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Challenges of Recycling Plastic Containers

By Paige Brady, June 12, 2008  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by Paige Brady
Wanted to share with everyone the answer to a recent question about the plastic containers used in our prepared foods. Our customer Julie wrote: Great to see the blog and I'm looking forward to reading it and seeing all of the great things Whole Foods will be doing for it's customers and the world. One quick question, though, as I'm sitting here eating my yummy Whole Foods gazpacho. After taking it from its Number 5 plastic container, I'm wondering what other options you have for selling so much of your pre-packaged and prepared foods. I'm a regular purchaser of a bunch of those products, and I'm always frustrated that it has to come in the plastic containers that are not recyclable anywhere in my region. Has WF ever thought about inviting customers to return their plastic containers to them? Is there any way you can sanitize them and reuse them? There are only so many uses of these containers in my house, and I do find myself guiltily throwing them out. I have Spring Water delivered to my house, and every two weeks, I put out the old containers, and they give me new. The water company does something to the containers that I use and then refills them and uses them again. I'd be thrilled to take my #5 containers back each week to WF. Would love to hear your thoughts on this. Hi Julie, Packaging is a priority topic our customers write us about. Allow me to explain what we are doing and what the future has in store. The #5 container from which you enjoy our gazpacho is the same type of material used to make most dairy containers such as yogurt, sour cream and margarine. They are recyclable in many communities, but not all. Therein lies a challenge for us as we work on packaging initiatives across the company. What may be accepted for recycling in some areas may not be in others. For this reason, most of our packaging decisions are done regionally to try to find packages that will be recycled. Even in some regions, though, each store is different. A big obstacle remains the inconsistency in recycling programs. The #5 containers are only used for soup in most regions, and the rest of the containers are #1. In San Francisco, for example, the city mandated us to only use #5 tubs for all applications because they didn't accept #1 tubs. They do, conversely, accept #1 bottles. As you can see, recycling is complicated business. We do our best to provide packaging that will protect our product quality, and be good for the environment. We did try to let customers bring back washed containers for our prepared foods, but the health departments would not allow it. You may have noticed that in the salad bar we changed from the folding boxes to a light brown box with a lid. These are made from a grass or a sugar cane by-product, depending on supply. Either way, they are tree-free and compostable. That is one example of how we have evaluated potential opportunities and implemented them to increase our sustainability. The plastic tubs are much more difficult to replace because the contents are humid. We are looking at all our options, and believe me when I say there isn't much we haven't tried. My only job is sustainable packaging, and I am doing everything I can to make change. The idea isn't to move towards something that is simply "less bad" but to something that is "good," and that is where we have to be patient, which is hard even for us who have being "green" at the core of our operations. In the meantime I appreciate you washing and reusing your containers for use at home. The future is bright for our packaging as we are seeking out alternatives for all the hard to recycle items. About 1/3 of all trash at home is packaging. We want everything that says "Whole Foods Market" on it to be in the recycling or the compost instead. Thank you again for your comments.
Category: Green Action

 

