biodegradation possible. Putatively eco-friendly scrap will linger, largely intact and immune to decay, potentially for centuries; my trash will outlive me by orders of magnitude.

When Amazon unveiled its prototype delivery drone last year, media spokes-folks celebrated this breakthrough in convenience. I cringed at its extravagant energy consumption. Though touted as having electric batteries, and thus not burning carbon itself, its batteries would nevertheless almost certainly get charged from today’s coal-fired electric grid. One click, I receive my books or DVDs or clothes in three hours, and whoops! My carbon footprint goes through the roof.

Whenever I haul another plastic bag full of paper waste to the curb, I’m aware I should do more for God’s green earth. I don’t have to landfill my waste output. I don’t even have to accept the stuff people thrust my way. But fixing the problem directly exceeds my blue collar paycheck’s elasticity. And though I’m uncompensated for my reviews, this free stuff nevertheless positively offsets my living expenses.

Fixing the problem would create general benefits for humankind, but only at great personal expense. Participating in the problem costs me nothing, but creates diffuse ecological liabilities. Therefore, any means of separating from the problem equals permitting “Amazon economics” to pick my pocket, albeit indirectly. The problem is systemic, and therefore the system itself needs reformed; but such altruistic collectivism has become politically and socially unpalatable in this post-TARP economy.

I enjoy the convenience produced by Amazon and other eCommerce. But its current model relies upon automotive engines, paper milling, and electric generation technology that hasn’t advanced in nearly one hundred years. Like the housing bubble, the Amazon economy cannot survive as-is indefinitely. If Americans, and humans generally, hope to continue enjoying this convenience, we must address this waste production liability now, before it creates a dangerous, disgusting crisis.

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