Why Walmart’s Zero-Waste Goal Includes Suppliers, Sustainable Packaging

by | Oct 27, 2016

walmart-recyclingWalmart, which has set a goal to achieve zero-waste by 2025, says this target extends beyond the walls of its operations.

The company is making good progress. By the end of last year, Walmart US had achieved 82 percent diversion of materials from landfill and diverted an average of 71 percent in international markets.

Earlier this year the retail giant extended its zero-waste goal to include the entire supply chain, “from farming and manufacturing, consumption to end of life.”

Zero waste is a smart business move. Eliminating waste avoids landfill fees and grows revenue from resale of reusable materials.

It’s also a lofty aspiration and one that requires Walmart — and any other corporation that wants to fully eliminate waste — to collaborate with suppliers, customers and communities. This includes taking back some products from consumers and returning these materials to the production stream, encouraging communities to invest in recycling infrastructure through the Closed Loop Fund and working with suppliers to improve the recyclability of their packaging.

On Tuesday, Walmart hosted a Sustainable Packaging Summit, attended by hundreds of Walmart suppliers and merchants. At the event, Walmart launched its Sustainable Packaging Playbook, a guide to best-practices such as maximizing recycled and sustainably sources renewable content, reducing materials used through better packaging design and designing for recyclability.

This, in turn, will help the retailer achieve zero waste, said Walmart’s Zach Freeze, director, strategic initiatives – sustainability, in an interview.

“Packaging is an essential part of the products that we sell,” Freeze said. “In the playbook, we talk about recyclability and making sure that messaging is clear to the customer. For us, it’s all about clear guidance. We want to provide clear guidance to our suppliers about optimizing design and supporting recycling and we want to make it easier for our customers to recycle packaging.”

Using the playbook can also help suppliers cut costs, by using fewer resources in packaging and choosing recycled materials, which cost less than virgin materials.

The Sustainable Packaging Playbook provides tips for suppliers, including working with the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and the Association of Plastic Recyclers to design for recycling. It also suggests suppliers avoid using polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or biodegradable additives in petroleum based plastics.

It highlights several suppliers that are already ahead of the curve in these areas such as Coca-Cola’s Simply Lemonade brand, which now uses polyethylene terephthalate (PET) containers with pressure sensitive labels compatible with recycling. About 30 percent of PET packaging collected for recycling in the US is not recycled, largely because of labels with adhesives, the playbook says.

“Simply Lemonade is one example of how to encourage design changes,” Freeze said. “We also want to encourage recycled content.”

An example of this is L’Oréal, which redesigned one of its shampoo bottles to include 30 percent to 50 percent, which reduced the amount of PET used by 10 percent.

The playbook also asks Walmart suppliers to clearly communicate recyclability by using consumer-friendly labels, such as the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s How2Recycle label, a standardized label that clearly communicates recycling instructions to the public.

“Customers want to be able to recycle, but some are confused” about whether a package is recyclable if it doesn’t have a recycling symbol or language on it, Freeze said. “Clear language and a clear symbol make this easier for consumers.”

As the company recognizes in its most recent corporate sustainability report, reducing waste makes it a more profitable and competitive company as well. “Moving toward a zero waste future benefits business as well as society,” the 2016 report says. “Eliminating operational waste avoids landfill fees and increases revenue from resale of salvaged materials. Reducing waste upstream, increasing recycled content and repurposing products can lower cost of goods and generate innovative products for customers.”

This also extends to the retailers’ suppliers, which can realize similar benefits by cutting their waste through sustainable packaging initiatives. And with a boost from companies like Walmart that have major purchasing power, we expect to see more innovative waste management and packing efforts taking hold.

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