Plastic Waste Reduction Sparks Innovation in Retail

The use of plastics gains importance with all types of retailers as they search for new recycling methods to lessen their environmental impact
Marian Zboraj, Progressive Grocer
Plastic Waste Reduction Sparks Innovation in Retail
The Olyns reverse vending machine serves as an alternative bottle-recycling platform for customers, and also features a full-motion video screen that doubles as a retail media channel.

Far too much plastic ends up in our environment. For instance, at least 8 million tons of plastic turn up in oceans every year, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The use of plastics continues to gain importance with all types of retailers as they search for new recycling methods to lessen their environmental impact.

Plastic Bags Pave Way

One creative plastic recycling strategy is being implemented by Meijer Inc., which collaborated with materials science company Dow on a new paving technique using recycled plastic bags to create a more durable parking lot for the retailer’s Holland, Mich., supercenter. This recycled polymer modified asphalt (RPMA) parking lot uses about 12,500 pounds of post-consumer recycled plastic (PCR), which is the equivalent weight of 944,000 plastic grocery bags.

“We are committed to lessening our impact on the environment and are pleased to partner with our customers and Dow in the largest in-state project of this kind to better demonstrate our commitment to a circular economy through recycling and reusing plastic to better ensure a more sustainable future,” says Meijer President and CEO Rick Keyes. 

“This is an exciting partnership from start to finish, and a perfect example of how the plastics used to keep food safe and fresh, like bread bags, can have a new life as infrastructure like a parking lot,” notes CJ DuBois, North American paving application development leader, Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics. “This RPMA parking lot made with recycled content and our ELVALOY RET [Reactive Elastomeric Terpolymer] is just one example of how we’re continually creating new technologies and initiatives to transform used plastics into functional and valuable solutions.”

All of the recycled plastic used for the Michigan parking lot was contributed by Meijer customers through the grocer’s in-store plastic film-recycling program. Meijer placed a collection bin inside the front entrances of each of its stores for customers to deposit clean, dry plastic bags and films, including single-use, bread, dry cleaning, produce and water softener bags. This year, Meijer expects to recycle 6 million pounds of plastics through the program.

Wrapping Up Packaging Waste

Walmart is also working to improve its plastic use. The retailer hosted a sustainability milestone meeting in October that unveiled a new vision regarding plastics. 

“We shared a new goal at the meeting to achieve a 15% absolute reduction of our virgin plastic footprint by 2025,” Walmart President and CEO Doug McMillion said during a Nov. 16 call with investors. “We think this goal and others announced at the meeting will move our business in a direction that is good for the planet and good for the business by giving our customers the things they love without the things they don’t.”

The retailer aims to reduce its use of plastic through the increased use of recycled content, elimination of unnecessary material, redesigning its packaging, and the exploration of reuse models. The reduction will likely approximate a 180,000-ton reduction out of the 1.4 million metric tons of plastic packaging that Walmart used in 2020, according to the company. 

Meanwhile, online retailer Amazon is taking a major step in making pickup and delivery better for the planet. The company has launched curbside recyclable packaging that keeps grocery items chilled and frozen during delivery. Grocery items from Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods Market now arrive insulated in packaging made from recycled paper, permanently eliminating the need for plastic liners and bubble bag insulation. The new packaging is also easier for customers to recycle at home.

Recycling Vending Machines 

Another strategy to reduce a retailer’s plastic impact on the environment is to install reverse vending solutions for customers. These recycling machines are ideal in any high-traffic location where consumers purchase, drink from or discard beverage containers, like grocery stores. Campbell, Calif.-based provider Olyns designed its bottle collection machine to gather about 1.5 metric tons of recycled material per year. Olyns’ recycling cubes are also streamlined with a 65-inch full-motion video screen that doubles as a retail media channel.

Earlier this year, PepsiCo partnered with Olyns to produce a pilot program in one Bay Area Safeway store. The successful program has expanded to include four of Albertsons Cos.’  Safeway banner stores.

“To solve the crisis in our oceans, we must focus on how plastic is produced and handled on land,” notes Stefan Ranstrand, president and CEO of Norway-based TOMRA, another reverse vending machine provider. “There is clear evidence that recycling infrastructure such as container deposit schemes drives huge improvements in recycling rates, consumer behavior and reducing pollution.”

By 2025, TOMRA estimates that its reverse vending solutions will sort more than 8 million tons of plastic per year from waste streams at a global level. Its machines already collect 40 billion used beverage containers every year. 

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