32 Comments

Comments

Carol D'Anna says ...
I definitely support the recycling of plastics, but with all the new about the safety of plastics, I'm more concerned about using plastics in general.
06/12/2008 6:14:11 PM CDT
Christos says ...
Using less plastic in food packaging would be a great thing overall for our health and the environment, but it isn't something you can do overnight. I hope we can find a plastic-like compostable material that is easy to produce and cost efficient. I'm sure it will take time, though. Also, recycling programs need to drastically improve. Quite a bit (if not most) of plastic that goes to recycling is either thrown away anyway, or still takes quite a bit of energy to do anything with it. I'm glad WFM is working on solutions though and I hope that these will be addressed efficiently in the near future.
06/13/2008 2:31:45 AM CDT
Dianne Hemp says ...
Where are your plastic containers that your prepackaged nuts, olives, etc. manufactured at and by whom? What are the plastics made out of? Where I agree recycling is an important "green" issue, however I don't want to turn green because of the contents of the plastics. Most manufacturers of plastic will say that you would have to live to be such and such age before the plastic which one eats out of, or buys there food in, could do your body harm. Interesting that my Grandmother lived to be 104 and she never used plastic in her life, occasionally she used waxed paper!
06/13/2008 7:36:42 AM CDT
Jason says ...
Would it be possible for customers to bring their own containers for certain items? For example, the hot bars, seafood, etc. Perhaps a scale could be tared to the container and you're printed a sticker for the weight of the product you're buying?
06/14/2008 3:56:09 PM CDT
Ben says ...
I run a small deli in winnipeg. All of our deli packaging is compostable. Either made from corn or spent sugar cane. A great solution to plastic. Food safe and eco-friendly!
06/14/2008 7:49:23 PM CDT
Martha says ...
I wish Whole Foods could do something else, like Ben, perhaps? I am afraid that the price of packaging is taken into consideration, but believe that consumers WOULD gladly pay more for their product if it were in a recyclable container!
06/15/2008 6:12:41 PM CDT
Suzanne DeRosa says ...
As an owner of a creative arts studio, I am constantly looking for those small dip sized plastic containers to put my home made playdough, paint and glue in. Have you ever thought of cleaning them out (just make sure no nut products were contained) and offering them to a local daycare or art center? I find that if you soak them in Castille soap for a day or two, they come out nice and clean and with no chemical residue :)
06/15/2008 7:55:41 PM CDT
elizaduckie says ...
Firs,t I want to say that I am staunch and appreciative supporter of Whole Foods...the company has an ethic, a mission and they are trying to do what they do on a level few other Supermarkets seem to be willing/able to do. I do have to say plastic containers are a hot button for me. A constant nagging feeling-guilty-aggravation, both in CO and in FL. In either place I can't recycle anything but #1 or 2...I have also lived in MN, MS, in Silicon Valley [Northern CA suburb] and a few other places, none of which [at the time] offered plastic recycling in numbers other than one/two. The best place to recycle I ever lived? In the County of Hampshire, England....Where my garbage sized large recycling bin held most of our throw away's [very little went into the regular trash bin] Cereal boxes, all sorts of plastic, paper, magazines, envelopes, glass etc., etc., were picked up and sent to a recycling center where they sorted the different bits and took care of them. BTW One saw very little styrofoam in packaging there...perhaps this has changed, it's been a few years, but I hope for the better, as that was one of the experimental programs going on in several counties at the time. Sainsbury's [UK Supermarket] initiated lovely hard plastic bins that one purchased at a reduced price and re-used. They fit into a special cart provided by the store, one could also use a speedy self check-out. They fit wonderfully, and carried groceries very sturdily, in my car. I was embarrassed to return to the US and see and hear, at the time, so little interest by comparison. I am glad to hear that at least one town/city actually does recycle something other than a number one or two....I have yet to see it. And don't get me started on un-openable as well as un-recyclable hefty plastic product packaging as a whole. My Health Club where I've suggested they provide recycling for water bottles, that, at east *is* recycled by the town. Or Starbuck's where all across the nation, at least wherever I have been, they continue, despite other things the Company supposedly does behind the counters, refuse to mandate to their stores [it is at the individual store's discretion] to provide an in-store/an outside bin so I can recycle my eminently recyclable cup/container right there. Well, I'm sure we could all go on and on........! I do what I currently can and no I'm not perfect, but I do wish the shops/large companies/commercial endeavors could catch up with the sweeping desires and better intentions of society as a whole, or is it possible there are still people who just haven't heard/don't care? Thumbs up to Whole Foods for listening and constantly leading the way by trying to raise the bar on recycling and packaging, as well as protecting consumers, as well as they can, by providing wholesome food and products for those who shop there!
06/17/2008 12:40:54 PM CDT
hsiaw says ...
@Jason As of now, it's up to each individual store to decide if they will let people bring in their own containers for bulk. Some of our stores definitely allow it. I'd recommend you contact your local store and ask. If it isn't something they already do, perhaps some strong encouragement from their loyal shoppers would give them a push in that direction! :) http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/store/index.php
06/17/2008 1:25:41 PM CDT
Barbara says ...
Here in Caldwell C. of W. Ky. we have neither Whole Foods Market nor recycling available. I am envious to hear of all the options you have at your fingertips. An adjoining county has begun an active recycling program and we make a trip once a month with our plastics and newspaper. I only wish our stores were as conscientious as you are! I enjoy reading your recipes and love your website. Continue the wonderful work and moral decisions you are making!
