Would You Like Paper or Plastic?
This podcast reviews Kroger’s claim concerning their plastic recycling program. Jake finds that Kroger’s claim is misguided and fails to capture the current reality of recycling plastic.
In this podcast episode, I am looking into Kroger’s plastic recycling program.
I will make the three observations according to Environmental Geopolitics (O’Lear 2018).
In the first observation, I will look into Kroger’s narrative, into their explanation of the role and meaning of the environment, and then I will be looking for what’s missing from it.
I will then investigate how they view the role of human agency in their narrative.
And lastly, but not least, I’m going to investigate the spatial dimensions of their narrative.
Now the Kroger Company is the parent company of a multitude of grocery stores across the United States. In Kansas, we know them as Dillons, but they also go by other names like Fry’s, Ralphs, and King Soopers. At these stores, they allow customers to recycle their use plastic bags and other plastic packaging in store. According to Kroger, this plastic is then compacted and sold to other companies that make products with them, primarily composite decking. Composite decking is a combination of plastic and wood and is often touted as being eco-friendly because the materials come from used items.
Now Kroger paints this whole process in a positive light, they claim they’re reducing waste because they’re diverting plastics from landfills and thus reducing risks posed by the environment. This comes from Kroger’s own ESG report as well as their website where they explain their recycling process.
However, I will explain how this narrative or claim is misguided and not really giving us the big picture by using the three Environmental Geopolitics (O’Lear 2018) observations, we can be able to see half-truths within this narrative about the environment.
Now, we’ll be moving on to observation one.
According to Environmental Geopolitics, the role and meaning of the environment is rarely specified in narratives about the environment. To understand how the Kroger company defines the role and meaning of the environment I thought it’d be best to look at their ESG report, which is basically a collection of their environmental, social, and governmental impacts by the company. The environmental section of the report details Kroger’s current impact on the environment in various ways, puts the focus on their successes by showing how they’ve reduced waste, amount of energy they’ve used, et cetera, et cetera. In this section of the report, they claim they must reduce the amount of waste concerning their plastic bags and plastic packaging.
Interestingly, on page 25 of the report, they talk about how the climate is a risk to the company. What I mean by this is they put a lot of emphasis on how climate change could disrupt their businesses and supply chains. What this implies is that the environment should be securitized because harm to the environment can cause risk for their company.
In other words, they believe that harming the environment through waste and pollution could kind of destabilize the environment, and they don’t want that, to protect their company. They want a stable environment where their stores and supply chains are not interrupted by extreme weather events or other consequences of climate change.
Now there are some important aspects about the environment that are relevant that Kroger has failed to mention. In the report they look at climate change via carbon emissions in their stores, supply chains, trucks and manufacturing plants. But they don’t consider the effects involved in plastic bag recycling.
According to Yuki Fuchigami and others, there are emissions involved in the recycling process. Figure 4 on page 9 of the article shows charts that the only thing that can change the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the production of this composite material is by introducing more recycled plastic. So, even if we said 90% of the plastic involved in the process came from Kroger’s plastic bags there’d still be a huge amount of emissions produced from other parts of the process. These processes include the manufacturing, the transportation of the materials by trucks and ships across the planet and in a best-case scenario, the composite material would also be recycled back into it’s raw form so you can make new products again.
However, on page four of the article, they explain that the current process involves disposal of the material either in landfills or by incineration after it reaches its end of life. And even if factories incorporated multiple recycling processes so that there could be an infinite loop of recycling, this also produce greenhouse gas emissions because the process to turn used composite material back into its raw form is very laborious and costly on the environment.
One thing that Kroger did not think about when looking at the environment is what happens to the composite materials after they’re used? As the previous article by Fuchigami says the actual recycling of the material is limited and in reality it’s either put into landfills or incinerated. This contradicts their main claim that recycling plastic bags reduces waste or that they reduce the risks somehow.
Ryan Nickel, construction company owner, provides explanations as to why this is and why composite decking usually becomes waste. He states that although using recycled materials reduces the amount of energy used and emissions created when making decks, it doesn’t solve what will eventually happen to it. He explains that the current levels of technology concerning recycling is limited and there’s a lack of demand for this kind of recycling.
Another important point Ryan makes is that since composite material is half wood and half plastic, the wood material decomposes and rots. This forces the material to become waste at some point in its lifetime and if the decks are made out of just recycled plastic, they may be better for the environment since they can be recycled more easily. And plastic decks hold a longer lifespan since plastic degrades much more slowly than wood. However, plastic decks are not the product to consumers desire and do require twice the amount of recycled plastics, which could mean hundreds of thousands of more plastic bags used depending on the size of the deck.
In summary, there are various important aspects about the environment that are not mentioned by Kroger and they change how we view their recycling program.
Moving forward, we can look at how Kroger defines the role of human agency within this narrative.
In this narrative, Kroger believes that people should choose to recycle their plastic bags and packaging if they use them. They believe their responsibility is to encourage consumers to recycle the plastic and to choose products made with more sustainable means. They also believe they should work in promoting this narrative as well as reducing its own plastic waste in order to prevent risk from the environment. And of course, this is all going under the assumption that recycling the plastic is good for the environment.
What Kroger misses concerning human agency is thinking about not just their company, but rather the rest of society’s well-being as well as the ecosystems on Earth. They do not consider the long-term effects on both people and the environment. In the article by M.J. Schwarzkopf and M.D. Burnard states that studies directly comparing solid timber decking products against alternate WPCs conclude that solid wood produces a significantly lower environmental impact than in both cradle-to-gate and cradle-to-grave scenarios. Again, this is further evidence and it correlates with Fuchigami’s article. It says that decks made out of wood are better for the environment in the long run.
