Waste: plastics

SASB: CG-MR-410a.3; CG-HP-410a.1; FB-FR-430a.3
GRI: 103-1; 103-2; 103-3; 301-2; 417-1
UN SDG: 12
E | Last Updated: July 7, 2021

Our aspiration

Our aspiration

Walmart’s aspiration is zero plastic waste as part of a movement toward a circular economy, meaning a transition from a “take-make-dispose” approach to one that values the reuse and regeneration of materials and energy. We work with suppliers, customers and communities to accelerate the adoption of circular packaging and products, including, but not limited to, plastics.

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Key goals & metrics

Walmart’s waste metrics are based on calendar year (CY) unless otherwise noted.

Goal
Metric
CY2018
CY2019
CY2020 4
Total waste 1
Zero waste2 to landfill and incineration in our operations in U.S., Canada, Mexico, U.K. and Japan3 markets by 2025
Percentage of waste materials diverted from landfill and incineration per country
U.S.: 81%U.S.: 82%U.S.: 82%
Canada: 87%Canada: 88%Canada: 88%
Japan: 77%Japan: 78%Japan: 79%
U.K.: 85%U.K.: 85%U.K.: 89%
Mexico: 75%
Packaging (metrics below are measured in weight are based on supplier reports) 40
100% of U.S. general merchandise private brand primary plastic packaging is free of PVC by 2020Estimated percentage based on supplier reports
97%599%6
20% private brand plastic packaging in North America7 is made of post-consumer recycled content by 2025Estimated percentage based on supplier reports
7%89%9
17% of global private brand plastic packaging is made of post-consumer recycled content by 2025Estimated percentage of packaging based on supplier reports
9%109%11
100% of global private brand packaging is recyclable, reusable or industrially compostable by 2025Estimated percentage of packaging based on supplier reports
55%1262%13
Total weight (global packaging)Estimated total weight of private brand primary plastic packaging, including plastic bags based on supplier reports
>1,200,000 MT14>1,300,000 MT15

Relevance to our business & society

Packaging plays an important role in protecting and delivering quality products to our customers. But in most cases, packaging is simply a means to transport a product. Once the end user has removed the packaging, it could become waste. Approximately 51%16 of our private brand packaging is plastic, and Walmart customers, associates and other key stakeholders are increasingly concerned with it going to waste.

Benefits of plastics: Plastics can provide enhanced food safety and prevent food waste and damage to other products. Plastics are lightweight durable materials that make transporting goods easier. Plastic often has a lower environmental footprint than paper or other materials in terms of carbon emissions and land usage.

Problems with plastics: Approximately half of all plastics ever manufactured have been made in the past 15 years. Increased plastics use, including that of single-use and non-recyclable plastics, means more plastics are ending up in our environment. For instance, people use about 1 trillion plastic bags a year globally. In the U.S., each bag is used for an average of 12 minutes and fewer than 10% are recycled. Mismanaged plastics can harm wildlife, marine life and water systems. One study estimates plastic waste management will cost governments $670 billion and businesses $10 trillion by 2040.

Walmart’s approach

To achieve zero plastic waste, we are working across our business, with suppliers, governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other industry leaders to:

  • Optimize product packaging at Walmart and beyond, using less plastic and aiming for 100% reusable, recyclable or industrially compostable packaging
  • Reduce reliance on plastic bags
  • Engage customers to reduce, reuse and recycle
  • Reduce operational waste
  • Catalyze innovations in waste reduction systems

Different plastic types require different intervention methods.

Plastic packaging: A simplified framework for how we’re addressing our footprint17

Plastic types
% of our plastic footprint
Intervention method
#1 and #2PET and HDPE53%Optimize for improved recyclability through design; incorporate recycled content for maximum circularity
#3 and #6PVC and Polystyrene6%Eliminate; substitute with alternative materials
#4LDPE23%Reduce when possible; collect in-store via store drop-off
#5Polypropylene4%Work to improve recycling through The Recycling Partnership’s Polypropylene Coalition
#7Other plastic types14%Minimize use to reduce contamination

Read more: Recycling Playbook

From the experts: Transitioning toward a circular economy with zero packaging waste

In an analysis, SYSTEMIQ and The Pew Charitable Trusts found systemic action is required by business, civil society and government to meaningfully decrease plastic pollution. The study included a roadmap that outlines a combination of approaches that will help address the problem, including investments in new technology, increased recycling, reduction and reuse, expanded public policy, changes in consumer behavior, additional materials R&D and better recycling and waste management infrastructure. This roadmap builds on research from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that found recycling alone was not enough to fix the problem. Rather, large scale reuse models and innovations are required to make plastics more reusable, recyclable or compostable.

