items in landfill

There’s a good chance that brand-new item you returned went to a landfill

Christen Martines | February 13, 2023, February 11, 2023,

Shoppers are returning more goods than ever, and some of those products end up rotting in landfills — even when they’re in like-new condition.

It’s hard to know exactly how many returns are sent to landfills because many retailers aren’t eager to share this data, said Glenn Richey, chair of the Department of Supply Chain Management at Auburn University’s Harbert College of Business. Getting caught trashing or destroying goods can lead to brand-damaging headlines.

On the flip side, strategies to avoid tossing returns could be seen as a competitive advantage worth guarding.

According to an estimate by the returns tech platform Optoro, as many as 9.5 billion pounds of returns ended up in landfills in 2022 — equivalent to 10,500 fully loaded Boeing 747s. The 2022 figures were nearly flat from 2021, which marked the height of the e-commerce boom and a 65% increase in estimated returns headed for landfills from the previous year.

Why returns end up in the garbage

Americans returned $816 billion in products last year, a 7% jump from the year before  — but that’s after a massive 78% increase from 2020 to 2021, according to the NRF.

For retailers without strong moral or environmental values, returns are a pretty simple math problem.

“If it costs more to process an item and get it to sell in another channel than it does to throw it away, then they throw it away,” Optoro CEO Tobin Moore told Insider. Not all retailers are environmentally focused, “so things end up being thrown away because of the cost,” he said.

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