Amazon reported long-term success using machine learning to shrink its environmental footprint.

What’s new: The online retailer developed a system that fuses product descriptions, images, and structured data to decide how an item should be packed for shipping. It evolved over six years, ultimately helping Amazon cut packaging waste equivalent to over 2 billion shipping boxes.

How it works: The system initially made packaging decisions based on text descriptions. Last year, the company integrated computer vision and tabular data analysis.

  • A Faster R-CNN crops product images. Then a ResNet50 pretrained on ImageNet generates separate representations of images of the product and the manufacturer’s default packaging. For instance, the manufacturer of a football, which ordinarily would warrant a box, might supply it deflated, in which case a more environmentally friendly bag would be a viable choice.
  • A FastText model trained on product descriptions analyzes text. For instance, words like “fragile,” “glass,” or “ceramic” might indicate a delicate object that’s best shipped in a box. Words like “multipack” and “bag” might indicate a product that’s already covered in protective packaging, which can be put in a padded mailer to save material.
  • A vanilla neural network generates representations of structured data such as the number of items to be shipped and their categories, to help decide whether items can be packaged together, or if not, how many packages are necessary.
  • A multimodal fusion architecture combines the representations to render a packaging decision.

Why it matters: Amazon has shipped some 465 million pounds of plastic waste by one estimate. More broadly, 131.2 billion consumer parcels were shipped worldwide in 2020, according to postage technology firm Pitney Bowes — a figure expected to double within the next five years. AI that cuts the waste that attends all this shipping and receiving might help ease ecommerce’s burden on the planet.

We’re thinking: Multimodal AI is on the upswing, and it’s great to see this approach contributing to a more sustainable world. That said, 2 billion boxes is a drop in the 131-billion-parcel ocean. We hope Amazon — and other retailers — will continue to look for innovative ways to diminish the mountain of packaging garbage.


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