Packaging Sustainability Summit – Reigniting the Passion Around Packaging at Walmart

In a move designed to reignite the passion around packaging at Walmart, the company hosted a Packaging Sustainability Summit, and unveiled a Sustainable Packaging Playbook, on 25 October at the Walmart Home Office in Bentonville, Arkansas.

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Senior vice president of sustainability Laura Phillips welcomed the packed auditorium of suppliers, buyers and merchants from Sam’s Club, John Furner and Walmart, as well as NGO partners in the packaging space.

She described the three focus areas of the reignition program, namely, optimizing for design, sourcing sustainably and recycling. Key features of each focus area are:

  • Optimizing design
    • Protect the product
    • Reduce materials
  • Source Sustainably
    • Maximize recycled and sustainably sourced renewable content
    • Enhance material health
  • Support recycling
    • Design for recycling
    • Communicate recyclability

Sustainable Packaging Playbook

The playbook presents clear guidelines that affect packaging, and provides resources that packaging suppliers can reference. New materials — such as bio-based packaging — are encouraged when there is an end market for the material. If the packaging material does not have an end market, then suppliers are encouraged to work to establish an end market or to change the package for one that does.

While promoting recycling, Walmart sees an important role for certifiable compostable packaging for food and food-service products expected to be handled in compost waste streams. In an interview given to an industry publication before the Summit, Laura Phillips is quoted as saying, “We have worked on this before, but the playbook brings more ideas together, adding that, “Our own food business is growing.”

Packaging is a fundamental part of the business

Walmart Chief Merchant, Steve Bratspies talked about the importance of packaging sustainability saying, “We need to spend a lot of time on packaging, not only to get it right for the customer, but to get it right from a sustainability perspective.” He continued, “We started on the sustainable journey, sustainability journey over 10 years ago, with 3 big goals – 100% renewable energy, zero waste and selling more sustainable products. Packaging plays such a key role particularly in the second.”

He called out the fashion apparel area as making a huge difference in the business through building a standardized process and tools for going about case pack on fashion apparel. This has saved $30 million of DC handling costs, and 20,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas.

Referring to the Sustainable Packaging Playbook focus areas, Steve Bratspies said that while much work had already been done on optimized design, the time had come to broaden focus to include sourcing sustainably and recycling more in our mindset as we think about packaging.

He concluded with a challenge to the audience saying, “My challenge to everybody today is find one thing. One change to one product, or one process that can make a difference in your company and your product and that will be the start and build momentum in terms of how we do this.”

Inches matter when reducing waste

Scott McCall, senior vice president of home and seasonal business, talked about the importance of packaging protecting the product and whether all the materials used were necessary. In one of several examples he gave he described how just reducing one inch of the product had reduced the packaging by 6%, with thousands of gallons of water saved throughout the year.

He concluded his presentation by saying, “Optimize the packaging so that we can protect the product that’s in it first and foremost, but please help us buyers, suppliers, product development package design team, please help us try to reduce the waste and the footprint that we have throughout the whole supply chain.”

Use the How2Recycle label

Brand owners were encouraged to take more responsibility to communicate the recyclability of their packaging, advising them to not rely on the traditional arrows and resin identification codes whereby plastic types are designated a number. The use of the How2Recycle label in the United States was recommended and a fun game called “Recycle it” demonstrated just how important the clear graphics of the label are in eliminating confusion over whether items were recyclable or not.

Commenting on the How2Recycle label, Laura Phillips said, “We are excited to challenge our suppliers to begin to use the How2Recucle label across your product, to help change customer behavior. We’re also starting to do that beginning in our food and consumables, private label packaging and we’ll be expanding that as we learn and we understand from customers how we’re driving change and behavior there.”

Closed Loop Fund – providing loans to build infrastructure

Funded by the Walmart Foundation and a coalition of 11 other corporate and foundation partners, the Closed Loop Fund uses philanthropy to drive system level change. Its aim is to invest $100 million over five years to boost the amount of recycled materials available for manufacturing and to redirect food waste to beneficial purposes. Members of the fund include such large packaging users such as Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Coca-Cola.

As Karrie Denniston from the Walmart Foundation described it, “The big idea was that we could make the case that accessed household infrastructure around recycling more materials into the system. Most importantly, the case for investment in recycling and proving that this works is something that we could really bring to scale.”

Rob Kaplan, the managing director and co-founder of The Closed Loop Fund, described how the fund is providing loans directly to cities and companies to build recycling infrastructure, saying, “To date we’ve done 10 projects across 9 states, every dollar we invest in leveraged 3 or 4x. Just with these 10 projects, we expect to reach 2.2 million households and 3 million tons of material that was going to landfill is now going back into packaging and product supply chains.”

He continued, “Just one brief example, Memphis, Tennessee, his is a community of over 500,000 people, almost 150,000 households that basically did not have a recycling program. These are people who have never recycled and their cities were paying the landfill fee. Now we are working with a variety of partners to roll out recycling carts for every household in that community.”

A sustainability journey

As Nina Goodrich, the director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, described it when we talked to her after the event, “For Walmart sustainable packaging isn’t a destination, it’s a journey.”

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Indeed, as Ashley C. Hall, senior manager sustainability – consumables and H&W who organized the Summit, announced during the two-hour workshop that followed the main event, the discussion will continue via quarterly webinars under the auspices of Walmart’s Sustainability Value Network initiative. The topics for these webinars will be derived from the input given by the participants at the workshop – which included packaging innovation such as compostables, food waste and extended shelf life.

TIPA extends its thanks to Walmart for a most informative day, and looks forward to continuing the sustainability journey through the upcoming Sustainability Value Network.