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Your Kindle Likely Taps Into Fossil Fuels. Amazon Wants to Measure the Emissions

Exclusive: Amazon has rolled out more-sustainable devices and packaging, as well as a standard for measuring the carbon footprint of device use.

Echo Show 5, Omni smart TV, Surface 4 laptop and Fire tablets are displayed against a purple background.
How much fossil fuel will these devices indirectly use in their lifetime? Amazon wants to know.
Photos by Best Buy; illustration by CNET

Amazon knows that the devices it sells run mostly on carbon-emitting power. Plug in that Fire TV or charge that Kindle in the US, and the source of electricity tapped is likelier than not a coal- or gas-burning power plant. 

Now Amazon wants to find a way to calculate just how much of a carbon footprint your devices have while you're using them.

To accomplish this, Amazon is teaming up with the Carbon Trust to create a standard for measuring carbon emissions from the use of electronics. The information will be useful to Amazon in its efforts to invest in sustainable energy to offset the carbon footprint of its devices.

The Carbon Trust unveiled the effort last week. On Wednesday, Amazon announced nine new devices that qualify for the company's Climate Pledge Friendly designation, a system for marking products that meet the criteria for Amazon's push to eliminate climate-changing carbon emissions by 2040, as well as more devices that it can ship using only paper-based packing materials.

The announcements come as tech companies grapple with how to limit carbon emissions and other environmental harm that results from their products. Amazon has set a goal of achieving "net zero" carbon emissions in its businesses by 2040 as part of its Climate Pledge. Creating strong packaging that protects products so they don't have to be replaced while also making the materials easy to recycle tackles two areas where e-commerce has an environmental impact. So does creating devices with more efficient batteries. 

Now designated as Climate Pledge Friendly are the Alexa Voice Remote Pro, Echo Auto, Echo Dot, Echo Dot with Clock, Echo Dot Kids, Fire TV Cube, Fire TV Omni QLED Series, Halo Rise and Kindle Scribe. They join the Echo Show 15, Fire TV Stick and Kindle Paperwhite, which already have the badge.

Additionally, Amazon announced an update to an initiative that will deliver all its devices in 100% recyclable paper packing materials by 2023. The effort, launched in 2020, is ahead of schedule, with the recyclable materials now being used in US shipments of the Alexa Voice Remote Pro, Echo Auto, Echo Dot, Echo Dot with Clock, Echo Dot Kids, Fire TV Cube, Halo Rise, Kindle Scribe, and Ring Spotlight Cam Pro. The paper packaging is already used in all Kindles, Kindle Kids and Fire HD 8 products shipped in the US.

Other packing materials used in some Amazon deliveries, like plastic air pouches, can be recycled in some locations and may have a smaller environmental impact at the manufacturing phase in some cases. Still, the company found that paper was the most universally recyclable packaging currently available.

The goal is to eliminate a stressful part of opening a new device, said Maiken Moeller-Hansen, Amazon's director of energy and sustainability for devices and services, "where you say, 'What do I do with all this stuff, and where does it go?"

The packaging takes many forms, because it's different types of materials, each with its own physical properties, like a plastic wrapper, a see-through plastic film or a sticker seal. Amazon worked with its suppliers to develop replacements for these common packaging materials, which still have to protect screens and batteries while in transport.

Finding a way to measure emissions from usage

The new standard for measuring device emissions, which Amazon said the Carbon Trust wants to deliver in one year, is in its early stages. 

The aim is to create a system for calculating emissions without taking the data from devices while you're actually using them. Instead, the standard would be a method for analyzing how an electronic device consumes energy during its life cycle before it's even sold. The methodology for doing this is still being developed.

The standard doesn't take into account the carbon emissions involved in manufacturing or shipping devices. Those are typically substantial. An Amazon spokesperson said reducing these emissions is also a priority for the company, pointing to Amazon's commitment to make durable devices so people don't have to buy a new one as frequently. Amazon is also working to quantify how much durable devices can reduce carbon emissions.

Sustainability-minded people can take advantage of this by refraining from updating their 2-year-old Echo devices or Ring cameras, despite Wednesday's new product announcements. The most Earth-friendly device, sustainability experts point out, is usually the one you've already got.