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October 30th, 2013

Reducing the waste at America’s retail stores

CalRecycle (California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery) suggests that retailers consider reducing, reusing, and recycling when setting up their sourcing, packaging and related procedures. Credit: thinkretail, courtesy Flickr

Dear EarthTalk: I work for the Gap and know firsthand the amount of waste that’s produced at my store. Can you suggest ways retail stores can reduce waste? And how can I get a conversation started with the people upstairs about recycling and being less wasteful?

- Name withheld

Waste is an issue for all retail operations, given the need to take in and unpack large numbers of individual items and then display and package them up in a way that customers will appreciate.

CalRecycle (California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery) suggests that retailers consider the three R’s - reduce, reuse and recycle - when setting up their sourcing, packaging and related procedures. As for reducing, CalRecycle encourages retailers to ask their suppliers to provide items without excess packaging and to reuse whatever packaging they can. Also, stores can give customers the choice of having their purchases bagged - or give a discount to those who bring their own or go without.

For reusing, CalRecycle recommends donating old merchandise to charities rather than throwing it in the trash, and looking for schools or institutions that would take display racks and other decor elements from the previous sales season. Posting such items to a materials exchange is a quick way to find takers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains a state list of material exchanges on its website.

Retailers can maximize the amount of recycled packaging in their stores by demanding their suppliers use it. And if a store has enough recyclables it may be able to sell it to an industrial recycler periodically.

If a store is in a mall, there may be other opportunities for greening. "Mall property managers and anchor stores can provide leadership by coordinating waste prevention, recycling and purchasing programs at multitenant complexes," says CalRecycle. "Mall managers can consolidate efforts among businesses to generate large amounts of recyclable material, thereby making recycling more cost effective."

All big retail chains have sustainability challenges, but the Gap has made great strides in the last decade in reducing waste and its overall environmental footprint. They recently completed a green makeover of their corporate offices in San Francisco, diverting as much as 75 percent of the waste stream there.

While the Gap has limited control over what goes on at its retail stores given local rules and systems for waste management, it is partnering with other retailers through industry groups to facilitate recycling in mall store environments and establish lease templates that support waste reduction and other environmental goals. The company is also part of the Clean by Design program, an initiative of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to marshal the buying power of multinational corporations to reduce waste and emissions among suppliers abroad.

But just because the company is on the case doesn’t mean new suggestions aren’t welcome. Corporate leaders at companies like the Gap often encourage feedback from workers, especially when it could benefit the company’s bottom line or image. Offering some concrete, succinct examples of ways the company could reduce waste would most likely be the best approach.

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