A PRIME PROBLEM
By ANDREW MCGINN
It’s bad enough that Amazon and a cabal of e-commerce copycats have managed to so effectively weaken physical retail that shoppers often have no other choice than to buy from Amazon and other online stores.
But what’s really astonishing is that there are so many cardboard boxes going through the recycling center in Jefferson alone at Genesis Development — many of them emblazoned with Amazon’s smile-like arrow on them — that their combined weight could likely crush you to death.
Death by Prime is a real possibility considering that just one bale of recycled cardboard at Genesis on West McKinley Street weighs between 1,100 and 1,200 pounds.
One truckload to International Paper in Cedar Rapids — where corrugated cardboard from all around Greene County gets turned into the chipboard that becomes boxes for cereal and crackers — consists of 36 bales, said Brandon Murphy, recycling supervisor at Genesis.
There’s always been a constant stream of cardboard boxes at Genesis, according to Murphy, but the amount of garbage left inside them is a surging problem.
“It slows us down so it looks like we’re behind,” Murphy said recently. “We still have to put together good, quality bales.”
Having to stop and remove non-recyclable packing materials from boxes big and small — everything from foam peanuts that fly everywhere to inflatable air pillows — is becoming something of a nightmare for Murphy, who has seen a steady uptick in garbage in the four years since he started.
He wants people to be more mindful of what they’re recycling, especially as the holiday season comes to a close and people look to ditch all the boxes that were delivered in December.
“Let’s do it right,” Murphy said.
All residential curbside recycling in Greene County — whether it’s a cardboard box, a tin can or a plastic jug — flows through Genesis.
Each month, Genesis in Jefferson processes between 100,000 and 120,000 pounds of recyclables.
Genesis’ recycling program diverts, on average, 721 tons a year of material from landfills.
But in order to recycle a cardboard box curbside, it has to be flattened.
Not so at Genesis’ own facility, where someone can pull up at any hour of the day, pull a fully intact Amazon box out of their trunk with plastic air pillows still inside it and ditch the thing, sort of like dumping a body.
“I think people take advantage of it,” Murphy said.
A large sign clearly states “no packing materials,” “no pop boxes” and “no pizza boxes,” among other no-nos.
“We can’t do anything with it,” Murphy said of packing materials like bubble wrap and foam peanuts.
The American Chemistry Council says that plastic film — including bubble wrap and deflated air pillows — has to be taken to a specially designated place for recycling, none of which happen to be in Greene County.
Plastic shopping bags can be taken to some grocery stores for recycling.
Online shoppers aren’t the only problem.
People, it would seem, are unloading all types of boxes at Genesis without first looking inside.
“It’s frustrating,” Murphy said.
“And it can damage our equipment,” added Ashley Coil, transitional employment supervisor at Genesis, which employs a mix of able-bodied workers and those with disabilities.
One time, they said, boxes containing old five-gallon containers of frosting from a local restaurant were thrown into the mix.
Genesis’ new recycling baler, which it bought in 2016 with a grant from the Grow Greene County Gaming Corp., had to be cleaned of green, yellow and orange frosting.
The amount of money Genesis receives from International Paper rests on the quality of cardboard.
“They want good, clean cardboard,” Coil said.
One thing is certain — there won’t be a shortage of cardboard at Genesis anytime soon.
In a 2017 letter to shareholders made public in April of 2018, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos revealed that Amazon Prime had exceeded 100 million paid members globally.
Prime members receive free, unlimited two-day shipping.
The company is even offering free same-day delivery in bigger cities.
In 2017 alone, Bezos reported, Amazon shipped more than 5 billion items to its Prime members.
Individual postal carriers in Jefferson have more parcels to deliver daily than most can handle, Postmaster Pegi Erickson said.
“Some of the boxes can weigh 70 pounds,” Erickson said.
With carriers unable to lug around all those boxes, or even fit them in their vehicles, all available hands at the post office in Jefferson are being used to deliver parcels, Erickson said.
“Anything that comes in,” she said, “we find a way to get out.”
Regular mail delivery may have been suspended Dec. 5 in tribute to former President George H.W. Bush, but in the era of Prime, even a National Day of Mourning can’t stop books, electronics, toys and more from reaching their destinations.
In Jefferson and elsewhere, post offices were closed, but package delivery continued.
It was unprecedented, according to Erickson.
“We’ve never had the amount of parcels in recent years,” she said.
“Amazon.com,” she added, “has really sparked our parcel delivery.”
Admittedly, when Erickson started with the postal service in 1992, she never envisioned a day when carriers would be delivering soap and diapers purchased online.
“It didn’t occur to me that’s the route we’d be going down,” she said.