Can Walmart lead the fight to eliminate plastic waste?

Source: Walmart
Mar 19, 2019

Walmart last month announced ambitious goals to significantly reduce the plastic waste of its private brand packaging while encouraging national brand suppliers to do the same.

Announced at Walmart’s annual supplier forum, the program’s emphasis is on increasing recyclability and making it easier for customers to recycle.

The program has five goals:

  • Achieve 100 percent recyclable, reusable or industrially compostable packaging for its private brands by 2025;
  • Target at least 20 percent post-consumer recycled content in private brand packaging by 2025;
  • Label 100 percent of food and consumable private brand packaging with the How2Recycle label by 2022;
  • Work with suppliers to eliminate non-recyclable PVC material from general merchandise packaging by 2020;
  • Reduce private brand plastic packaging wherever possible.

Over 30,000 SKUs will be affected.

At the forum, national brand suppliers were encouraged to make similar packaging commitments by joining Project Gigaton, a collaboration to reduce one billion metric tons of greenhouse gases from Walmart’s supply chain by 2030. The retailer also distributed a new recycling playbook detailing the levels to which types of plastic packaging can be recycled.

Walmart’s statement noted that while plastic provides numerous benefits relative to other materials (low cost, shelf life, portability, flexibility, etc.), less than 14 percent of plastic packaging is recycled globally. The retailer stated, “This low number is likely driven by a combination of consumer confusion about where/how to recycle, weak collection infrastructure, and broken links between plastic design and scalable processing infrastructure.”

The move comes amid heightened concerns over the wave of plastic polluting oceans, landfills and the general environment. While bans of single-use plastic bags and utensils are now common, the broader benefits of minimizing single-use food wrapping and packaging have been receiving headlines.

Many brands and retailers are answering calls to address the problem. In mid-March, Trader Joe’s announced an initiative to eliminate more than one million pounds of plastic from its stores after hearing complaints about “overuse of packaging,” especially in the produce section. Lush recently opened its first packaging-free store in the U.K.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Will consumer calls to ban single-use plastic packaging and minimize plastic packaging grow louder over the next few years? How significant will the related costs be for retailers and brands? Can they be largely offset?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"When a giant like Walmart takes a strong stance on an issue like this, the cause gets legs. "
"It’s nice to see that pressure (or “encouragement” here) being focused on a more idealistic area than just bottom line growth."
"When a company with as many customers as Walmart has makes a decision to become a more ecologically-friendly business, it will definitely have an impact."

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13 Comments on "Can Walmart lead the fight to eliminate plastic waste?"

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Charles Dimov

Great to see that Walmart is continuing to promote its GigaTon project. It is good for all of us, and there is growing concern about the environment. It is safe to say that customers who have a choice between an environmentally-friendly product and an equal product that misses the mark, will choose the eco-friendly product.

Don’t forget that there is an opportunity to charge a small premium for customers to do the right thing. Most consumers would be willing to pay that little extra to feel good about their choices. Overall, whether the costs are offset depends on the details, and how widely adopted the product, packaging, and waste reducing concept is.

Bob Amster

Consciousness over the use of plastic bags and other environmentally adverse material will surely grow louder and will be heard. When a company with as many customers as Walmart has makes a decision to become a more ecologically-friendly business, it will definitely have an impact. Besides, consumers can easily acquire one or two sturdy shopping bags that will last them a lifetime.

Dave Bruno

One can only hope that Walmart will lead the way on product packaging changes. We simply must reduce the eco-footprint of product packaging and, if Walmart sets a new standard, the trickle-down effect will be felt around the world. While there will be cost challenges in the short term (which are problematic, to be sure), I suspect that Walmart’s scale and volume will incent us to innovate our way around them before long. I sincerely applaud Walmart for taking these vitally important steps.

Rich Kizer

I applaud this Walmart initiative. I believe that because of all of the attention that plastic pollution has received, the public is becoming sympathetic with this issue. When a giant like Walmart takes a strong stance on an issue like this, the cause gets legs. Yes, there will be costs, but I believe these costs will be hard (and unpopular) for Walmart to pass on to the consumer, as they have announced the decision to discontinue their Savings Catcher program. But all considered, I am still applauding Walmart in this effort.

