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The Search for Non-Styrofoam Trays

Jim is our Store Supplies and Services Specialist for Whole Foods Market's Rocky Mountain Region. Our 30th birthday celebration got me thinking about some of the great green changes we've implemented over the years: buying in bulk (reduced packaging), company-wide recycling programs, composting, wind and solar power and eliminating plastic bags. While all of those things (and more that I didn't mention) are great, I'm even more excited about what we can do in the next 30 years! What you may not think about is that those big changes all started out with a lot of research, trial and error, and working with suppliers and experts to figure out how to make change happen. And that's exactly what we are doing currently with Styrofoam trays. Now, I don't have a big announcement to make. We are in the trial stages on this, but I thought you might be interested in reading about some of the process involved with assessing our options. A good thing about Whole Foods Market is that we invest the time, energy and dollars into making change happen. Once we get things going, other retailers come on board and we've changed the way business operates. For some time, we've been searching for a viable replacement for Styrofoam trays. Styrofoam is an expanded form of #6 Polystyrene and is in wide use because it's relatively cheap, light-weight (good for hauling and handling) and it performs well under typical supermarket wrapping applications. The challenges with Styrofoam packaging are equally compelling: it's made from non-renewable petroleum; has a production process that tends to be toxic; and there's no widespread desirable composting or recycling options. With those down sides, we feel it's important to seek out a more environmentally responsible packaging solution that can replicate the benefits and features of Styrofoam. For several years we have been working with a company that makes packaging from bull rush fiber. Bull rush is a grassy material that grows wild on the hillsides of China, harvested by hand by local workers. Its main advantages over Styrofoam are that it comes from a renewable resource and is compostable. It is also organic, GMO-free, chlorine and bleach-free and FDA approved. So far in our stores, this material has been used in tubs for salads, portion cups and small serving plates. The most recent development from this manufacturer is a line of various sizes of flat trays that can be used to wrap and display meat, produce and seafood. Some of our stores have experimented with these trays with limited success. The challenges we found:
  • Cost twice as much as their Styrofoam equivalent
  • Are much heavier than Styrofoam
  • Tend to begin breaking down (the ultimate desire) too soon
  • Are a color that does not have as much eye appeal as a black Styrofoam tray
We kept working to see if we could make the compostable bull rush fiber trays a more viable option. We collected our company-wide annual Styrofoam tray usage to gain an aggregate cost advantage. We worked with the manufacturer to offer as many gridded surface trays as possible so they would hold up better under moisture conditions and the tight stretch wrap that seals the packages for freshness. In addition we sourced a compostable soaker pad to absorb much of the moisture that contributes to the deterioration the trays. After making these changes, the manufacturer is now in the process of visiting our stores and delivering sample kits for inspection and further testing. Since switching from Styrofoam to fiber really requires a new paradigm, it is best to say that we are in the test stages of an experiment and we know there will be challenges to assess. Even with aggregate pricing, the cost of fiber is still almost double that of Styrofoam. Fiber is heavier so handling the cases requires more physical effort. The trays will begin to degrade if exposed to too much moisture too soon. Our store teams may have to shorten shelf life or reduce the amount of product on the shelves to overcome this. The tight stretch wrapping film can tend to pull the sidewalls of a fiber tray inward, causing an unattractive appearance. Food on fiber trays doesn't always look as attractive as food on black Styrofoam trays. In general, our store team members will need to spend more time inspecting package conditions with fiber trays. And, last but not certainly not least, we need to find out how our customers will feel about these trays. Overall we feel that moving away from Styrofoam to compostable fiber trays is the right thing to do for the environment. We feel that most of our team members and customers are supportive of this type of experiment. Even if we are not able to support this particular fiber tray long term, we feel it is a positive step forward that can take us to the next level of responsible packaging with trays. What are your thoughts? We'd love to hear them.

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109 comments

Comments

Michael says …

Hi there, You have no idea about how many foam tray that people throw away every day. I am working in a big Asian Supermarket, and I can tell: it's a lot. The foam tray we use for 1 day can fill up to the ceiling of your bed room. I am not a green guy, but I know how important it is to protect our environment. Glad to hear that we may have something to replace the foam tray, and in the future, get rid of plastic bag.

Mel says …

I like Charlie's idea of butcher paper. If customers need to see inside, perhaps a butcher paper with a center strip that is see-through plastic, prefereablly not anything worse than the plastic wrap for the trays.

herb keener says …

I applaud your efforts but I have to wonder how safe and reliable a product made only in china could be.

