The boxes with the smiling logo are iconic. Retail giant Amazon has been using them in advertisements for years. But early in August, 2019, the company announced a plan to move away from them for singly shipped small items, towards standardized plastic shipping bags it calls SmartPacs.

SmartPacs, which are slightly padded envelopes large enough to hold items about the size of a large book or a boxed mug, have now been rolled out across the world by the company. They are marked as recyclable. But many cities don’t allow bags in curbside recycling, which draws criticism about the choice to move to bags rather than cardboard boxes.

Amazon says it is “working to improve” its packaging options. “Over the past 10 years, our sustainable packaging initiatives have eliminated more than 244,000 tons of packaging materials, avoiding 500 million shipping boxes,” an Amazon spokesperson said.

Single-use plastics like these SmartPacs are contributing to a global trash crisis. Nearly nine million tons of plastic waste wind up in the ocean each year, and plastic bags are a not-insignificant part of that. Many municipalities in the U.S. and Europe have banned single-use bags, but Amazon’s shipping packages won’t fall under such a ban.

Honestly, this feels like a step backwards for Amazon. More than a decade ago, in 2008, the growing giant made a commitment that the individual packaging of products being “frustration-free,” which meant no plastics and no wire. They still package the items they sell that way. But shipping those items inside a plastic bag seems to wipe out the benefit.

Andy Taylor, a British retail manager, told the BBC, “I’ve had a few of these deliveries recently. [Amazon] almost seems to be completely blind to the shift to more ecologically sound practices generally by business.”

On the pro side for these SmartPacs, membrane-style plastic has a smaller carbon footprint to produce and transport, and their reduced weight and bulk will lower shipping costs for Amazon.

Despite consumer protests, Amazon still simply urges customers to recycle the envelopes. If local trash pickup doesn’t take these new bags, many grocery stores accept recyclable bags for drop-off. Whether or not that has an effective result, with many recycling options closed to U.S. consumers since Asian countries stopped taking our waste, is a guessing game. But it’s something.

Photo by Hadrian /