These insights show that there is no single solution to achieving a circular economy. Reaching this goal will require all of us to use a number of current approaches and develop new ones as well.

Key strategies & progress

Optimizing product packaging | Plastic bags | Customer engagement | Operational waste | Catalyzing innovation

Optimize product packaging at Walmart & beyond

Walmart is working with our suppliers and the broader retail consumer packaged goods industry to optimize packaging. Our ambition is to accelerate a transition to 100% reusable, recyclable or industrially compostable packaging. As a starting point, we have set a goal to achieve this ambition for Walmart private brand packaging by 2025; we are currently at 62%.13 We are also working with North America private brand teams to achieve 20% post-consumer recycled content by 2025. Globally, we seek to achieve 17% of Walmart private brand plastic packaging made of post-consumer recycled content by 2025; our progress is 9%.11

Inspire ambition and measurement among suppliers and beyond: We have asked our private brand suppliers to measure their packaging baseline, work toward 100% packaging that is recyclable, reusable or industrially compostable by 2025 and report progress. We share progress in the Goals & metrics section.

Through Project GigatonTM, we encourage suppliers to set their own targets for reducing waste, reusing materials and using recycled materials. More than 3,100 suppliers18 have joined Project Gigaton to date.

To help inspire commitment across the industry more broadly, we joined the U.S., Canada and U.K. Plastics Pacts. The initiative seeks to unify businesses, government entities, NGOs, researchers and other stakeholders around a common vision for the circular economy for plastics as outlined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Initiative.

Walmart also co-leads the Consumer Goods Plastics Coalition working group, focused on engaging other retailers and manufacturers. This year, the Coalition helped introduce "Golden Design Rules" to encourage reducing plastic use and improving recyclability by phasing out problematic materials, colors and labels from packaging.

Identify packaging use cases and potential interventions with the greatest potential for progress: In 2020, we worked with SYSTEMIQ to analyze Walmart U.S. private brand packaging, assess packaging reduction and identify the best innovations to pursue. The categories selected for the analysis were: expanded polystyrene (EPS) meat and seafood trays, beverages, flexible fresh food, household chemicals and personal care and beauty.

We found that actions to reach our goal vary by material and product type. We have shared the SYSTEMIQ data and findings with relevant business areas and suppliers. Merchants and private brand teams are working with suppliers to incorporate the findings into their current efforts and are developing pilots to reduce plastic packaging.

Provide tools and other resources: We provide resources to suppliers such as the Walmart Recycling Playbook, a resource developed by Walmart in collaboration with The Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and Pure Strategies. The Playbook provides criteria for streamlined packaging design and can be found on Walmart’s Sustainability Hub. The Hub contains additional tools, trainings and informative videos. The Walmart Recycling Playbook is available to any company, not just Walmart and Sam’s Club suppliers.

There has been an explosion of attention on plastic packaging waste. However, there is not yet access to a shared science-based tool that will run scenarios, compare packaging design choices and evaluate system investments. Solutions require convergent action across the value chain, based on shared evidence. Without such a tool, action is likely to be slower, fragmented and less effective at delivering critical economic, environmental and social outcomes. 
  
According to The Recycling Partnership (TRP), a key gap today is a simple way for decision makers to understand the economic and environmental implications of plastic circular solutions in order to prioritize among different options.

With the support of Walmart, The Recycling Partnership and SYSTEMIQ came together to help accelerate industry adoption of circularity commitments through the development of PlasticIQ, a scenario modeling tool to help U.S. companies set effective circularity strategies. The tool is freely available in the U.S. here.

To help associates work toward our plastic packaging commitments, Walmart provides guidance and best practices through a regular sustainable packaging tips email.

