Amazon is facing fresh political scrutiny after an undercover investigation showed thousands of unsold products, including laptops, TVs, headphones and books – in some cases still in their packaging – being destroyed by the company.
The furore caused by the ITV News report led three Labour MPs, including the chairs of the all-party parliamentary groups (APPGs) on digital skills and data poverty, to demand a meeting with John Boumphrey, the country manager UK at Amazon.
The destruction of unwanted laptops and tablets was incredibly damaging for the environment, they said, but also a “missed opportunity to help millions of people in the UK who do not have a device to connect to the internet”, said the letter, signed by Julie Elliott, Siobhain McDonagh and Darren Jones.
“It is incredibly concerning to see these devices being disposed of wilfully, at great loss to different charities and organisations that could do so much work repurposing them and distributing them to those that need them,” the letter adds.
McDonagh said it was a picture of “wanton waste”.
“You have the combination of them throwing away perfectly good things that people desperately need and treating their staff as badly as they do. They seem to be almost like a nation state. They’re impervious.”
The secret filming by ITV News in an area of Amazon’s Dunfermline warehouse called the “destruction zone” showed items, ranging from computer equipment to hairdryers, power tools, books and even sealed face masks, being sorted into boxes labelled “destroy”.
The bins were then loaded on to lorries, with electrical goods taken to a waste management site and the remainder to a recycling centre. An ex-employee told ITV that workers in the warehouse had a target to destroy 130,000 items a week.
The prime minister Boris Johnson has promised the government will look into the company’s conduct and on Tuesday the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) issued a statement, saying it was imperative to end a “throwaway culture and recycle more of our waste” in the UK.
“It is vital that more goods are reused or recycled and not condemned to landfill or incineration,” said a Defra spokesman. “Every item thrown away is a waste of valuable and finite resources, and that is why we are committed to creating a more circular economy for our waste and resources.”
Defra is currently reviewing the regulations for waste electrical equipment so as to drive up reuse and recycling and ensure manufacturers and retailers – including online marketplaces – take greater responsibility.
Amazon said it did not send any items to landfill in the UK. “Our priority is to resell, donate or recycle any unsold products. As a last resort, we will send items to energy recovery , but we’re working hard to drive the number of times this happens down to zero.”
Energy recovery is a term for the conversion of waste materials to generate heat, electricity or fuel, for example through incineration.
Analysts suggested goods might be being destroyed in this way because it is cheaper to dispose of them than to continue storing the stock.
Similar investigations in France and Germany have found evidence of the practice in other Amazon warehouses. The GMB union, which is concerned about worker safety in its depots, said the online retailer was a “greedy, profit-driven company that would always put profits before the planet”.
“Consumers should be really concerned about the impact of Amazon,” said GMB national officer Mick Rix. “They don’t give a monkeys. They really don’t.”
Sam Chetan-Welsh, a political advisor to Greenpeace UK, said the ITV report showed an unimaginable amount of unnecessary waste.
“Expensive products that took energy and resources to manufacture come straight off the production line and into our overstretched waste system, and the high taxes needed to dispose of it all aren’t being paid by Amazon,” he said.
“Other countries have laws to prevent this type of appalling waste, and our government needs to bring in similar legislation immediately.”