Wal-Mart builds on its sustainability message to suppliers

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Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. wants its suppliers to consider what will happen to packaging when the consumer is done with it.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has condensed its sustainable packaging guidelines in one document to help its suppliers align with its goals.

The retailer’s Sustainable Packaging Playbook was unveiled at a summit Wal-Mart held Oct. 25 at its Bentonville, Ark., headquarters. The playbook presents clear guidelines that affect plastics packaging.

Several times in the document, Wal-Mart advises suppliers to avoid PVC packaging.

“We’ve seen lots of suppliers make progress,” said Wal-Mart senior vice president of sustainability Laura Phillips in a phone interview prior to the summit. She cited Mattel Inc. as a good example. The toy maker scores high on Wal-Mart’s sustainability index by replacing PVC blister packaging for Barbie dolls and other toys.

Wal-Mart wants suppliers to avoid the use of biodegradable additives in petroleum-based plastics, “because it could contaminate recycling streams,” Phillips explained.

In a similar vein, the firm also wants PET containers to have labels that won’t interfere with PET recycling operations.

Wal-Mart advises packagers to avoid closures that are not the same material as the parent package, or to make sure the closures can be easily separated.

New materials — such as bio-based plastics — are encouraged when there is an end market for the material. If the packaging material does not have an end market, Wal-Mart encourages suppliers to work to establish a market or to change the package for one that does.

Phillips cited work done by the Association of Plastic Recyclers as a good foundation to address the recycling issues.

While promoting recycling, Wal-Mart sees an important role for certifiable compostable packaging for food and food-service products expected to be handled in compost waste streams.

“We have worked on this before, but the playbook brings more ideas together,” Phillips said. “Our own food business is growing.”

Wal-Mart advises checking out the Sustainable Packaging Coalition for more information on designing sustainable packaging. The retailer has worked with the Sustainability Consortium to develop the Wal-Mart Sustainability Index. More than 1,300 suppliers participated last year and in 2016 more than 3,000 have registered in the index program, in which suppliers respond to a questionnaire. It is an opportunity for suppliers to highlight important steps they are taking toward sustainability, including their packaging sustainability. The company says it is committed to buying 70 percent of the goods it and subsidiary Sam’s Club sell in the United States from suppliers who participate in the Sustainability Index. Wal-Mart’s sustainability hub contains the Sustainability Packaging Playbook.

The playbook should make it simpler for Wal-Mart’s legion of suppliers to strengthen their sustainability practices and show Wal-Mart the progress they make. Suppliers in the United States are being asked to fill out a survey covering sustainability practices that Wal-Mart can then review, and then provide feedback.

“We will reward those suppliers who make progress with an award,” Phillips noted. “We will update our sustainability index each year.”

The playbook is not meant to replace business requirements of suppliers, but rather to complement business needs. The 20-page document covers detail for sustainability issues that fall into three broad categories: protect the product, reduce materials and optimize design.

Wal-Mart is encouraging brand owners to take more responsibility to communicate recyclability of their packaging. It advises them to not rely on the traditional chasing arrows and resin identification code whereby plastic types are designated a number. It recommends using the How2Recycle label in the United States.

Phillips indicated on-package recycling labels in the past often confused consumers.

“We challenge suppliers to do better,” she said.

Wal-Mart delegates at the sustainability summit said two-thirds of people won’t recycle if instructions aren’t marked on the package.

Packagers should be aware of any priority chemicals in their packaging, then remove them, reduce them or restrict them, stressed Wal-Mart. Such chemicals can include carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive toxicants, bio-accumulators or other toxins for which there is scientific evidence of probable serious effects on humans.

Wal-Mart in all facets strives to create zero waste. It has expanded its scope to include the entire supply chain, from manufacturing and farming to consumption to end of life.

As well as working with outside agencies, the Wal-Mart Foundation and a coalition of 11 other corporate and foundation partners have created the Closed Loop Fund. 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.