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Amazon waste outrage demands decisive action

The Research Project works to prevent waste and encourage repair. Their lead and co-founder Janet Gunter reflects on the Amazon waste story and how the UK government needs to take decisive action now.

Last month, on the eve of Amazon’s own Prime Day shopping event, ITV dropped a big bomb – smoking-gun evidence of the online retailer’s long-time practice of destroying returned products or those that don’t sell fast enough.

This story went viral, with the whistle-blower’s video footage from the warehouse, their personal testimony on camera, and the hard data, revealing the shocking extent of the waste. There were 124,000 items marked for destruction in one week alone, in one Scottish warehouse, including computers, tablets and mobiles.

Greta Thunberg rightly commented: “This is just ONE warehouse. If you have a system where this [is] possible – and even profitable – that’s a clear sign that something is fundamentally wrong.”

The outrage was such that even the Prime Minister was forced to comment on the story. He blamed a “consumerist society”. The fact is, it’s our consumerist economy that is to blame.

And the government sets the rules of the game in our economy, through tax and regulation.

Amazon’s practices are not “bizarre” as Boris Johnson claims, they are a feature of the economy years of government policy created. Amazon’s practices are legal, and they have been open secrets for years. Investigations by French documentarists and the Daily Mail revealed these practices years ago. France even legislated against Amazon’s dumping. Europe is said to be looking into a similar ban.

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Meanwhile, in the UK, subsequent governments have dragged their feet on waste prevention, resource policy and electronic waste. The independent Committee on Climate Change just said as much in their most recent report to Parliament.

Government is paying lip service to the issues, holding consultations and allocating small pots of money for research or limited action. But beholden to industry and chasing a model of growth that worships consumption, ministers have proven themselves incapable of ambitious targets or action.

My organisation, The Restart Project, works at the grassroots to prevent waste, helping people learn repair skills and save products from waste. People we work with have had it with our throwaway economy.

Together with other community repair groups across the UK, we wrote the Manchester Declaration to press the government to act to guarantee our Right to Repair products when they break. We’ve gained endorsements from Labour and Tory backbenchers, Liberal Democrats and, of course, the Green Party.

Is recycling the solution when these products have never been used, especially with a growing digital divide? Surely not

Research by Green Alliance shows broad public support for government action.In a 2018 poll, 75 per cent of respondents believed the government should be responsible for ensuring that businesses produce repairable and recyclable products. An even greater number (85 per cent) think we have a moral responsibility to make better use of resources.

But when given a strong roadmap for action to prevent electronic waste by Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee last year, the government shrugged.

Even now, after last month’s bombshell, all we hear from Defra minister George Eustice is that they are looking into how to force Amazon to recycle unused products. In other words, actually enforcing existing laws. But is recycling the solution when these products have never been used, especially with a growing digital divide? Surely not.

This Amazon waste story is global, and it strikes only months before the UK plays host to the COP26 climate summit. To win any confidence both here in the UK and with world leaders, the government must set ambitious targets on resource reduction, and take immediate action. We need a ban on destruction of unsold goods, a real Right to Repair, and a taxation system that reduces our resource consumption.

Janet Gunter is Outreach Lead and Cofounder of The Restart Project, which helps people learn how to repair their broken electronics, and rethink how they consume them in the first place. You can sign Restart’s petition for a real right to repair at therestartproject.org

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