With a new circular economy lead in place as of March, Anastasia Smolina, Walmart is stepping up its focus on recycling and reuse on multiple fronts — with packaging squarely in its sights.
Walmart embraced the idea of using 100 percent recyclable packaging for its private brands back in 2016, with the goal of reaching that mark by 2025. In 2019, it changed the focus to include reusable and industrially compostable packaging in the mix and to use at least 17 percent post-consumer recycled plastic content for its private brands. According to its latest progress report, Walmart has reached 55 percent of its overall packaging goal; it has hit a 9 percent level for post-consumer recycled content. Reducing the amount of materials used for any physical item is also a big focus for the company.
"In packaging in general, pretty much every buyer in Walmart works with my team on how we reduce or replace," said Jane Ewing, senior vice president of sustainability for the retail giant. "If we knew what we know today 20 years ago, when some of these products were developed, then they wouldn’t have been developed in the same way."
As an example, Ewing pointed to the company’s single-use macaroni and cheese containers, which it is transitioning to fiber-based cartons that are compostable. Another practice Walmart’s sustainability team is encouraging: the elimination of the small plastic windows some packages use to let a consumer peek at the item inside. Instead, images are placed on paper versions.
The idea is to bridge the gap between companies that are looking for good packaging ideas and those that offer them.
Walmart is seeking to promote these ideas to other consumer products companies through an online tool called the Circular Connector, launched by Walmart in April as a global resource for companies seeking more sustainable packaging options. Since its introduction, Circular Connector has received more than 100 submissions from innovators hoping to meet their match, said Ashley C. Hall, director of sustainable packaging for Walmart.
"The idea is to bridge the gap between companies that are looking for good packaging ideas and those that offer them," she said.
The U.S. Plastics Pact, a longtime Walmart partner, will consider those submissions for innovation awards to be announced later this year. Information about viable, scalable packaging options from among the submissions will be published later this year. "Awareness is really important … It’s going to be a tool that gets used and doesn’t sit on the shelf," Hall said.
The ideas will be evaluated against criteria Walmart uses for its own processes, prioritizing materials that are bio-based or compostable and weeding out things that are difficult to recycle such as metallized films, undetectable carbon black, colored polyethylene terephthalate (PET), multilayer materials, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC), polystyrene (PS) or expanded polystyrene (EPS), polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG) in rigid plastic packaging and oxo-degradable and biodegradable additives in petroleum-based plastics, according to the Circular Connector website. (That list is grabbed from Walmart’s Recycling Handbook.)
Another resource that Walmart has helped support is Plastic IQ, another online resource that helps companies redesign products and packages — such as a blister pack — to use less plastic content. Karrie Denniston, senior director of sustainability for Walmart.org, said more than 175 companies have started to use the tool, co-developed by The Recycling Partnership and SystemIQ. Among other things, it helps teams think through the tradeoffs of various approaches, Denniston said. "The leadership level of companies that are raising their hand is incredibly exciting," she said.
Another initiative to watch is the company’s Community Recycling Hub program in collaboration with TerraCycle, which collects items that can’t be curb-recycled such as personal care products and pet food packaging. The program started in April near two Walmart stores and one Sam's Club store in Arkansas and Oklahoma with the hubs parked outside the store entrances, according to the Walmart team. Among other things, the company is exploring what items consumers will feel compelled to bring back.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of store locations for Walmart's Community Recycling Hub Program.