Walmart opts for paper mailers to cut down e-commerce packaging waste


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Dive Brief:

  • Walmart announced Thursday it plans to replace nearly all plastic mailers with paper mailers and to “rightsize” cardboard box packaging, part of a broader initiative to reduce packaging waste associated with online orders.
  • The world’s largest retailer expects the paper mailer transition will eliminate 65 million plastic mailers — or more than 2,000 tons of plastic — in the U.S. by the end of its fiscal year, which runs through Jan. 31. Additionally, it’s implementing technology in about half of its fulfillment network that helps create packages custom-fitted to an order, which can reduce the need for filler by 60% and reduce waste up to 26%, Walmart said.
  • Walmart also said the suite of changes will involve giving customers the choice to consolidate shipping of online orders and opt out of single-use plastic bags when picking up orders placed online, an option Walmart expects to offer nationwide by year’s end.

Dive Insight:

E-commerce is a growing channel for Walmart, and associated waste and packaging are some of the company’s priority areas as it tackles emissions — particularly Scope 3, or value chain, emissions.

During a Tuesday event hosted by The Economist, Walmart Chief Sustainability Officer Kathleen McLaughlin suggested that reducing the company’s significant Scope 3 emissions is a big hill to climb going forward, saying this category is about 10 times the magnitude of Scope 1 and 2 emissions.

McLaughlin said that while there’s been progress with designing some rigid plastics for recyclability, “one of the toughest areas we have right now is film,” due to a lack of recycling options for multilayered packaging. Walmart has invested in materials research and encouraged suppliers to investigate alternatives, McLaughlin said, and the company has pilots for reusable or refillable packaging in some categories.

As for reducing single-use plastic bags, Walmart believes the new opt-out option with online orders for pickup could eliminate “millions” from circulation each year. The company said early tests suggest “promising adoption rates.”

Walmart has a goal for all global private brand packaging to be recyclable, reusable or industrially compostable by 2025. According to Walmart’s FY 2022 ESG summary report released last July, the company has progressed toward this goal with 58% of its packaging. It’s also seeking to have 17% of its packaging made from postconsumer recycled content by 2025, having achieved 7% so far. The prior year, virgin plastic use increased and PCR decreased, which Walmart attributed to “global shortages” of recycled content.

E-commerce giant Amazon has also sought to transition more mailer shipments to paper. As of Amazon’s 2021 sustainability report, 49% of shipments were in flexible mailers of some kind, including a mix of padded mailers with plastic and paperboard envelopes. That year in the U.S., the company expanded use of the recyclable paper padded mailer, replacing close to 70% of mixed material bubble mailers.

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