‘The impact is incredible’: Hidden cameras and secret trackers reveal where Amazon returns end

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It’s safe to say that online shoppers love the promise of easy – and even better, free returns. But it may surprise consumers to learn what can really happen to all of these unwanted items.A Marketplace An investigation into Amazon Canada has found perfectly good items being liquidated by the truckload – and even destroyed or sent to landfill. Experts say hundreds of thousands of returns aren’t coming back to the ecommerce giant’s website for resale, as customers might think.

Marketplace reporters posing as potential new customers went undercover to tour an electronic waste recycling and product destruction facility in Toronto with hidden cameras. During that meeting, a representative revealed that they get “tons and tons of Amazon returns,” and that every week their facility breaks down and shreds at least one load of Amazon semi-trailers, sometimes even up to ‘to three to five trucks.

” We are not the only ones. We couldn’t handle all of Amazon. There is no way. It’s like that – it’s like cockroaches, it multiplies. It’s incredible, ”said the director of operations.

CBC News is hiding her identity because this company and others that help Amazon get rid of or resell its returns online are afraid of losing their contracts if they speak out publicly.

“Part will be landfilled,” said the director of operations. “For example, nothing 100% is recycled. It is simply not possible. ”

Eco-blogger Meera Jain has been extremely disappointed to learn how some Amazon returns are shredded for recycling or sent to landfill.

“Our recycling system, not only in Canada but around the world, is extremely, extremely flawed,” Jain said.

“We could resell, we could re-offer, we could go home or reuse it in some way or another. It would be much better than recycling. “

Eco-blogger Meera Jain was extremely disappointed that some Amazon returns were shredded for recycling or sent to landfill. She is concerned about the environmental impact of online shopping. (Norm Arnold / CBC)

Jain likes the convenience of shopping online but worries about Amazon’s carbon footprint. She started buying more on the platform after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, and she is not alone.

E-commerce sales more than doubled in Canada These last months.

Secret GPS trackers and backpack travel

Kevin Lyons, an associate professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey specializing in supply chain management and environmental policy, says 30 to 40 percent of all online purchases are returned. That number drops to less than ten percent for merchandise purchased from brick and mortar stores.

To find out more about the destination of all these online returns, Marketplace bought a dozen products from the Amazon website – a leatherette backpack, overalls, printer, coffee maker, small tent, children’s toys and a few other household items – and sent them back to Amazon as received, but with a hidden GPS tracker inside.

A Marketplace survey of Amazon returns found that some of them don’t return to the company’s virtual shelves at all. (Norm Arnold / CBC)

Marketplace team up with the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based nonprofit environmental organization specializing in tracking waste and harmful products around the world. Trackers have become a guide in the secret world of ecommerce returns.

Many returns have taken a roundabout route, often covering several hundred or even thousands of kilometers to reach their final destination. Marketplace returned toy blocks that had traveled over 950 kilometers before reaching a new customer in Quebec. And one printer traveled over 1,000 kilometers circling southern Ontario.

Of the 12 items returned, it appears only four have been resold by Amazon to new customers at the time of this article’s publication. Months after the investigation, some returns were still in Amazon warehouses or in transit, while a few went to unexpected destinations, including a backpack Amazon sent to landfill.

Market producers bought a backpack like this from Amazon and returned it in new condition with a tracker hidden inside. In less than three weeks he ended up at a waste management facility in Etobicoke, Ontario. Amazon says it arrived damaged. (CBC)

The backpack that Marketplace returned in mint condition – but with a tracker inside – can be traced directly from the Amazon warehouse in Mississauga, Ontario, to a waste management facility in Toronto.

When Marketplace took Amazon buyers to this establishment, they were amazed at what they heard.

Magida El Timani often shoppers on Amazon and was shocked to learn that the e-commerce giant had thrown in a backpack returned by Marketplace producers. (Norm Arnold / CBC)

“I’m really shocked by this,” said Magida El Timani, who often shoppers on Amazon. “I would like this bag. ”

She says Amazon’s decision to throw away the inverted backpack prompts her to reassess where she shops. “I really have so many questions… for everyone in this business. It makes you rethink your shopping at Amazon. ”

Marketplace the producers returned the backpack in mint condition and filmed it on camera. Amazon says the handbag arrived damaged and could not be resold.