Share best practices: In November 2020, Walmart hosted a virtual Sustainable Packaging Innovation Summit with more than 3,000 participants. The summit explored solutions to the plastics problem and provided guidance on how to spur action and achieve reduction goals. Walmart leaders, suppliers and NGOs addressed trends in innovation, public policy and the importance of elimination, reduction and reuse. In 2020, Walmart representatives also spoke at GreenBiz Circularity, the Ellen McArthur Foundation Annual Summit and the CLP Holdings’ investors meeting.

Test and implement reuse/refill options: We are piloting reusable and refillable product packaging in our operations. We have learned from our operations in the U.K., where Asda joined forces with some of the U.K.’s best-known brands to launch its first “test and learn” sustainability store in Leeds to find new ways to reduce plastics and encourage customers to reuse and refill. The Leeds-based store became the first Asda in the U.K. where shoppers can fill up their own containers with products, including Asda’s own-brand coffee, rice and pasta.19

Reduce reliance on plastic bags

Walmart is working to reduce plastic bag waste. We estimate that plastic bags account for 11%20 of our global plastic packaging footprint. Recent efforts include:

Identifying alternatives: In 2020, we became a founding partner of Closed Loop Partners’ Beyond the Bag effort. We work with peers, like Target and CVS Health, as well as innovators to identify scalable alternatives to plastic bags. Collectively, founding partners have committed $15 million to launch the Beyond the Bag Initiative. This three-year initiative aims to identify, test and implement viable design solutions and more sustainable models for retail bags. In 2021, the Beyond the Bag challenge announced nine winners that will split $1 million in non-equity funding. Depending upon the type of solution, winners will either be invited to join a Circular Accelerator, a mentorship program to further hone and advance their solutions, or begin product testing to improve performance, customer experience and more. The consortium will work closely with winning solutions throughout 2021 to further develop solutions and possibly make these designs available at retailer partners.

Piloting bagless options: We are experimenting with bagless options in markets that have high customer interest and/or regulatory requirements that make bagless the norm. Recently, Walmart U.S. launched a bagless pilot in Vermont, where 78% of our customers support bagless shopping instead of paying a fee for single-use bags. We have also expanded our bagless pickup service to more than 80 stores in New York and Maine. Insights from such initiatives help inform future bagless efforts. Walmart Mexico is also going bagless. #SinBolsaPorFavor campaign was implemented to encourage our customers to use reusable bags by making the green bag available and inviting them to bring their own. At the end of 2020, more than 72% of our stores in Mexico stopped offering plastic bags.

Encouraging customers to use reusable bags: To make it more convenient for customers to choose reusable options, we improved the placement of reusable bags and offered new designs. In 2020, we added the popular designed reusable bags from The Pioneer Woman and solutions for Scan & Go check out.

Providing customers an opportunity to recycle: We provide access to in-store plastic bag and film recycling bins for customers in more than 2,000 stores.

Plastics/reusable-bags-checkout.jpg

Engage the customer to reduce, reuse & recycle

We have asked our private brand suppliers to label our food and consumable product packaging with consumer-friendly recycling information, and we encourage our national brand suppliers to provide similar label information. Our goal is for 100% of Walmart U.S. private brand food and consumable packaging to include the How2Recycle® label by 2022. In FY2021, 57% of Walmart U.S. private brand food/consumables supplier-reported sales came from items carrying the How2Recycle label and 67% of Sam’s Club U.S. private brand supplier-supported sales came from items carrying the How2Recycle label.21 We are encouraging our national brand suppliers to make similar commitments through our Project Gigaton platform and through joining the U.S. Plastics Pact.

For Earth Day in 2020, we showcased a Reduce, Reuse, Recycle shop, which allowed customers to shop for products online that have a variety of sustainability features that customers can sort by, including: reduce energy, reduce food waste, reduce plastic and recycle.

Reduce operational waste

Throughout our operations, we aim to eliminate plastic waste by reducing, reusing and recycling plastics needed to run our business. Because of our size, small changes can make a big difference. For example, we contract with vendors to collect and recycle rigid plastics and plastic film produced from our operations and returned from customers. During 2020, we recycled more than 375 million pounds of such plastic film and rigid plastics globally, an increase of more than 12% from 2019.22 To learn more about our waste elimination initiatives, including our resources for reducing plastic packaging waste and market-specific waste goals, see Walmart Sustainability Hub, Walmart Canada and Walmart Mexico.