06/19/2008 10:47:19 AM CDT
PP says ...
I too want to bring my own container PLUS get 10 cents off my bill. Are the health regulations as strict in the UK? If so, how is Sainsbury doing their resuable container program while complying with the health department?
06/19/2008 11:25:54 AM CDT
PP says ...
In India, people use tiffin boxes or tiffin carriers. Stylish, hygenic, resusable, easy to carry lots of curries all at once. Encourage customers to use a tiffin box and get 10 cents off their bill.
06/19/2008 11:33:57 AM CDT
PP says ...
http://www.brightexport.com/pcat-gifs/products-small/tiffin-carrier.jpg
06/19/2008 11:34:23 AM CDT
PP says ...
BTW: I didn't realize that if you try out a product and then return it because you didn't like it, the product gets thrown out!!!! Nice option, but this policy is having a HUGE environmental impact. What can be done?
06/19/2008 5:18:24 PM CDT
Eri says ...
I'm not really that creative so as to recycle plastic wastes into household ornaments. My family accumulates huge amounts though. We've decided to collect the waste, reduce the space they occupy (shredding) and sell them. To think that I can earn by giving away waste...
06/21/2008 3:37:13 AM CDT
PP says ...
1) Is there a way you can sterilize reusable containers in the store? Get an instrument to check bacteria levels afterwards 2) Encourage customers to eat their pizza, salad and deli items in the Whole Foods cafe by giving them a ceramic plate to eat off of. Offer platter specials, like get sampling of 5 deli items for $5. Often, people hit the cafe to eat their items, not at home. 3)In India they wrap or serve items on a banana leaf. 4)How about coconut shell containers and bowls?
06/23/2008 8:23:10 AM CDT
PP says ...
http://kyspeaks.com/photos/kanna_curry_2.jpg
06/23/2008 8:33:20 AM CDT
elizaduckie says ...
Sorry I wasn't clear. Sainsbury's bins replace carrier bags, we put groceries in them not raw food. I do recall many years ago in MN Byerley's Supermarket [not sure of spelling] used to sell a fabulous 'home cooked' style apple pie in returnable reusable glass pie dishes. There was some savings on the bill I think, but I can't remember what.
06/25/2008 12:12:04 AM CDT
anne says ...
before i commit to buying an item packaged in plastic i check to see if it is a #1 or #2. If not, i don't purchase it. I would like to see Whole Foods take a stand and tell their suppliers they too won't accept fruits, vegetables or other plastic contained foods in anything but #1 or #2. In 2007 i emailed driscolls to ask when they would use only 1 and 2 plastics. they emailed back that january 2008 was their date. it wasn't, i emailed them again, they didn't respond and i refuse to purchase their packaged foods. if we all took a stand we could force suppliers to change their method of packaging.
07/08/2008 8:15:48 PM CDT
hsiaw says ...
@anne As a company, we actively seek ways to lessen our environmental impact and are moving along in several fronts as quickly as possible. We will certainly consider your feedback and appreciate your personal sense of ecological responsibility. We are lucky in Austin to have organizations such as Ecology Action (http://www.ecology-action.org/index) that accept plastics #1-7 for recycling. As far as I'm aware, other cities have similar programs - both run by non-profits and by the cities themselves. For example, San Francisco is particularly progressive along this front.
07/09/2008 9:35:57 AM CDT
Diane Woodson says ...
Fabian, I appreciate your efforts to reduce the use of harmful plastics. I have found a biodegradable packaging product that I hope to introduce to the Whole Foods Market. I am currently sending samples and information to wholesalers in California and Virginia. I hope these products will become a reliable source for your stores.
11/20/2008 7:15:58 AM CST
Myra says ...
What about these big buckets used for kitty litter and other items. Along with plastic margerine containers these items all have a recycle insignia on the container, but are not recycle because there is no market for these items. I think its about time somebody pushes for additional legistlation to either include all those items that are marked appropriately for recycle in a recycle program (and not just specifics) or to push for those items that can not be recycled not to be manufactured.
08/26/2009 12:37:12 PM CDT
lucinda linderman says ...
Hi, I was wondering what you do with the shrink-wrap that comes on pallets to the store. I would also like to know more about what whole foods does with in-store waste that can not be recycled. Do you have a job for a recycler at each store? Do you do anything with sustainable artists? if these questions have been answered you may re-direct me to the link, thank you for your time.
10/02/2009 3:27:15 PM CDT
Steve Adler says ...
Our local Whole Foods store has one bin for #5 plastic and another bin for other plastic. What happens to the plastic I deposit in the "other plastic" bin? Thank you.
01/26/2011 6:59:32 PM CST
Laura says ...
While I appreciate the attempts at providing "recyclable" plastic containers for deli items and soups, my biggest concern is the sheer quantity of items that don't require plastic containers being contained by hard plastic. Everything from lettuces, herbs, and tomatoes, to berries, peaches, peppers and sprouts and garlic and all sorts of other produce items.......all of it is contained in plastic clamshells. And your bulk bins are a joke, with mountains of plastic containers holding bulk items that should be put in to paper bags or cotton sacks. What's the point of bulk if it results in more wasteful plastic packaging??? What ever happened to the compostable paper or cardboard container? Why can't people put cherry tomatoes in a paper bag? Why can't lettuce be put in regular produce bags (that are thankfully put into compostable plastic bags in my wfm in Mill Valley)? I walk in to WFM and I am freaking out on the plastic. Please do something to stop the flow of the biggest waste problem we face. Plastic. Most of this plastic ends up in landfills. That's the sad truth. And a lot of it ends up in the food chain in the ocean. It's unconscionable. Stop providing wastefully packaged items and stop putting things in plastic that DO NOT require it. Please. Whole Foods Market has tremendous influence and impact on the market, and as such, has tremendous power to influence waste patterns. Thank you.
08/02/2011 1:41:58 AM CDT

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