Amazon joins federal effort to create bio-friendly plastic

Dan Berthiaume
Senior Editor, Technology
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Amazon is cooperating with the Department of Energy to help reduce plastic waste.

Amazon is partnering with a Department of Energy (DOE) initiative to create recyclable plastic materials.

The e-tail giant is taking part in the BOTTLE (Bio-Optimized Technologies to keep Thermoplastics out of Landfills and the Environment) consortium – a research program launched by the DOE in 2020 to develop a new technology that could break down existing plastic materials to create a new material which could then be broken down more easily when recycled, as well as biodegrade in natural environments.

By participating in the consortium, led by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Amazon hopes to help develop technologies and materials that will enable the full lifecycle of plastics to be net-zero carbon. Amazon will work with the consortium to create new energy-efficient technology that will break down different kinds of plastics and turn them into materials that can be used to make the same types of plastics or new plastics, which it would then use in its packaging.

In cases where the materials don’t make it back into the recycling stream, the molecular structure of the new materials will be designed to biodegrade in natural environments.

Amazon has been actively participating in efforts to reduce packaging waste as part of its commitment both to the Climate Pledge, a global initiative it cofounded in September 2019 that commits to meeting the Paris Agreement 2050 decarbonization goal 10 years early, and to building a sustainable business.

In November 2021, the company unveiled new sustainable insulated packaging, made from recycled paper and curbside-recyclable, for delivery of select grocery products in time for Thanksgiving. In January 2022, Amazon revealed it is using machine learning (ML) and a combination of natural language processing and computer vision technology to determine how to use the right amount of packaging for the hundreds of millions of products it ships.

According to Amazon, these tools have helped it reduce per-shipment packaging weight by 36% and eliminate more than a million tons of packaging, equivalent to more than 2 billion shipping boxes, over the past six years.

“In partnership with BOTTLE, we plan to make significant progress in developing new technologies and materials that will lead to less material in landfills and more back into the circular economy,” said Alan Jacobsen, principal materials scientist at Amazon. “Science and innovation are at the heart of our sustainability work at Amazon, and we’re committed to using our size and scale to reduce and eliminate our use of materials and find new ones that can be applied to our operations and other industries around the world.”

“Plastics are extremely versatile materials, and often they are still the best option available for a myriad of functions,” said Gregg Beckham, BOTTLE CEO and a senior research fellow at the NREL. “Finding a way to better recycle single-use plastics while reducing and ultimately eliminating their use is a grand challenge of our time, and we’re committed to pursuing scientific advancement to this end. With Amazon’s innovation expertise, we’re excited to work together to find solutions that have the potential to have vast, positive impacts.”

The BOTTLE consortium is currently supported by the Bioenergy Technologies Office and the Advanced Manufacturing Office, both within DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Its partners include four additional DOE research laboratories and five universities.