The world’s largest retailer has identified packaging recyclability as a key component of Project Gigaton, its recently announced effort to reduce greenhouse gases in its supply chain.
“Packaging we pulled out on its own because it’s a really big area in terms of consumer goods, fast-moving retail selling products, and our role in that, so we kind of made that its own bucket,” Laura Phillips, Walmart’s vice president of corporate affairs and sustainability, told Resource Recycling.
During Walmart’s annual sustainability summit in April, the company described its new goal to reduce a billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from the company’s supply chain by 2030. Suppliers are being asked to further the emissions-reduction effort, known as Project Gigaton, by making commitments to either optimize packaging design, use sustainably sourced materials or support recycling in various ways.
Concurrent with the gigaton goal, the company launched a new online resource providing tips and data for suppliers considering joining the effort.
Plastics Recycling Update caught up with Phillips to learn more about Walmart’s focus on packaging as part of its emissions-reduction strategy and how it relates to other recent recycling efforts.
PRU: How does this fit into other recent Walmart efforts such as the sustainable packaging playbook?
LP: It all fits together, and I think it’s all in service of the broader aspirations. We have been working on packaging for many years. We have a packaging strategy that is beyond emissions, so we work on lots of different areas of packaging. We released our playbook last year where we laid out the strategy within packaging. So this is just kind of putting an emphasis on a portion of that work that is related to recyclability and how that ties into emissions. But it’s all part of that broader packaging strategy that we have worked on for many years.
What’s the benefit you express to suppliers of signing on to make these commitments?
We’ve seen a couple things specifically in the packaging space. In our meeting last week, we highlighted a couple of examples of work that’s happening in packaging. … The president of Unilever highlighted the work they did on the Caress bottle, and just how they’ve improved that, and it’s also good for their business: It’s more efficient, it’s better for the environment, and customers seem to like it, as well. So that’s a good little case study.
We also talked there about, last year we had made a push on the How2Recycle label, and the reason for that is customers are telling us they want to recycle, they just don’t know how and they want more information. So we’ve been working with our suppliers to use the How2Recycle label, and we announced a few more suppliers joining that last week, as well. So I would say that’s one way we’re working on really challenging our packaging team on that recycling area, as well as on the content of the packaging itself. Optimizing the packaging, sourcing that packaging material sustainably, are two big components of the overall packaging strategy.
Have you seen those conversations with suppliers, brand owners, have you seen those change at all in recent years? A few years ago you’d ask for recycled content increases and they’d say there just wasn’t enough recycled content out there to meet those goals. Do you see that changing?
We are certainly working closer with the brand owners and our own private brand teams on that as part of our 2025 work that we announced last November. We also announced the goal on packaging around 100 percent recyclable by 2025 beginning in our own private brand. That’s the work that we’re setting out now and have honestly started to make progress with many teams on that. There are clearly some challenges in some product categories and there’s work to do on innovation and materials, particularly the food categories where we’re balancing many factors there. But I would say yes, we are seeing progress and there’s innovation coming to the market that’s certainly helping, as well.
In terms of recyclability, one of the conversations that comes up quite a bit is that some measures that are maybe more eco-friendly or they lower emissions may not make a product recyclable. Pouches is kind of the classic example. Where does Walmart stand on that? With this effort targeting emissions are you also going to be wanting to be ensure recyclability in products?
I think there’s always kind of the balances across all of the portfolio, and I think we’re conscious of those. You kind of have to look at item by item, category by category, and understand where those kind of puts and takes are. I think we recognize that and want to make sure we’re overall thinking about the environmental footprint of a product and recognizing that in some areas that’s different than others. There’s no one silver bullet – darn! – but taking a thoughtful approach with the suppliers item by item, and as we like to say, “optimizing.” That approach is really how we think about it.
E-commerce often involves different packaging choices than the traditional retail sector. How does e-commerce play into Project Gigaton and these packaging initiatives?
Packaging is certainly one of the real factors and challenges in that e-commerce space. We’ve recently done more work in studying our own operations to really understand more about that, where are those pressure points, and start to really understand what more we can do on those areas. So, absolutely, I would say those teams are also involved in these efforts and will be working on the strategies that are relevant in that channel to figure out how we can think about optimizing packaging and working on recyclability in e-commerce, as well.
When you look at the U.S. recycling industry sphere, what’s the No. 1 thing the industry can do to help Walmart meet these goals? What’s your biggest ask of the recycling industry?
Innovation and materials is one, continuing there on science and new ideas and approaches. There’s been a lot of innovation in the packaging industry for many years, but that would be a place that I would just say is one where we’re excited to see new ideas and technologies. Perhaps that’s where we would need the help in terms of ensuring that products, packages are recyclable.
The other one is the challenges in terms of the infrastructure. The Walmart Foundation has partnered with the Closed Loop Fund to help on some infrastructure and they’re making a lot of progress. Maybe that would be another one. That’s been one area we’ve gotten involved in through the CLF, but certainly there’s more to do there.