Catalyze innovation in waste reduction systems

We collaborate with other companies, governments, nonprofits and institutions to address systemic issues, including the creation of new packaging materials and the challenge of collecting plastics for recycling. Recent efforts include:

Creating a shared vision of local waste reduction systems: In 2020, we joined the U.S., Canada and U.K. Plastics Pact as part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s initiative to create a circular economy for plastics. The effort seeks to unify businesses, government entities, NGOs, researchers and other stakeholders around a common vision for a circular economy for plastics, which includes an aspiration to recycle or compost 50% of plastic packaging by 2025.

The Walmart Foundation also provided funds in 2020 through The Recycling Partnership (TRP) for 10 U.S. cities—representing 1.3 million households—to implement lessons learned from TRP’s 50 Cities Leadership Summit related to developing infrastructure, fighting contamination, communicating with residents and capturing materials curbside.

As a member and working group co-lead of the Consumer Goods Forum Plastic Waste Coalition, we helped shape a position paper on optimal Extended Producer Responsibility programs.

Recovering polypropylene: The Walmart Foundation funded The Recycling Partnership’s launch of the National Polypropylene Recycling Coalition. Polypropylene, or No. 5 plastic, is a material found in everyday consumer packaging such as yogurt cups, coffee pods, butter tubs and many others. According to The Recycling Project’s 2020 State of Curbside Recycling report, as much as 1.6 billion pounds of polypropylene from single-family homes could be recycled into new products ranging from automotive parts to personal care and food packaging.

The coalition is an industry pre-competitive collaboration that focuses on improving polypropylene recovery and recycling in the U.S. and further developing the end market of high-quality recycled polypropylene. The grant will also support research and community education.

Recovering plastic film: The Walmart Foundation funded the Foundation for Chemistry Research and Initiatives’ Materials Recovery for the Future, a proof of concept for flexible plastic film recovery and the development of effective end markets. The pilot yielded successful results demonstrating that flexible plastic packaging can be collected, sorted and baled at a material recovery facility through curbside recycling programs.

Replacing problematic plastics: The Walmart Foundation invested in TRP’s research about alternatives to plastics, such as expanded polystyrene (EPS)—a common material used for fast food cups and meat trays—because EPS is not recyclable or compostable. The research found viable alternatives to EPS and outlined considerations of the various choices, such as cost, recyclability and performance based on various use cases. A report sharing the key research findings is planned to be publicly available in fall 2021.

Challenges

  • Walmart is one actor and achievement of our zero-waste aspiration is dependent on many factors, including the availability and quality of recycling and waste management infrastructure where Walmart operates and in customer communities. Walmart also depends on the availability of recycled content in quantities sufficient to meet needs and at competitive prices. These industries are fragmented, limiting options to scale solutions.
  • Success requires associates, suppliers and customers to be engaged. Frontline associates have competing business priorities, including inventory management and customer service, and sourcing and merchandising associates must balance a number of factors in making decisions about products. Suppliers must be willing and able to implement product design and packaging options consistent with Walmart's objectives, and customers need to be engaged in positive, circular action, overcoming low customer recycling and reuse rates.
  • Walmart’s business will continue to evolve and grow. This growth and changes in our model may require an expansion of our footprint, which may create pressure on our targets. Customer expectations regarding product design and packaging must be met.
  • In many areas, the public policy environment does not support waste prevention or management (including recycling), including through a lack of incentives to scale alternatives that reduce waste. Balkanized laws and regulations across Walmart's operational footprint limit our ability to scale single solutions.
  • Innovative materials and product designs are needed. Single-use plastics are currently necessary for health and safety and optimal for cost and convenience; alternative materials that do not cause other environmental harms do not yet exist for all use cases.
  • Walmart’s scale poses challenges. The capital and operating costs of implementing waste management technologies can be high, and it can be difficult to scale waste management processes, tools and behaviors across thousands of facilities in multiple countries.
  • National and global catastrophic events, including pandemics, can exacerbate many of the above factors.

Additional resources