A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Walmart's Zero Waste Program

The Walmart Chronicles

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Walmart's Zero Waste Program

Image courtesy of Walmart

In 2005, Walmart’s then-CEO Lee Scott announced his goal to generate zero waste. Vonda Lockwood, now Walmart’s Director for Store Innovations and Sustainability, remembers thinking that the zero waste goal was really going to complicate someone’s life. Shortly thereafter, she realized the newly complicated life was her own, when she was handed the task of developing Walmart’s zero waste strategy in the U.S.

EDF was right there, adding to the complications. Walmart defined the first step in zero waste as 100 percent diversion from landfill from its U.S. operations by 2025, using a 2008 baseline to measure progress. Pretty quickly, EDF stepped in to advocate for true reductions and reuse of waste materials, and against incineration as a diversion strategy. Regardless of the energy incineration might generate, EDF has had a long-standing aversion to burning trash for two key reasons. Incineration rarely recaptures the energy used to make a product, and incineration infrastructure is so expensive that once in place, waste must continue to be burned to pay the bills, regardless of better reuse options. Air emissions and ash disposal add further complications.

To the credit of Walmart and Vonda, they listened, and set out to identify true reuse and recycling strategies. The results to date are worthy of note.

Most people who follow Walmart’s sustainability efforts are now familiar with the super sandwich bale, essentially a bundle of waste cardboard that encases up to 32 items for recycling, including aluminum cans, plastic hangers, plastic water and soda bottles, loose plastic wrap, office paper, and paperback books. In 2009 alone, Walmart redirected from landfills more than:

• 1.3 million pounds of aluminum
• 11.6 million pounds of  mixed paper
• 18.9 million pounds of plastic hangers
• 120 million pounds of plastic

 

More than 4.6 billion -- yes, billion -- pounds of cardboard have been sent for recycling. While those numbers are impressive, even for Walmart’s scale, most of those items have been recycled for years. What’s more impressive is that Walmart has also been creating new systems for diversion, especially around food waste.

According to EPA, the hierarchy for disposal of organic waste, which includes food and other plant and animal matter that decomposes, is as follows: source reduction → feed people → feed animals →  industrial uses → composting→ landfill/incineration. Walmart has spent the last several years creating infrastructure on several options.

Given Walmart’s reputation as a retailer, its efficiency with fresh food (essentially source reduction) likely rivals anyone’s. We want an abundance of choices, we want it to last for a week or more after we get it home, and we rarely purchase less than perfect selections -- a guaranteed formula for leaving a lot of edible food at the end of viable retail shelf life. 

Working with Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief charity, Walmart began the process of enlisting its entire network of Supercenters, Neighborhood Markets and Sam’s Club locations for a nationwide food donation program that was also a zero waste strategy. Recognizing that many food banks were ill-equipped to handle highly desirable fresh fruit, produce, meat, seafood, dairy and other items requiring refrigeration, the Walmart Foundation donated refrigerated trucks and funds to enable fresh food to reach people in need. Setting a goal of donating 100 million pounds of food during its 2010 fiscal year, Vonda and her teams more than doubled their target, providing nearly 200 million meals as the program rolled out nationwide. 

Walmart has been equally successful in diverting food that is past its prime. Around the country, lions, tigers and other big cats at more than 130 wild animal parks are beneficiaries, as are many swine operations. Walmart’s search for organic diversion options has accelerated the development of a national infrastructure for commercial composting facilities. In other communities, anaerobic digesters now capture methane and other greenhouse gasses from organic waste and convert it to energy.

Really getting to zero waste is hard. Some folks use a green paintbrush and tell you they’re generating “renewable” energy by burning the last 20 percent. Don’t buy it. Renewable energy comes from truly renewable sources – wind, solar, tides, but not trash.  Look at any waste stream that flows from U.S.-based Walmart facilities, and many outside the U.S., and you are likely to find people working on innovative strategies to truly redirect the leftover resources to a new life.