Heather says …

I like Charlie's idea. I like the idea of the butcher paper. Most the time I will go to the meat counter so that I can use the butcher paper instead of getting the meat that is packaged in the Styrofoam trays. Thanks WFM for the post.

Fran says …

I would suggest you use a vacuum sealing process for the meat You can seal it, slap on an information sticker and you're good to go. Not only would you would eliminate the need for a tray, the product would be "freezer" ready!

James says …

I can't believe that Whole Foods Market is exerting this kind of effort to find a more environmentally sound way to package products. It is exactly this kind of thing that keeps me coming back to Whole Foods. I am so appreciative of the fact that this issue is even being considered and researched. Whole Foods Market is definitely the place to shop for quality products and it is worthwhile efforts such as these that have turned me away from other supermarket chains. Keep up the great work. It is definitely noticed.

barbara says …

i just saw where chinete is making a plate with sugar cane ..this did catch my eye ,,great renewable way to save the enviorment :) glad to see retailers are moving forward for a healthier planet

Chris says …

I am thrilled that you are working on an alternative to that ubiquitous but inherently dangerous styrofoam. My oncologist is strongly committed to informing her patients of the connecton between plastic and cancer. Not to mention that we need to reduce our reliance on petroleum. Those of us who shop at Whole Foods, I am sure, have more discerning tastes than the general public. I can overlook the look and feel knowing that it's just healthier for the enviroment - and me!

Terry says …

You should consider thermoformed corrugated. It can be made with recyclable moisture/grease/vapor resistant coatings or recyclable film. The corrugated part makes it fiber efficient and strong.

Denise says …

I wholeheartedly support the move away from styrofoam. I had read this article yesterday and went shopping today. I had one meat purchase wrapped in butcher's paper and another in the thick plastic wrap. No leaks, fit in my reusable bag no problem, popped them in the freezer when I got home. I don't see the need for trays of any kind!

Kathy says …

I think it is great that this issue is being addressed by Whole Foods. Not seeing styrofoam trays would be wonderful! And I must say that there are a lot of insightful comments and queries regarding alternative materials and sourcing issues that have been posted by consumers on this blog; I hope the posts are being seriously reviewed by Whole Foods. Thanks!

Chrissy says …

The Whole Foods I go to has the Meat Counter (few others in the area do not), but I try to always go to the counter, and that way the meat is wrapped fresh and isn't in the Styrofoam either. I think the people who shop @ Whole Foods could care less about the packaging, as long as their meats look good. But with the meat counter...you wouldn't have added costs of packaging either.

Peanut butter says …

i loove this articlle !

p says …

love that you are looking into getting rid of styrofoam. i'm constantly looking for ways to eliminate artifical packaging products from my food - i don't even like the plastic wrap, let alone the styrofoam. how about you just sell the meat straight from the meat case, much like most of the unfrozen fish/seafood is sold? then it can simply be wrapped in wax paper, and then in the white whole foods logo paper and it's done. how much styrofoam and plastic wrap could you save that way? tons! not to mention the cost of developing yet another made in china product. cos you know once you start buying tons of these trays, there will be bullrush cultivation farms springing up and it will no longer be organic, chemical free etc. ditto with fresh veggies. why are there shrink-wrapped peas and beans and mushrooms, when you can just scoop up some and put into a bag? at any rate, kudos to you for working on this. oh and as a customer: i don't give two whits about the trays looking less attractive if it keeps my food away from toxic styrofoam and reduces trash.

Kolleen says …

Styrofoam is awful. Can you believe childrens lunches at school are served on these! I don't have a suggestion for you on a better alternative, though. But would have no problem purchasing something in a black container if I knew it was eco friendly and safe.

Mary L says …

I won't mind paying a one time fee for a re-usable container to replace any packaging or to pay more for a more environmental packaging, even if it's less appealing to the eye. I'd like to think most people will be persuaded if they understand why.

k. davison says …

I have concern about the source country; too many products from China contain heavy metals and other toxins. Is Whole Foods testing the Bull Rush in the pre production stage for contaminants? What about trying the old paper pulp trays?

Michele says …

I am so happy to read about this pursuit. Thank you WHole Foods!

