Walmart Zero Waste Program a Boon for Texas Recycler

Walmart Zero Waste Program a Boon for Texas Recycler

Image courtesy of Quest

By virtue of its sheer size, anything Walmart does usually produces a ripple effect. In the case of the company's zero waste program, that ripple effect created an entire industry.

The world's largest retailer needed to find a home for its food waste that didn't involve a landfill. No such infrastructure existed that could handle that kind of volume so Walmart built one, with the help of a recycling firm from Texas that assists large companies with disposing of unwanted materials, such as used motor oil and expired meat.

The effort created hundreds of green jobs and set the stage for other retailers to take advantage of the organic waste recycling infrastructure. Walmart announced last week that its zero waste strategy had cut more than 80 percent of the waste sent to landfills in California, due in part to the organic waste program co-developed by Quest Recycling Services, based in Frisco, Texas.

"The amazing thing about Walmart's request to us was they specifically, from day one, said, 'We do not want you to have this as an exclusive program with just us. We want you to find other customers, find other grocery store chains that will participate and become a part of this infrastructure,'" said Quest Recycling CEO Brian Dick. "That probably sounds a little bit strange to some schools of thought, but to them it was crystal clear. They knew they were starting a new industry. They knew they were providing the infrastructure for something that wasn't there. They knew the only way to lower their costs was to get more people involved."

Here's the backstory: Quest Recycling, which employs about 40 people, had pre-existing contracts handling Walmart's grease, rendering and automotive recycling programs. The company was charged with increasing the value of these materials, such as through the creation of systems that better collected and cleaned used oil. In the case of expired meat, Quest paired Walmart with animal rescue parks and zoos across the U.S. that rendered the expired meat products into feed.

Early in the business relationship, Quest earned points by answering Walmart's challenge to boost the value of scrap tires. "Together with their environmental group and buying group, we were able to put together a store program where they're selling recycled tire mulch in their stores," Dick said. "We were able to provide the certification that the tires from (one) store went through and became mulch that ended up on the shelf at another store."

Walmart later approached Quest for another challenge after failing to find a solution for what to do with food waste produced in its 4,400 Walmart and Sam's Club stores and supercenters in the form of hot foods from its delis and outdated or returned food.

"We did some research and within two weeks, we provided them with our plans and the way that we would attack it," Dick said. "They gave us California to start out with. We were successfully rolled out in California in less than 30 days. We proved to them that we did have the right idea and right concept."

The idea of viewing waste as a resource, and not just landfill fodder, is gaining popularity in the industry, evidenced by the efforts of Waste Management to tweak its business model in a nod to the zero waste trend. Quest has an unusual structure in that it analyzes a company's waste stream, comes up with an action plan, manages the day-to-day operations involving third-party service providers, and tracks progress. Dick likened the business model to a residential housing contractor who offers customers one price but oversees the sub-contractors, such as for painting or sheet rock installation. organic waste bin

Quest reached out to existing service providers to suggest they invest in the specialized trucks and bins needed to handle Walmart's organic food waste, which is typically wet, heavy and acidic.

"We encouraged these people to make these investments and they started a new business line," Dick said. 

The companies haul away Walmart's food waste that is ineligible for donation to food banks through the Feeding America program. Most -- about 60 percent -- is destined to become compost. Another portion, roughly 28 percent, is directed toward animal feed, with the remaining waste being converted to electricity through anaerobic digestion.

Last year, Walmart gave more than 7,000 tons of meat renderings to animal rescue parks and supplied 17,000 tons of feed stock to animal feed producers. In the process, hundreds of green jobs have been created.

"We've gone back and polled our vendor population and overall network to find out how many jobs were created as a result of the initiative of Walmart," Dick said. "We found well over 500 new green jobns created by this effort. That's everything from additional staff, facility expansions, trucks expansions from drivers, operators, managers and customer service people ... We think it's just the tip of the iceberg."

Images courtesy of Quest Recycling Services.