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What Walmart is Doing to Increase the Recyclability and Sustainability of Product Packaging

Walmart is looking to help make packaging more sustainable, while continuing to keep product prices low.

While Walmart Stores Inc. has been working toward a zero waste goal for at least a decade, the company is now hoping to motivate its suppliers to consider sustainability and recyclability in product packaging. By targeting three main areas—packaging optimization, sustainable sourcing and increased recycling—Walmart is looking to help make packaging more sustainable, while continuing to keep product prices low.

Last week, at a Sustainable Packaging Summit, Walmart released its Sustainable Packaging Playbook, a guidebook for suppliers to improve packaging sustainability. Hundreds of Walmart suppliers and merchants attended the meeting and viewed the playbook, which gave suppliers a clearer picture on what the leading retailer is looking for in terms of packaging sustainability.

Walmart says the Playbook can help suppliers reduce cost, as well as improve their Sustainability Index score. Developed in collaboration with The Sustainability Consortium (TSC)—an organization dedicated to improving sustainability of consumer products—the index gives Walmart suppliers the opportunity to highlight important steps they are taking toward sustainability. It also helps suppliers improve their Index score by demonstrating a quantified environmental impact reduction through those measures.

Zach Freeze, director of strategic initiatives for sustainability at Walmart says the hope is to keep it simple for suppliers. The playbook, he says, states the direction and the priorities at Walmart so suppliers, merchants, and everyone on the procurement side can understand a bit more about what’s important for sustainable packaging. The book also gives them details and examples on what that means.

“For us it’s kind of a re-ignition of sustainable packaging and bringing it back into focus for people in our business and the buyers who provide products to us,” Freeze says. “It just clearly states what we mean by sustainable packaging and what we are encouraging them to do.”

The playbook deals with sustainable sourcing by encouraging suppliers to maximize recycled and sustainably sourced renewable content, while enhancing the health of the materials they use in their packaging.

Walmart also wants suppliers to optimize design by finding ways to reduce unnecessary packaging materials, such as extra boxes, ties or layers, while still protecting the product.

“Don’t over pack. Don’t under pack. Get it right,” he says.

The company also is encouraging suppliers to increase recyclable content in packaging, while working to improve infrastructure for hard-to-recycle materials. Additionally, Walmart wants suppliers to clearly communicate recyclability by using consumer-friendly labels, such as the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s How2Recycle label.

“Walmart has done some really amazing stuff on sustainability, on packaging and food waste recovery. They have clearly done some very good work on it,” says Chaz Miller, director of policy/advocacy for the National Waste & Recycling Association, in Washington, D.C.

But Walmart is a company that sells items to the public, he says.

“Whatever changes this makes for Walmart packaging, their customers buy those packages and have to make those purchasing decisions,” he says.

Freeze says he thinks the majority of customers want to do the right thing where recycling is concerned, they just need help to do it. That’s where labeling comes in to play.

“Packaging is very important for sustainability. Hopefully the customer will appreciate that information and hopefully put it to use. Then we’ll start to see even better recycling numbers across the U.S. on materials being recycled. That’s the ultimate goal. It is: how do we help the customer out, and how do we drive the materials to be recycled.”

Studies show, says Freeze, the majority of consumers assume unlabeled packaging it is not recyclable.

The Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), the national trade association representing companies who acquire, reprocess and sell much of the post-consumer plastic processing capacity in North America, thinks the Walmart’s focus on packaging sustainability will impact both suppliers and the retail industry.

“We think it is huge. We think it’s going to have a huge impact on brand owners on the way they design their packages,” says Steve Alexander, executive director of APR.

Alexander, who participated in Walmart’s meeting last week, gave a presentation on the association’s Design Guide for Plastics Recyclability, which APR describes as a comprehensive, user-friendly resource outlining the plastics recycling industry’s recommendations in the current marketplace.

Alexander says the guidelines also will impact the plastics recycling industry as demand increases. By Walmart placing the guidelines on packaging, there’s going to be more demand for materials from the recycling industry, which then will go back through the chain and encourage more collection materials, he says.

“So for us, we think this could have a very large impact—not just on sustainability in general, but certainly for the plastics recycling industry; we think this could go a long way toward not just enhancing the demand for recycled products but also encouraging brand owners to design their packaging so they are compatible with recycling,” he says.

The three focus area – packaging optimization, increased recycling and sustainable sourcing—not strictly compatible goals, Miller says.

“Some of what I see here is Walmart trying to work its way through the tension between sustainable materials management, source reduction and recyclability. And at the same time and make sure that their customers, the public who comes in and buys things from Walmart, goes along with those changes. At the end of the day, it’s what their customers buy that determines how effective what Walmart does will be.”

Miller says Walmart can only drive so much change. It’s up to the public to accept it. For example, the EPA says flexible packaging is a very green product when you look at the overall footprint, but flexible packaging is not recyclable.

“I don’t think Walmart is going to stop selling products in flexible packaging.”

If their goal is sustainability, recycling is one aspect but by no means is it the only aspect.

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