The Surprising Environmental Benefit of Big Box Shopping

retail snack package

If your childhood was anything like mine, packing lunch everyday was a breeze. You grabbed a series of products from America’s biggest cpg companies – an “Uncrustable,” a portion-sized Doritos (maybe two), and a single-serve Mott’s applesauce. Throw it in a brown bag, throw the bag in your backpack, and you’re at the bus stop with time to spare.While individually wrapped, retail snack packages are convenient for a third-grader, as an adult, I think about all the packaging that gets thrown out after consuming these single-serve treats.

Big Box Benefits

Big-box retailers like Walmart get flack for their environmental and labor practices, but consumer packaged goods are more sustainable when sold in bulk. Consider that consumers throw away one recyclable container instead of 100 non-recyclable packaging materials that cosset each individually-wrapped bar or yogurt and you quickly begin to see that bulk is better. And bulk is the bread-and-butter of big box stores such as Walmart and Costco.

That’s not to say all big-box retail packaging is perfect; single-serve, individually-wrapped items packed in bulk is a sustainability nightmare. But if you can reduce waste by purchasing a big bag of nuts instead of, for example, Emerald’s single-portion packets or a 10 pound bag of coffee beans instead of K-cups, you’re doing the planet some good.

Rethink Retail Snack Packaging

Portion control and convenience seem to be the main drivers for single-serve packaging. But according to the Environmental Protection Agency, food, packaging and containers account for almost 45% of the materials landfilled in the United States. Yes, almost half! Meanwhile, packaging, such as plastic water bottles and snack wrappers, makes up most of the litter you see in waterways and on beaches. Stanford University says we discard our own body weight in packaging every month or two, while Portland State found that tens of millions of pounds of trash would be averted from landfills if more of us bought in bulk.

Buying in bulk is especially logical and sustainable for non-perishables. That 45% figure, remember, includes food that goes to waste. But for items that you know you’ll use or that won’t go bad over time, buying in bulk is more sustainable—and big-box retailers are the place to do it. Next time you’re tempted to talk some trash about Walmart, remember the retailer is actually helping minimize trash with many of its consumer-packaged goods.

If you’d like to share your perspective or discuss ours, please email Peter Allen to schedule a conversation.