In California, a general rule of thumb to remember is that for years, 90% of our population has lived on 10% of the land. Growth in the Central Valley has skewed that statistic, but the truth is that most of the Golden State, despite massive population growth over decades, is still relatively empty. Nevertheless, all that land is valuable: farms, military bases, national and state parks, wilderness, and mountains all are part of California’s valuable real estate. While California’s growth has slowed the past decade–for the first time since statehood we are not picking up another seat in the House of Representatives–Californians are running out of space.
California has long been a leader in recycling simply because municipalities have run out of landfill space in the past 25 years. Add the fact that California is often NIMBY (not in our backyard) central, no one wants a landfill near his or her home. That trash has to go somewhere, however, or more realistically, it must be recycled, up-cycled, down-cycled, or repurposed. Walmart, which has had a huge challenge entering some of California’s cities, now takes a leadership role in landfill waste diversion programs across the state. The super-center giant’s zero-waste model could be one that its competitors follow.
Last Thursday Walmart announced that it eliminated over 80% of its waste that otherwise would have ended up in landfills across California. The initiative’s success has sparked Walmart to roll out the program across the United States. If this plan can roll out beyond California’s state line, Walmart could prevent almost 12 million metric tons of carbon from emitting into the atmosphere, the equivalent of taking 2 million cars off of American roads.
The reductions date back to 2009, when Walmart rolled out several pilot programs that found alternatives to dumping waste into landfills. The zero waste program centers on three points:
- The reduction of plastic waste: loose plastic is sandwiched between layers of cardboard that are then delivered in bales to certified processors that recycle the materials. Meanwhile, the company has aggressively worked with vendors to reduce wasteful packaging, which has encased everything from patio sets to toys.
- Food donations and reprocessing: the tragedy of hunger in the United States, which has spiked during the recession, is not that food supplies are insufficient, but that too much of it is wasted and thrown away at supermarkets, including those Walmart operates. To that end, Walmart has donated 1.1 billion pounds of food from Walmart locations to food banks and other non-profits. Walmart’s donations in 2010 alone was enough to provide 197 million meals. The diversion of food from landfill to non-profits prevents emissions of greenhouse gases, including that pesky and dangerous methane.
- Bio-waste: Food waste not fit for human consumption is processed into animal feed, industrial materials, fuel, and compost.
A video summarizing Walmart’s efforts is below:
The environmental benefits notwithstanding, Walmart’s zero waste agenda makes for a compelling business case. Energy prices will only rise this year, so a reduction in the hauling of waste will only contribute to Walmart’s bottom line. Furthermore, as municipalities’ fiscal woes only continue, landfill fees will only rise–cheap garbage and waste disposal has long created a moral hazard because low fees offered no incentive for businesses and consumers to reduce the amount of garbage they create. Now the question is whether Walmart’s consumers will follow the cue from the store at which they frequently shop.