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Toward a zero waste future

With the world’s population expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050, the global waste problem is expected to grow as well, unless we change course. The World Bank estimated that the world produced 3.5 million tons of solid waste per day in 2010, and that amount is projected to double by 2025. That’s not simply a lot of trash, it’s a lot of lost value – as much as $2.6 trillion annually in raw materials and residual worth. Landfill waste is a double loss: wasted product, and wasted natural resources to produce the product in the first place. The world can’t afford to use up water, forests, food, minerals, fossil fuels or any natural resource in this way.

At Walmart, we’ve been attempting to reduce waste in our operations because we hate waste of any kind. Waste increases costs for our customers, our business and for society. As millions of tons of food, other products and packaging flow through our facilities every year, we aim not to generate any waste in the process of getting things to customers. And if we can’t sell a product, we don’t want it to wind up in a waste stream; we’d prefer to donate it, recycle it or reuse it in some way. To date, we have made good progress – by the end of 2015, Walmart U.S. achieved 82 percent diversion of materials from landfill and diverted an average of 71 percent in international markets.* 

As we have learned more about reducing waste in our own operations, we have embraced the concept of a “circular economy,” which moves away from a “take-make-dispose” approach to one where products, their biological residue or component parts, are cycled back into the economic stream. A circular economy values the reuse and regeneration of materials and energy, and it encourages product design and handling that minimizes total environmental impact across the life cycle. 

Accordingly, we have extended our zero waste aspiration to include the whole supply chain, from farming and manufacturing, consumption to end of life. Working with suppliers, customers, nonprofit organizations and others, we're drawing on our strengths – such as our store and logistics infrastructure, our philanthropy and our connection to customers – to pursue practical initiatives that will start to build a more circular economy. To this end, we're asking suppliers to design products with more recycled content, and with reuse and recyclability in mind. We’re returning waste materials to the production stream by taking back certain products from customers and helping suppliers convert waste. We’re also collaborating with suppliers and the Walmart Foundation to encourage communities to invest in recycling infrastructure through the Closed Loop Fund and other initiatives. 

Moving toward a zero waste future benefits business as well as society. Eliminating operational waste avoids landfill fees and increases revenue from resale of salvaged materials. Reducing waste upstream, increasing recycled content and repurposing products can lower cost of goods and generate innovative products for customers. And in the long term, the preservation of natural resources enhances supply security. 

In the following section, we describe our progress on three main strategies to move toward a zero waste future:

  • Eliminating waste in our own operations
  • Promoting improvement in package and product design 
  • Expanding recycling through support for education and improved infrastructure 

Eliminating waste in our own operations

As we drive toward our zero waste goal, the first step is to reduce the amount of waste in the system. In our operations, we do this through a combination of diverting and repurposing materials, measuring waste and reducing food waste.

Diverting and repurposing materials

Globally, we recycle nearly 3 million tons of fiber and plastics annually. For our customers, we’re increasing the number of trade-in programs we offer for hard-to-recycle items like smartphones, tablets and video games. Thus far, we’ve collected more than 100,000 mobile phones and tablets through our U.S. store trade-in program. We also provide diversion options for customers in Chile and Brazil. In South Africa more than 143 tons of post-consumer e-waste was diverted in 2015 through a collaboration with electronics companies Samsung and DESCO. 

We are exploring additional ways we can work together with manufacturers, recyclers and other retailers to support solutions that will easily allow customers to recycle used products, with the goal of eventually being able to resell, donate or repair them.

As we pursue our zero waste goal, Walmart looks for ways we can help “close the loop” – bringing waste materials back into the production stream, working with suppliers to create new products.

For example, in the U.S., in collaboration with Metrolina, we have launched a program that encourages our customers to bring used floral containers and trays into Walmart Garden Centers. Metrolina picks them up and recycles them, repurposing the recycled materials into new floral pots for Walmart. After a successful pilot in 2013, the program expanded in 2014 and 2015 to now include 732 stores. This year, we received more than 1.4 million pounds of plastic containers and trays, which Metrolina can use to
create the equivalent of 500,000 pots.