According to Phillip Sommerhuber and others, there are some challenges that face recycling composite materials without losing their quality. They state that the current end of life plan plan for wood plastic composites is to incinerate them, which produces a lot of greenhouse gases in the process. This is because there’s no other means to dispose of the material without sending it to a landfill, but will not decompose in a practical amount of time. This makes it clear that recycling plastic really does not have a positive effect on the environment because it’s either going to be dumped in a landfill or incinerated straight into greenhouse gases.
What is missing from human agency then is the various decisions could be made with this knowledge. Kroger has failed to do their research concerning the subject, perhaps with this knowledge and these conclusions, the company could have made different decisions.
In other words, the role of human agency was obscured in some way. Either they did not care or consider the long-term effects, or they had a lack of information. Perhaps if other people or groups or organizations had a say in the recycling program they may have made other decisions.
Looking into the spatial dimensions of this narratives claim can also give us a better understanding of the reality of recycling plastics with Kroger.
According to the Kroger ESG report, we see that they are concerned specifically with the areas the company is located in. This means their stores, distribution centers, and their factories. Furthermore, we can interpret that they’re concerned with the areas they source their goods from, this means other manufacturers and farmers around the world. This would explain the concern with the global climate because it could pose a risk to their profits by damaging the trading partners around the world, as well as their own company that is based purely within the United States.
We can see that this company is laser-focused on protecting their assets and profits, but this narrow view means there are many spatial dimensions not included in their narrative that affect the reality of recycling plastics. The reality is that the spatial scales are much larger and there are so many interconnections and is impossible to point out every spatial location. This is because of the complex process and complex supply chains.
The article by Bolin and Smith shows that in the life cycle of a composite deck, there are a multitude of different inputs and outputs from the making of the deck. This includes the questions of where the power came from that powered the machinery that made the material or kind of vehicle that transported the material in its raw or finished form, and also what chemicals and additives were combined with the composite?
One could even go further to examine where and at what cost do these factors have. For instance, you could ask where the paints came from and how are they made and how much energy was used in their making? Asking these questions reveal that on a spatial scale is much more complex than Kroger’s current narrative. This is important because it shows that Kroger did not think into a more real cost of these processes.
Although Kroger is concerned about global climate change, it is for a certain reasoning. By looking at how climate change affects other people and places, we can better understand the different spatial dimensions involved.
An article by Esperón-Rodríguez and others examined possible future effects of climate change on the population in an area of Veracruz, Mexico. Decrease in rainfall and an increase in temperature would put a lot of pressure on the farmers in this area. For many people in this region, simply finding different work is not economically viable due to the lack of opportunity. Consequentially, there’s a huge risk of poverty and the authors point out two choices they will have to pick from. They will either have to migrate away from the area or they will have to grow crops that are more adapted to this new climate. This is just one example of how narrow Kroger’s view of the global climate really is.
It just doesn’t affect their company, it affects everyone in a multitude of ways, some more severe than others. In this example in Mexico, many farmers could face losing their livelihoods due to a harsher climate. Since recycling plastics does contribute to climate change one way or another, it questions the authority of Kroger’s claim that recycling the plastic is good for the environment.
By looking at spatial scales, we’ve revealed that the effects on the environment are far different than what the companies claim.
In this podcast, I’ve talked a lot about recycling plastic, so I want to quickly sum up some of the main points I’ve made about Kroger’s claim.
First, I gave evidence to how Kroger missed a lot of different aspects about the environment and what the environment really means.
Then I explained how the role of human agency was obscured and that with more knowledge or different players involved, different decisions could have been made.
Lastly, I explain that the spatial dimensions are far more complex and wide than Kroger’s narrow spatial view.
All and all it’s clear that by looking into these questions about the environment, we can see that Kroger’s claim about the environment is misguided. It fails to show the big picture. Although you could say it’s difficult, if not impossible to see the entire picture, Kroger’s view is very narrow and perhaps dangerous, environmentally speaking.
Bolin, Christopher, and Stephen Smith. 2011. “Life cycle assessment of ACQ-treated lumber with comparison to wood plastic composite decking.” Journal of Cleaner Production 19(6), 620–629. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2010.12.004.
Esperón-Rodríguez, Manuel, Martín Bonifacio-Bautista, and Víctor L. Barradas. 2016. “Socio-economic vulnerability to climate change in the central mountainous region of eastern Mexico.” Ambio 45: 146–160. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-015-0690-4.
Fuchigami, Yuki, Keisuke Kojiro, and Yuzo Furuta. 2020. “Quantification of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Wood-Plastic Recycled Composite (WPRC) and Verification of the Effect of Reducing Emissions through Multiple Recycling.” Sustainability 12(6): 2449. http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/su12062449.
Nickel, Ryan. 2021. “Reasons and Limits to Recycling Composite Decking.” Decks by E3, January 28, 2021. https://decksbye3.com/reasons-and-limits-to-recycling-composite-decking/.
Sommerhuber, Philipp F., Jan L. Wenker, Sebastian Rüter, and Andreas Krause. 2017. “Life cycle assessment of wood-plastic composites: Analysing alternative materials and identifying an environmental sound end-of-life option.” Resources, Conservation and Recycling 117(B): 235-248. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2016.10.012.
Schwarzkopf, Matthew J. & Michael D. Burnard. 2016. “Wood-Plastic Composites—Performance and Environmental Impacts.” In Environmental Impacts of Traditional and Innovative Forest-based Bioproducts, 19-43. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-0655-5_2.