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Wal-Mart wants to boost recycled packaging content by 3 billion pounds

By: Jim Johnson

March 12, 2014

ORLANDO, FLA. – America’s largest retailer wants to drive increased use of post-consumer recycled plastic in packaging.

And Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is using a pretty aggressive goal to help move the needle.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based retail giant wants to increase post-consumer recycled content in plastic packaging by 3 billion pounds by 2020.

That’s a three followed by a whole lot of zeros.

Putting the 3,000,000,000-pound goal in play, said Wal-Mart Director of Product Sustainability Rob Kaplan, is certainly meant to grab people’s attention and help steer them toward the use of post-consumer plastic content in packaging.

Wal-Mart is studying its current post-consumer recycled content in packaging to determine what it now uses, but that lack of a number is not stopping the firm from establishing a goal, which might have to be tweaked up or down once more firm data about the current benchmark is established.

“This is a way to improve the sustainability of all of the products,” Kaplan said at the Plastics Recycling Conference in Orlando. “So it’s sort of a rising tide lifts all boats-type approach. And those are things that really drive our attention.”

The cost and volatility of commodity packaging materials also is a driver for the company to seek more recycled content, he said.

“So our goal is to increase [recycled content]. And right now we’re estimating what we think the impact would be if we have a concerted effort to increase. We’re slowly trying to refine those numbers. We think the 3 billion pounds is an aggressive way to talk about it,” Kaplan said.

The large goal also serves, he said, “to signal to the industry that we’re serious about it and focused on it.

“As we go through benchmarking process, we may have to change those estimates because of information we get. They may go bigger or may go smaller,” Kaplan said.

While Wal-Mart sells plenty of products sold in plastic packaging, the retailer does not actually make any of those products or the packaging they use.

But the retailer can create demand for post-consumer recycled content simply by stating its preference and creating demand at the retail level. The company can use its buying power, across different lines of products, to seek recycled-content packaging from a variety of manufacturers of similar products.

“I would say the big value we bring to it is collective action,” Kaplan said, from different suppliers.

While Wal-Mart is keen on increasing post-consumer plastic content in packaging, the company is not viewing the idea as a charity case. “If it doesn’t pay, it’s not sustainable,” Kaplan said.

“Sustainability, for us, is not a philanthropic endeavor. It is about driving our business and creating value in our supply chain for our suppliers, our partners and our customers,” he said.

For a company the size of Wal-Mart, going large into post-consumer recycled plastic packaging is just a part of everyday life.

“For us, scale is really, really a key element for everything we do from the business side and the sustainability side,” Kaplan said.

Wal-Mart’s size also means the company needs to stay away from any potential unintended negative consequences that a push for higher post-consumer recycled content might bring. Those problems could include stripping supply, growing too fast, and pitting suppliers against one another, the product sustainability director said. “Those things we are really cautious about.”

Using more recycled content plastic packaging also will help the company reach its goal of reducing greenhouse gases, Kaplan said.