The drink had all the hallmarks of a beverage sensation. Striking design, bold font, and the punchy name Release. But inside, each bottle was filled with urine allegedly discarded by Amazon delivery drivers and collected from plastic bottles by the side of the road.
That didn’t stop Amazon from listing it for sale, though. Release even attained number one bestseller status in the “Bitter Lemon” category. It was created by Oobah Butler for a new documentary, The Great Amazon Heist, which airs on Channel 4 in the UK today.
Butler is a journalist, presenter, and renowned puller of stunts—he’s probably most famous for turning his shed in a London garden into the number one ranked restaurant on Tripadvisor. The Great Amazon Heist begins with him infiltrating an Amazon distribution center in Coventry with a hidden camera and speaking to workers who complain of foot and back pain, potentially dangerous working conditions, and near-constant surveillance. Butler spends his first day unloading a baking hot truck with no working fan or air conditioning.
Amazon spokesperson James Drummond says “nothing is more important” than employee safety and well-being and that the company provides protective clothing and footwear and has “dedicated health and safety teams on site.”
Butler happens to be present during a hiring spree at the Coventry warehouse. At the time, workers were trying to gain union recognition, and the GMB union has since accused Amazon of deliberately hiring hundreds of extra staff to scupper the vote. Amazon denies this.
He is recognized within days and so resorts to interviewing delivery drivers, who tell him that they’re penalized for slow deliveries to the extent that they have to urinate in bottles because they don’t have time to find anywhere to stop for bathroom breaks.
Drivers urinating in bottles has been reported in the past, but what wasn’t known is that some claim they also get penalized for having those urine-filled bottles in their truck when they return to the warehouse. (Drummond denies this and says Amazon drivers receive reminders to take regular breaks on the Amazon Delivery app). To avoid penalties, they end up discarding the bottles by the side of the road. Butler searches the roadsides near Amazon warehouses from Coventry to New York to Los Angeles and more often than not strikes liquid gold.
From there, it’s laughably straightforward for Butler to get Release listed for sale on Amazon, with very few checks and balances in place to ensure the product he’s selling is safe and legal. “Releasing the drink was surprisingly easy,” Butler told WIRED. “I thought that the food and drinks licensing would stop me from listing it, so I started it out in this Refillable Pump Dispenser category. Then the algorithm moved it into drinks.”
At one point, he’s even contacted by an Amazon representative ready to handle the packaging, shipping, and logistics through the Fulfillment by Amazon program. (No members of the public were actually sent driver urine; instead Butler corralled a group of friends into making the purchases.) When he saw the product listed for sale, Butler felt “initially really excited and found it very funny,” he says. “Then when real people started trying to buy the product, I felt a bit scared.”