In 2005, Lee Scott, president and CEO of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. delivered a speech defining his vision for Wal-Mart in the 21st century. One goal he laid out was a call for the company to eliminate all the waste Wal-Mart’s stores and other facilities send to landfills by 2025 — it was a zero waste initiative.
What suddenly turned Wal-Mart green? The possibility of cutting costs. In his speech, Scott observed, “If we throw it away, we had to buy it first. So we pay twice: once to get it, once to have it taken away. What if we reverse that cycle? What if our suppliers send us less, and everything they send us has value as a recycled product? No waste and we get paid instead.”
After the speech, people asked what Scott meant by eliminating all the waste the company sent to landfills. After all, many people throw around the term “zero waste,” knowing that 60 percent or 80 percent or some other percentage will end up being good enough.
“Lee was clear; he meant zero,” says Vonda Lockwood, director of innovations, sustainability and compliance with Wal-Mart.
Lockwood should know. She has the job of making sure the company gets to zero waste on schedule.
Under her direction, Wal-Mart has divided its zero waste initiative into three fundamental efforts: eliminating waste, electronics recycling and packaging management.
Wal-Mart began its effort by recycling fiber, metal and plastic and redirecting organics to food banks, animal feed and compost.
“We cataloged the items we were throwing away and asked recyclers if they would take the materials,” Lockwood says. “We came up with a list of 32 items and created our ‘super sandwich bale.’”
Invented by Jeff Ashby of Rocky Mountain Recycling and recognized by recyclers across the country, “Super Sandwich Bales” compile many different types of recyclables into one bale, which is often more convenient for retailers. Wal-Mart took the Super Sandwich Bale concept to the next level, compacting 31 recyclable materials together and then sandwiching the bale with corrugated fiber. The filling in the sandwich includes paper, aluminum, plastic bags and other materials.
Georgia-Pacific, a partner in Wal-Mart’s zero waste effort, arranges to have the super sandwich bales picked up and delivered to material recovery facilities (MRFs) around the country. To make it worthwhile for the MRFs, Georgia-Pacific has divided the country into a number of multi-state regions and directs the bales in large volumes to a few MRFs within the region. The MRFs process the materials, sell them and share the proceeds with Georgia-Pacific and Wal-Mart.
Not eligible for super sandwiching are apparel, glass, polystyrene plastic and wood pallets. These materials go to Wal-Mart return centers for reuse or recycling.
As the largest grocery chain in the country, Wal-Mart must also manage a substantial volume of organic wastes. “We follow the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) hierarchy for managing organics,” Lockwood says. “The first choice is to donate food to feed people whenever possible. Next we use it to make animal feed. Then comes compost. Finally we’ll use it to create energy.”
Wal-Mart carries out other waste reduction programs as well. The company aims to reduce plastic shopping bag waste at its stores around the world by 33 percent by 2013. Achieving that goal would avoid sending 9 billion bags to landfills, eliminate 290,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases and save the energy equivalent of 678,000 barrels of oil every year.
Wal-Mart is applying the reduce,-reuse-and-recycle strategy to the problem of plastic bags. The company has asked its supplier to reduce the amount of plastic used to make the bags, while ensuring that the bags are properly loaded at checkout to reduce the number of bags per trip. It also is encouraging customers to employ reusable bags by educating them about the benefits of reuse. Finally, it is working to increase the number of plastic bags that are recycled.
In 2009 as part of the zero waste program, Wal-Mart retrofitted 15 of its Class 8 trucks to run on reclaimed grease fuel made of waste brown cooking grease from Wal-Mart stores. That program has closed the loop on grease from Wal-Mart’s facilities.
At www.samsung.com, customers will find a button for the Samsung Recycling Direct program, which identifies drop-off locations in all 50 states. The sites accept Samsung consumer electronics, Wal-Mart private brand electronics and as well as several other electronics brands that Wal-Mart used to sell free of charge. Customers can turn in other electronic brands for nominal fees.
Wal-Mart also promotes the electronics recycling service Gazelle. At www.walmart.gazelle.com, Wal-Mart’s online customers can earn prepaid Visa cards in return for trading in used electronics including cell phones, laptops, MP3 players, digital cameras and other electronics products.
Wal-Mart’s zero waste initiative calls for the company to be packaging neutral by 2025. This means that the company would recover a volume of material — through recycling, reuse and composting — equal to the volume of material used in packaging the products the company buys and sells.
For instance, Wal-Mart worked with its Great Value yogurt supplier to repackage its single-container products into four-packs, redesigning the container in the process. The new containers take up less space during shipping, which saves an estimated 20 million gallons of fuel annually, while removing 1,700 tons of packaging materials (48 fully loaded garbage trucks) from the waste stream.
Wal-Mart’s zero-waste initiative is beginning to show results. Since the company began making super sandwich bales, it has diverted 182 million pounds of plastic, 18.9 million pounds of plastic hangers, 12.4 million pounds of office paper and 1.3 million pounds of aluminum from landfills.
Perhaps even more impressive, Wal-Mart announced in March that a reuse and recycling program set up in California has slashed the Wal-Mart waste going to landfills by 80 percent. Since that astonishing announcement, the California program has been rolled out in stores across the country.
What Does Zero Waste Mean To The Waste Industry?
Wal-Mart, of course, isn’t the only major corporation to undertake a zero-waste initiative. Other companies pursuing similar goals include Apple Computer, Epson, Fetzer Vineyards, Hewlett Packard, Pillsbury, Xerox and others, with more sure to follow.
At the same time, many municipalities — by and large in the western United States — have set zero-waste goals.
What does this mean to those that haul waste? “Zero waste is certainly a trend,” says Ben Harvey, executive vice president of E. L. Harvey & Sons Inc. in Westborough, Mass. “The industry will adapt to it. There will be as many collection trucks as ever, but more will pick up recycling. Some of the trucks may look different. Some will look the same: a commercial front end loader can pick up single stream recycling containers.”
The trucks will deliver their loads to different places, continues Harvey. More will go to recycling facilities and fewer will go to landfills.
Harvey also speculates that more companies may get into recycling processing.
“The only thing that might cause dislocation is if we start generating lower volumes of materials,” Harvey says.
If past is prologue, there isn’t much chance of that.
Michael Fickes is a Westminster, Md.-based contributing writer.