Evan Snively
Evan Snively
Loyalty Strategist, Chapman & Co. Leadership Institute
2 years 7 months ago

Large companies like Walmart and Amazon are constantly putting cost pressure on the companies they do business with to adapt or risk being left out. It’s nice to see that pressure (or “encouragement” here) being focused on a more idealistic area than just bottom line growth. The costs will be tough up front, but with all innovation there will come a tipping point where it is the new normal – hopefully with the support of companies like Walmart that new world is realized sooner rather than later.

John Karolefski

Walmart’s plan to reduce the plastic waste of its private brands is nice. Good for them. Maybe other retailers will follow. But I would be more impressed if Walmart led the way by eliminating plastic bags at checkout.

Mel Kleiman

Great move on a problem that is getting more and more headlines. Any action in the right direction to reduce waste is a great move. In the long run the cost will be out-weighed by the benefits.

Paco Underhill

Yes. Just as Walmart has taken the lead in energy and water conservation for big boxes. They need to project a time line and protocol for the process. Remember Walmart’s original strength was in trucking and warehousing. This is also about the power of the Walton family as stockholders and board members. Environmental and cultural issues are important to them.

Rick Moss

I certainly join in the applause for these worthy efforts, however the fly in the ointment is that cities and towns are retreating from their recycling initiatives because they claim they are economically unsustainable (the underside of the sustainability movement, one could say).

A recent NY Times report attributes much of the problem to China’s turnaround in accepting bulk material for recycling: “Prompting this nationwide reckoning is China, which until January 2018 had been a big buyer of recyclable material collected in the United States. That stopped when Chinese officials determined that too much trash was mixed in with recyclable materials like cardboard and certain plastics.”

Perhaps business leaders like Walmart should invite a delegation of recycling chiefs from around the country to discuss the problems they face and see if they can address them at the packaging level.

David Naumann
David Naumann
Marketing Strategy Lead - Retail, Travel & Distribution, Verizon
2 years 7 months ago

While the initiatives to eliminate plastic packaging will be a huge adjustment for manufacturers, it is the right thing to do. As manufacturers modify their packaging for Walmart’s requirements, it will likely permeate all of their product packaging.

Plastic is horrible for our environment and I applaud Walmart’s attention to this huge problem. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of plastic, floating trash halfway between Hawaii and California, has grown to more than 600,000 square miles – twice the size of Texas.

While it may cost more for packaging initially, creative packaging companies may come up with more cost effective approaches to packaging.

Craig Sundstrom

No doubt “consumers calls” will grow louder over the next decades, but I’m doubtful that will have a dramatic impact on Walmart — or any other price oriented retailer — at least not directly. Legislative push(es) could be different. It’s no coincidence that “low cost” is at the top of their list of plastics’ benefits.)

Most of the packaging reforms so far have (unsurprisingly) been the low-hanging fruit; indeed a lot of it — no (single use) bags, no straws — has been about NOT doing things more than doing them. The next and bigger moves, like increased recycling and what to do about online packaging will necessitate a lot of action … from everyone.

Min-Jee Hwang

It’s good to see Walmart adopt this approach, and it should also resonate with consumers. More retailers across the country are doing this, including legislation passed by local governments banning plastic bags and straws. As that happens, consumers will come to expect an attitude such as this.

Oliver Guy

This is awesome. This ambition is likely to have a halo impact across the board. Competitors will feel compelled to do the same, private label manufacturers who make for Walmart should be able to scale across the other companies they make for; national brands will be compelled to take similar actions.

Costs may become an issue. Eventually economies of scale may well help with this, but it could take some time.

"When a giant like Walmart takes a strong stance on an issue like this, the cause gets legs. "
"It’s nice to see that pressure (or “encouragement” here) being focused on a more idealistic area than just bottom line growth."
"When a company with as many customers as Walmart has makes a decision to become a more ecologically-friendly business, it will definitely have an impact."

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