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Footage of Amazon destroying thousands of unsold items in Britain prompts calls for official investigation

An Amazon delivery driver carries a customer order from the back of a delivery van in Westcliff-on-Sea, England, on Nov. 26, 2020. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

LONDON — British lawmakers are demanding a meeting with tech giant Amazon’s country manager after an investigation at a warehouse in Scotland revealed that thousands of unsold or returned items — including televisions, books, sealed face masks and laptops — were being destroyed by the company.

Footage from the undercover investigation by ITV News at a warehouse in the Scottish town of Dunfermline, also showed drones, headphones, jewelry and countless other high-value products being placed into boxes labeled “destroy” before huge trucks were followed carrying the stock to landfill sites and recycling centers. The investigation said it amounted to the destruction of millions of products each year.

One ex-employee told ITV News that workers were expected to get rid of an estimated 130,000 items a week. The broadcaster described the practice as “waste on an astonishing level.”

As outrage grew on social media, Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised that he would look into the allegations, which he said were “incredible.” Climate activist Greta Thunberg slammed the footage on Twitter.

“This is just ONE warehouse. If you have a system where this possible — and even profitable — that’s a clear sign that something is fundamentally wrong,” Thunberg wrote.

Amazon operates 175 centers worldwide, spanning more than 150 million square feet of space where employees prepare items to be shipped and delivered to customers around-the-clock.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.

In a statement emailed to The Washington Post on Wednesday, an Amazon spokesperson contradicted ITV’s allegation that the company was sending items to landfill sites, adding that the location was also a recycling site.

“We are working towards a goal of zero product disposal and our priority is to resell, donate to charitable organisations or recycle any unsold products," the statement said. “No items are sent to landfill in the UK. As a last resort, we will send items to energy recovery, but we’re working hard to drive the number of times this happens down to zero.”

According to ITV, John Boumphrey, Amazon’s country manager for the United Kingdom, said the number of items being destroyed by the company was “extremely small.”

Since the original investigation was shared, another whistleblower who was previously employed by the company at a large warehouse in Hertfordshire, England, said that “lots of things from brand new iPhones to PlayStations” were destroyed, along with books that had never been read.

The man, who has not been identified, also reported that people working at other Amazon centers across the country had similar accounts of usable products going to waste.

ITV News noted that the reason for the destruction of the goods may be attributable to Amazon’s business model. Companies worldwide store items in warehouses owned by the online shopping giant. However, if the items fail to sell, they are charged rising fees that some may struggle to pay, leading to piles of goods that need to be stored — or dumped — elsewhere.

Lawmaker Siobhain McDonagh of the opposition Labour Party said it was “appalling” that the company had destroyed items that could have benefited many children across the country — especially amid the coronavirus pandemic. Many families struggle to educate their children from home during the outbreak, often with inadequate or limited digital equipment.

The coronavirus has ravaged Britain, causing more than 128,000 deaths and three nationwide lockdowns that forced schools across the country to close.

Many Britons, also concerned by the investigation, demanded to know why items that appeared to be in good condition were being dumped when vulnerable people or charities could have used the goods.

A recent report from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) called on the British government to stop what it called “digital exclusion” of young people in Britain. It said digital access was “no longer a luxury” but a necessity that “must be seen as the cornerstone to ensuring social justice and equitable life chances for every child.”

Allegations of Amazon’s destruction of products are not new.

In 2019, the French newspaper Le Monde reported that Amazon destroyed an estimated 3.2 million unsold products in 2018. “Amazon, seller of mass destruction,” the headline at the time read.

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