On Monday, the state of California sued Walmart on the grounds of unlawful dumping — to the tune of an alleged 80 tons of waste each year.
Hazardous waste in the form of batteries, aerosol hair sprays and toxic cleaning supplies, medical waste and customer records all surfaced in the discovery, which has purportedly been happening for years.
Their destination? California’s municipal landfills.
“These products may seep into the state’s drinking water as toxic pollutants or into the air as dangerous gases,” California attorney general Rob Bonta said in the press statement announcing the lawsuit against Walmart. “When one person throws out a battery or half-empty hairspray bottle, we may think that it’s no big deal. But when we’re talking about tens of thousands of batteries, cleaning supplies and other hazardous waste, the impact to our environment and our communities can be huge.”
Be it bleach or pesticides, Walmart has a history of past hazardous waste non-compliance in California, with independent lawsuits brought against the company over the past 20 years. (The company has even admitted fault in some cases.) Walmart owns and operates more than 300 stores and distribution centers in California, with more than 1 million hazardous waste items — or about 80 tons — allegedly disposed of annually, by Walmart’s own counts.
In light of the news, Walmart spokespeople have been working to explain the company’s actions.
“The state is demanding a level of compliance regarding waste disposal from our stores of common household products and other items that goes beyond what is required by law,” Randy Hargrove, a Walmart spokesperson, told Reuters. He said the company had met with the state “numerous times” to explain its hazardous waste compliance programs and avoid litigation.
According to the court document, Walmart has had hazardous waste compliance programs in place since 2010, designating disposal of items into locked compactors en route to their forever homes in municipal landfills.
The company has made several sustainability commitments in recent years, including tapping into secondhand fashion. Last year, Walmart touted its partnership with reseller ThredUp with Denise Incandela, head of fashion for Walmart Inc. e-commerce, describing, at the time, the entry into resale as “more relevant than ever.”
But some argue, corporate side-talk and sustainability programs aren’t cutting it.
“This underlines a regulatory deficit: We cannot and should not rely on companies’ announcements and goodwill,” David Hachfeld, head of economy and global justice at Public Eye and researcher at the Clean Clothes Campaign, told WWD. “We need laws ensuring that all companies be transparent about their supply chains and operations, communicate on risks and measures, and mainstream human rights and environmental due diligence it their business strategies.”
As the Walmart news falls into a yearbook of environmental and human rights controversies in the fashion industry, the federal government has its own problems to sift through as the Biden administration looks to remedy the Build Back Better bill (some funds from which would have been allocated to fighting climate change) after heated rejection from Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Speaking on separate moves under the Department of Transportation, Dr. Steven Cliff, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s deputy administrator reaffirmed: “States have been leading the way when it comes to cleaning up pollution and addressing climate change.” California, certainly, is one example.
In a statement, Walmart reiterated its commitment to being a responsible corporate citizen everywhere it operates, underlining the actions it has taken over the years. “We take our obligation to protect the environment seriously and have industry leading processes in place to comply with local, state and federal environmental laws,” it read.