Measuring waste

Pursuing zero waste in our operations requires that we work collaboratively with hundreds of waste vendors at the national and local levels around the world. Given the fragmentation of the waste and recycling industry, efficiently coordinating with vendors and obtaining reliable data is paramount. To address this, in 2015 we began a rollout of a global integrated data management system. This platform will allow our waste vendors to submit information directly to Walmart, and it provides us with a tool for quality control, identification of discrepancies in data and performance management. When the system is fully implemented, every market and store manager will be able to view and receive actionable data on their recycling and donation performance. Over time, this platform will allow our waste vendors to track their performance monthly and annually, as well as identify areas for improvement and potential innovation.

Consumers and food waste

The Walmart Foundation is also exploring ways to encourage consumers to reduce their own food waste. For example, through a grant of nearly $375,000 to the nonprofit organization Global Green, we’re supporting the study of the factors that motivate residents of multi-family dwellings to participate in food scrap recovery. 

Reducing food waste

As the world’s largest grocer,
we are especially concerned with reducing food waste. According to the United Nations, approximately one third of global food is wasted from production to consumption each year. That equates to roughly $1 trillion annually in wasted food value. In the U.S. alone, the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that consumers waste almost 2 million metric tons of food every year. That’s equal to the weight of 500,000 commercial airplanes. All this waste poses a risk to the world’s ability to feed a growing global population. According to the World Economic Forum, the world will need 60 percent more food by 2050 to feed a growing population. As a result, Walmart is working to prevent food from entering the waste stream at all and to donate food that isn’t sold to its highest and best use. When food can’t be donated, we’re redirecting it according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Food Recovery Hierarchy by turning it into animal feed, recovering it as energy through anaerobic digestion or composting it.

In 2010, we set a goal to reduce food waste in our emerging market stores – located in Argentina, Brazil, Central America, Chile and Mexico – by 15 percent by 2015 in comparison with our 2009 baseline. We’re happy to report we achieved this target, with a reduction of 15.3 percent. For this specific goal we limited categories to meat, produce and bakery and defined food waste as food that wasn’t sold to our customers or donated
for human consumption.

For stores in developed markets – located in Canada, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. – we set a goal of a 10 percent reduction. While we made progress, we have not fully reached this goal in all markets. In the U.K., food waste reduction programs have been established for a number of years, and the biggest opportunities for reduction have already been realized. In the U.S. and Canada, our emphasis on providing fresh and affordable food to our customers meant that we unintentionally increased our food waste by rigorously discarding food that was bruised or damaged in the handling process. 

Going forward, we will continue to pursue our targets in food waste reduction. As we move ahead, we will implement what we’ve learned in the past five years: how important it is to build a culture focused on waste reduction, to enlist the support of store leadership and to have a standardized way of measuring waste reduction across our entire organization. We’re also developing an end-to-end perspective on the value chain to determine the point where food waste occurs, either in production and packaging, through ordering or distribution or during handling in the stores. This allows us to address problems in systemic ways and close the gaps at every stage as necessary. It will also enable us to continue reducing waste without compromising our commitment to delivering fresh food to customers. 


Transforming bottles into apparel labels

In 2015, we worked with our supplier Avery Dennison, a global packaging company, to find a more sustainable option for the fabric labels in our private label apparel lines. This collaboration resulted in transitioning our No Boundaries and Secret Treasures apparel to use 100 percent recycled content labels, which are derived from plastic bottles recycled into PET polyester. During the year, this initiative transitioned 80 million labels toward lower impact versions. One of the label changes for our No Boundaries line eliminated 29 million cotton-dyed fabric endfold labels and implemented new recycled content labels that use 100 percent less water and 32 percent less energy, emit 39 percent less greenhouse gases and create 98 percent less solid waste than the old label.


Improving packaging and product design

As we work to eliminate waste in our operations, we also know that, as a retailer, we have the opportunity to engage with suppliers and manufacturers to encourage them to “design waste out” of the products sold in our stores and online. While the primary responsibility to create sustainable products rests with our suppliers, we don’t want our customers to have to choose between affordability and sustainability when they purchase from us. Building on our implementation of the Sustainability Index with our suppliers (see pg. 56), we are engaging with suppliers to:

  • Design products for end of life
  • Optimize packaging 
  • Increase the use and availability of recycled content

Designing for end of life

As waste continues to grow globally, it's becoming more important to design products at the outset with their end in mind. This allows important materials to be recycled back into the value stream. While Walmart is not ultimately responsible for the design of the products we sell, we are actively encouraging our suppliers, through the use of the Sustainability Index, to factor reuse and recycling possibilities into their designs.