But the problem is much bigger than a single backpack.

Optoro, a tech company specializing in streamlining reverse logistics – the process of sorting out returns to retail – estimates that $ 400 billion in merchandise is returned to all retailers each year, which generates five billion pounds of waste directed to landfill in the United States

While the Retail Council of Canada does not have specific parameters for Canada, it stresses that items sold online generate higher returns than physical stores and that these returns should be handled with care.

Marketplace bought an Amazon returns truck

Amazon sells returned merchandise on its website through a platform called Amazon warehouse. Amazon returns are also sold by liquidators – large pallets or single items can be purchased online by the public through virtual auctions.

Marketplace reporters bought three Amazon returns skids in one such auction, then asked a seasoned liquidator to assess their value.

Roy Dirnbeck, who has worked in the liquidation business for 27 years and owns several stores across the country, says he regularly sees tons of Amazon returns truck semi-trailers.

Kevin Lyons is an associate professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey who specializes in supply chain management and environmental policy, he says 30 to 40 percent of all online purchases are returned. (Steven D’Souza / CBC)

“They can’t keep up with the returns, so they just find quick ways to sell it by skidding, truckloading, trailer loading – whatever,” Dirnbeck says.

He says pallets typically display well-known products on the outside, and will often have more “trash” on the inside.

Watch | Marketplace purchases three Amazon returns skids from an online liquidator:

As Dirnbeck tries to sell or donate as many products as possible, he worries about the finite quantity in landfills.

Lyons, Professor Rutgers, believes Amazon needs to be more transparent with its customers.

“So you don’t get a sale price or you don’t get a receipt for it, but Earth is paying the price,” he says. “” If you think of the millions and sometimes billions of transactions that occur in this space, the impact is incredible. ”

Roy Dirnbeck has been in the liquidation business for 27 years and has several stores across the country. He helped Marketplace journalists sort through Amazon returns purchased online at a third-party auction. He says the returns behind him are unsaleable and could end up in the trash (Anu Singh / CBC)

It’s an issue that affects all e-commerce giants, not just Amazon.

Amazon, however, wrote the free returns playbook, says Jason Goldberg, Director of Commercial Strategy at Publicis Groupe, a global marketing and advertising agency.

The tactic of getting customers to buy more than they need and return what they don’t want “has had a tragic impact on the environment and on business,” he says.

“It’s very difficult and expensive to process product returns effectively” for all e-commerce retailers, Goldberg says. “You’re in luck if half of all returns can still be sold as new, so a huge amount of merchandise has to be disposed of by other means – clearance, refurbishment, recycling or landfill. ”

In Amazon Canada’s trade agreement with the companies that sell on the site, third-party sellers have only two options when customers return their product: either pay a fee to send it back to them or pay Amazon to choose how to get it. get rid of the product. return by selling, recycling, donating or destroying it.

Until recently, the option to return the item to the seller was three times more expensive than having Amazon handle the return. Amazon tells Marketplace that from September 1, these two fees are now the same.

Amazon’s public relations manager, Alyssa Bronikowski, said in a statement that MarketplaceThe company’s investigation is inconsistent with the company’s findings.

“A large majority of excess and returned inventory is resold to other customers or liquidators, returned to vendors or donated to charities, depending on the condition of the item,” Bronikowski said. “Sometimes we can’t resell, donate or recycle products – for safety or hygiene reasons, for example – but we are working hard to reduce the number of times this happens to zero. ”

Marketplace asked Amazon what percentage of their returns go to landfill, recycling, or destruction. The company did not want to respond.

A televised survey in France revealed that hundreds of thousands of products – both returns and excess inventory – are rejected by Amazon. Following a public outcry, a new French anti-waste law passed earlier this year will require all retailers, including electronic giants like Amazon, to recycle or donate all returned or unused merchandise.

Shortly after the show aired in 2019, Amazon also launched a new program in the US and UK called Execution by Amazon Donations, which Amazon says will help sellers send returns directly to charities instead of eliminating them.

No such program exists in Canada.

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