“Free Returns” Are Good for Consumers But a Nightmare for the Environment

Most unwanted merch ends up in landfills.

delivery truck
David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Didn’t like that sweater you got for the holidays?

Maybe don’t return it, because it’s not going to necessarily find a better home. More likely, it’s going to the trash…and wherever it ends up, it’s not helping the environment.

As The Verge reports, an estimated one million return packages were picked by UPS per day in December, and those returns (which are often free) create more emissions from delivery vehicles and planes. And about half of those returns end up in a landfill.

“People need to be aware that there are environmental consequences of sending back their returns. You know, they don’t just go into thin air and disappear,” says Sharon Cullinane, a professor at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

After reports earlier this year that Amazon was dumping returns, the retail giant started a program where third-party sellers can donate unwanted items to non-profit groups. But the company is also expanding its free returns policy, which will definitely add to the five billion pounds of returns that end up in landfills and the 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted by vehicles processing the returned merchandise.

So what can we all do? Retailers can give more information about products and sizing, so people aren’t blindly buying items they know they can just send back without consequence. A zero-emission delivery fleet, which IKEA is trying, is another option. And consumers can utilize in-store drop-offs to tame those packaging and transportation emissions.

But what might really work is for retailers to become less generous. “It’s conceivable Amazon could start charging for returns by mail, as others are starting to do, to motivate a globally-conscious shift in behavior,” as David Sobie, chief executive of Happy Returns, tells MarketWatch.

(In the meantime, if you absolutely must return something, this handy guide has the return policies for all the major online retailers.)

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