Some waste streams, such as electronic waste, present particular challenges. As the number of electronic devices sold every year increases with consumer demand, there is a corresponding need to keep such products out of landfills. These products often include toxic materials, like metals, that require special handling and could be reused if recycled properly.

That’s where designing products with the end in mind is critical. For example, Samsung recently launched a television that is easier to disassemble at the end of its life, which was awarded ISRI’s Design for Recycling® Award. The television utilizes snap-together parts that eliminate the use of many screws. The result is a product that’s easier to disassemble, recover, and recycle at the end – a fitting example of the circular economy at work.

Optimized packaging

Let’s face it – packaging is a hassle. Unwieldy boxes, difficult-to-open plastic clamshells, overflowing bubble wrap: Once packaging is opened at home, it can be challenging to determine what to do with the materials needed to protect a product during transit. At the same time, packaging has an important function in preserving and protecting products and providing information to customers about the product itself.

While we’ve made significant progress with our suppliers in optimizing packaging, we still have work to do. Now that we have packaging key performance indicators (KPIs) in our Sustainability Index, we can better measure and track progress toward more sustainable packaging design and end of life initiatives. We’ve also been working with customers to better understand their expectations of, and challenges around, packaging.

Increasing the use and supply of recycled content

We’re also working with our suppliers to help them incorporate more recycled content into their packaging materials. In 2014, we surveyed nearly 100 Walmart suppliers about their current and future use of various types of post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic. In 2015, we used the Index to collect PCR content data for a range of material types. More than 1,200 brand manufacturers across 28 product categories responded, and we determined an average of 23 percent of store shelf packaging contained PCR content.

Expanding recycling through education and improved infrastructure

We’re also helping to guide our customers through the complicated terrain of recycling and make it easier to recycle through facilitating improvements in recycling infrastructure. In 2015, Walmart U.S. joined Green Blue’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s How2Recycle™ label program. These standardized packaging labels provide consistent and transparent information to customers regarding what can – and can’t – be recycled. The labels also offer an opportunity to generate local conversation about why a particular item may not be recyclable, or why it's only recyclable in certain areas. We're working with our suppliers to incorporate these labels on Walmart and Sam’s Club private label packaging and encouraging national brand suppliers to consider using the label as well.

This year we worked on using the label with Georgia-Pacific – one of the world’s leading manufacturers and distributors of pulp and paper products –
ranked as a Sustainability Leader based on their scores in the 2015 Sustainability Index. As one of a few select suppliers, Georgia-Pacific volunteered to pilot with Walmart in the use of the How2Recycle label on Walmart and Sam’s Club private label packaging. The pilot has resulted in the development of internal processes and guidance documentation to help future suppliers use the label, as well as recycling communication for our customers. Walmart plans to expand the use of the How2Recycle label across more of its private label products in 2016.

Expanding recycling through education and improved infrastructure

We’re also helping to guide our customers through the complicated terrain of recycling and make it easier to recycle through facilitating improvements in recycling infrastructure. In 2015, Walmart U.S. joined Green Blue’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s How2Recycle™ label program. These standardized packaging labels provide consistent and transparent information to customers regarding what can – and can’t – be recycled. The labels also offer an opportunity to generate local conversation about why a particular item may not be recyclable, or why it's only recyclable in certain areas. We're working with our suppliers to incorporate these labels on Walmart and Sam’s Club private label packaging and encouraging national brand suppliers to consider using the label as well.

This year we worked on using the label with Georgia-Pacific – one of the world’s leading manufacturers and distributors of pulp and paper products – ranked as a Sustainability Leader based on their scores in the 2015 Sustainability Index. As one of a few select suppliers, Georgia-Pacific volunteered to pilot with Walmart in the use of the How2Recycle label on Walmart and Sam’s Club private label packaging. The pilot has resulted in the development of internal processes and guidance documentation to help future suppliers use the label, as well as recycling communication for our customers. Walmart plans to expand the use of the How2Recycle label across more of its private label products in 2016.

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