Unpacking the Complexities of Packaging at Walmart's Sustainable Expo

Week three on the job at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and I had the opportunity to attend Walmart & Sam’s Club 6th Annual Sustainable Packaging Exposition in Rogers, Arkansas.  The expo is part of Walmart’s efforts to reduce five percent of packaging in its supply chain by 2013 (based on a 2008 baseline).  It acts as a forum for product suppliers, packaging suppliers, and other stakeholders to exchange information on the latest in sustainable packaging needs and innovations.

Being new to both EDF and Walmart, I think I expected the expo to answer many of my packaging questions, like which type of plastic is the best for food and beverage containers and how do we improve recycling rates?

Boy was that a misguided expectation.  Don’t get me wrong, the expo was great.  My disappointment lies in the fact that there are no clear, easy answers where packaging is concerned.  Instead, there is a myriad of packaging options, each with different attributes in terms of performance (i.e., properly protecting the product), raw-materials sourcing, post-consumer waste, etc.

For example, is it more important for the packaging to be light weight or easily recyclable?  Is it better to promote packaging that may be manufactured from GMO corn but has terrific recycling properties, or “compostable” packaging that requires virgin raw materials?

That being said, there are lots of exciting ways Walmart’s suppliers are changing packaging to lessen its environmental and economic impacts.  One of the best success stories I saw at the expo was by Alpha Packaging and its new bottle design for Gumout Fuel Injection Cleaner.  By making the product twice as concentrated and switching from PVC bottles (which are not recyclable) to much smaller bottles made from PET (which is recyclable and has 30% post-consumer recycled content) it reduced product weight by 42% and 51% for large and small bottles, respectively.  This means a truck filled with new 6 oz products (formerly 12 oz) went from carrying 61,200 bottles to 153,600!

Even though the expo didn’t meet my [unrealistic] expectations, I’m already looking forward to next year’s so I can see how this ever-changing landscape has continued to evolve.

And maybe a few more of my questions will be answered…