Mon. Sep 25th, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Amazon makes returns easy and quick, often issuing refunds within hours. However, this convenience comes at a cost to the company and the environment.
  • Returns are processed at Amazon’s warehouses, but they can also end up being auctioned off or disposed of. Disposal is used to protect certain brands’ image, and energy recovery is used as a last resort.
  • Amazon does inspect returns to varying degrees depending on the product category and customer behavior. However, the company’s systems are designed to minimize the need for inspection, making returns with no questions asked the norm.

Amazon makes it easy to return items for free, and you may get your refund in just a few hours. In fact, it’s so easy that it feels like Amazon doesn’t really care about returns. What’s actually happening here?

Shopping online without getting to see a product physically inevitably leads to a lot of returns. In 2021, $761 billion worth of products were returned, and the number jumped up to $816 billion in 2022. The number of returns has been steadily increasing since 2019, of which Amazon is clearly responsible for a big chunk.

In many cases, you can drop off an Amazon return at The UPS Store or Kohl’s without even needing to print a label or box it up. Then, sometimes, in a matter of hours, you’ll see the refund hit your account. Even in circumstances when a product has clear signs of use or parts are forgotten, a full refund is often issued—no questions asked. Let’s take a look at how this all works.

Where Do Amazon Returns Go?

When a product purchased from Amazon is returned, there are a number of different places it might end up. Some of them are expected and some might surpirise you.

Back to the Original Seller

First, and probably most expected, is the original seller. The items are shipped out to Amazon’s warehouses dedicated to processing returns. This is the priciest option as it can cost the retailer over 50% of the cost of the item. It also generates more packaging waste and pollution for the delivery trucks and planes. Workers at the return facilities unpack, inspect, and repack the items for shipping. It’s a labor-intensive process.

Sometimes these items end up back up for sale. If you’ve ever taken advantage of Amazon’s “Amazon Warehouse” discounted items you’ve likely purchased and Amazon return. Those “Used – Like New” items are almost always items that a fellow Amazon shopper bought, barely touched, and returned when they realized they ordered the wrong size case for their iPad, or whatever the situation was.

Off to the Liquidation Center

An increasing number of returns end up auctioned off or liquidated. Amazon offers this as an alternative to disposing of products, and it allows retailers to recover around 5% of the sale price. Liquidation marketplaces auction off items to resellers by the pallet, which can be purchased straight-up from sites like They also end up at liquidation storefronts where people can sift through piles of cheap products.

If you’ve ever seen ads for a local liquidation center that promises pallets of returns from “big box retailers” or even outright says the loot is from Amazon, you’re seeing one of the end points for these liquidated items. What you find in these stores ranges from stuff like never-used power tools to clothing with very questionable stains.

Right Into the Dumpster

One of the most common fates for returned products is disposal. This may happen if the product is in poor or unusable condition, but it can also be used to protect a brand’s image. Certain brands don’t want cheap items on the market, so they dispose of them instead of reselling or upcycling them. Amazon claims no items are sent to landfills—though it has been caught doing exactly that—and they are working toward a goal of zero product disposal. The company uses “energy recovery” as a last resort, which is a fancy way of saying they burn it for heat, electricity, or fuel.

Ideally, to a Charity

There is some good news, though. Amazon also donates some returns from third-party sellers to charity. The “Fulfillment by Amazon Donations” program was launched in 2019, and the company donated 100 million returned items to nonprofits by May 2022. The program makes it cheaper for sellers to donate than to dispose of returned items. It became the default for sellers when the program launched.

Does Amazon Check Returns?

If you’ve returned items to Amazon, you may have wondered if anyone is actually checking them over. As we noted above, refunds are sometimes issued just a few hours after you drop off the item. The truth is not every product is inspected to the same degree.

According to an Amazon Process Assistant, the time and energy devoted to inspecting returns depend on the product category, if it’s a high fraud item, and the customer’s account status. An iPhone is going to be inspected much more than an iPhone case, for example (if the case is inspected at all). Amazon flags accounts that return items frequently or have been caught returning empty boxes or other fraudulent behavior. On the opposite end, it may not inspect a return at all if it’s from an account that has never returned an item before.

Given that inspecting returns is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process, Amazon’s systems are designed to require it as little as possible. This is why it’s so easy to get a free return with no questions asked. Unless it’s an expensive item, or you find yourself under stricter scrutiny because of other variables like the frequency with which you return things, your return very likely will only be mildly inspected, if at all.

What Items Can’t Be Returned to Amazon

Many of the products purchased on Amazon will end up falling in one of the buckets listed above when returned. However, there are certain things that can’t be returned. Here is Amazon’s official list of items that can’t be returned:

Hazardous Material

  • Items classified as hazardous materials
  • Items that use flammable liquids or gases


  • Computer laptops, desktops, and Kindles more than 30 days after delivery.


  • Downloadable software products
  • Open software
  • Online subscriptions after you accessed them


  • Gift cards (except as required by law)
  • Prepaid game cards (for example, World of Warcraft, Xbox 360 Live, Wii Points)

Amazon Bulk Liquidations Store


  • Any product missing the serial number or UPC
  • Amazon Fresh and Grocery Products
  • Items with special shipping restrictions
  • Live insects
  • Some jewelry orders
  • Some health and personal care orders
  • Customized products

The ugly truth is easy returns are part of what makes Amazon so appealing, but there’s a dark side to offering this to customers. Someone has to pay for the returns, and that makes liquidation and disposal appealing options for a lot of sellers who would have to foot the bill. The good news is donations are becoming a larger part of Amazon’s strategy for returns. Still, you might want to think twice the next time you buy a bunch of stuff on Amazon with the intention of returning most of it and watch out for items that are returned at a higher rate. And however you return your items, you should use our tips to return them in the least painful way possible.

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By John P.

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