John Bernardo makes his living fighting pollution. But Bernardo is neither a government regulator nor an environmental activist. He works for one of the nation's largest grocery chains.

As resource conservation manager for Albertson's Inc., Bernardo heads waste reduction efforts for 22 distribution centers and 2,530 stores in 36 states. His mission is to constantly review the chain's business practices, slashing waste wherever it can be found.

Nationwide last year, Albertson's boosted the amount of cardboard it recycled by 23% and diverted approximately 352,000 tons of resources away from landfills. “It's not because we had 500 more stores or something like that,” Bernardo says. “It's because we're diverting more material from the landfill to the baler for recycling.”

It's all about the wax

For half a century, grocers have received produce in boxes coated with protective wax. Manufacturers developed the coating to make boxes stronger and to prevent damage from moisture. The problem is, when the cardboard is taken to a mill, the wax literally gums up the works. “A paper mill will not accept a bale of cardboard that has wax in it,” Bernardo says. “If we have wax boxes, we can't recycle them.”

Two years ago, Albertson's went to box manufacturers with an idea for a new type of container, one that would be strong, recyclable, attractive enough to display in stores, and easy to load on shipping pallets.

“What we came up with is something that in the industry is called the ‘common footprint,’” Bernardo says. “Now the Fibre Box Association is running ads on it in all the trade journals, encouraging buyers and packers to use the box.”

The common footprint is slightly more expensive than a wax box. But Bernardo says it saves Albertson's a lot of money.

When a grocery receives a traditional wax-coated box of peaches or nectarines, employees must remove the produce by hand to place it on display counters. The more frequently produce is handled, the greater the likelihood it will be damaged, or lost through shrinkage. But the new, brightly colored boxes are designed to serve as both shipping and display containers, eliminating the need to handle the produce.

The boxes fit better on shipping platforms, resulting in still less produce damage. Another benefit: by recycling boxes rather than throwing them away, Albertson's saves an average of $85 a ton nationwide, Bernardo says.

The ripple effect

The actions of a huge chain like Albertson's create major ripple effects. If Albertson's asks growers to use wax-free boxes, you can bet they'll do it. And because growers buy packaging in bulk, it's likely they'll use the same wax-free boxes to fill orders from smaller customers. Recently, Albertson's convinced its seafood and chicken suppliers to switch from non-recyclable containers to environmentally friendly ones. This created further positive ripple effects.

It's unusual for any corporation to create an office dedicated to slashing waste. In recognition for its efforts, Albertson's has won 25 local, state, and national environmental awards. “We don't necessarily tout this with big signs in the stores,” Bernardo says. “We just think it's the right thing to do.”