Elizabeth MacArthur says …

Very interesting. It would be great to end the life of Styrofoam for the packaging purposes it's now used for. However, I have a concern with the containers yu provide at your salad and hot foods bars, the material of which is not known to me but truly adhorred as a carrier for any food I intend to eat at a later time. It is the same material used for old-time egg cartons before those gottr spiffed up in more attractive containers that preserve flavor and freshness so much better. The containers you provide just are not sanitary let along attractive or appetite appealing. Evgen plain lastic would be more suitable and acceptable to me, and I'm sure I'm not alone, from comments I hear as I troll the otherwise wonderful "bars" in Whole Foods. these things are truly horrible and unsuitable for food.

Emily says …

Hi there, we have a lot of coops in Minneapolis/St Paul, and I have seen lots of different kinds of packaging, including plastic--clear on the front, black on the back. Hot dogs can be found like this. What's to prevent this sort of packaging? It has the visual appeal of the styrofoam, eliminates both cling wrap and trays, and can be made with recyclable plastics. Just a thought.

Janelle Jakubowski says …

Greetings Applause to you for your efforts. I do everthing I can,including doing summersaults to avoid non-recyclable packaging with anything I buy. Can't wait to see the results of your effort.

Chris says …

Hey Whole Foods, This is a great article. I appreciate the transparency and the discussion of pros and cons and realities. In response to the comment right before mine (From Mary), I would imagine that if WF is shipping by ship, the emissions of transporting product from China may even be less than driving product by truck around the US. Also - a fair living wage to workers in China is still going to be lower than a fair living wage in the US. I would agree that the color may not be such a big deal. People have gotten used to the salad containers, even though to me they still look a little too close to compost! (But I still use them!) Again - great article, good luck in the hunt, and keep up this kind of interesting writing. Cheers, Chris

Janelle Jakubowski says …

I just read peanut butter's comments and I agree. I would be willing to pay more if necessary. But why not eliminate the prepaking altogether. I remember shopping for my mother many times and the meats, cheese, etc. were not wrappped until you placed your order and then in the white waxed butcher paper. Sometimes the old way is really better.?

Mita says …

I think the oil used to ship the stuff overseas offsets any real advantage they have over going with something less expensive here, such as a food-grade, thick, wax-covered paper product. Certainly there is a manufacturer in the U.S. (oh the green and desperately needed jobs that could be had right here in the good old U.S.A.!) that could design something spectacular made out of recycled paper or biodegradable corn starch packaging.

Irene Leslie says …

I commend you for making the effort to get rid of styrofome. I'm sure that the fiber trays will be improved as time goes by. I'll take a look at them next time I'm in one of your stores and then give you an more in depth opinion.

jdm mcmichael says …

Eliminate trays altogether, we don't need them. Instead, wrap all meats in butcher paper after the meats are selected from a refrigerated display case. This is how it was done before styrofoam. BTW, get rid of plastics altogether, we don't need them and they are, as you surely must know, harmful. WFM has the clout to force food producers to put (for example) yogurt either in glass containers or waxed cardboard containers. This is how it was done before plastics came on the scene. Plastics are poison when made, used and recycled, we don't need them in our environment, period. RE : laundry detergent. There is no need for liquid laundry detergent; powdered form packed in cardboard boxes is just as good if not better. Again this is how it was done until someone started advertising and selling liquid laundry detergent in plastic bottles. Imagine the zillions of plastic containers produced each year for laundry detergent that are either recycled or sitting in landfills. Recycling plastic would not be necessary if it wasn't manufactured in the first place. Get rid of plastics , Whole Foods, get rid of them altogether, be the leader in this movement. ( I have noticed your recent introduction of the WFM brand powdered laundry detergent, bravo, but, obviously, the next step is to simply stop selling liquid laundry detergent altogether. Ditto water, juice, tea, milk, etc. in plastic bottles. Use glass. It may cost consumers a few pennies more, but maybe not: economies of scale, and, ultimately better health, thus saving $$$.

Bonnie says …

The way our great great grandparents did it, is the best way. People go to Whole Foods because of the earth "saving" way your store is set up. NONE of us care how pretty the black Styrofoam is. We choose to spend twice as much for the products in your store because we beleive in it! Shipping in trays from another country doesnt help the US at all.. jobs, fuel, etc... Wrap it in plastic, put a "this is how we save our earth" sticker on it.. think.. black and gold.. And pass on the savings to your loyal customers :D You can always line your shelves in beautiful Lettuce leaves, and place your plastic wrapped juicy beautiful meats on it, and call it a day!

Beth says …

Effort and intent is all that matters. My family supports all you do and all you try to do. Good luck and we hope you lead us into an even greener and safer future!

laurel perry says …

I support your efforts to eliminate Styrofoam trays! Can't wait for other stores to catch on. Nothing worse then coffee in styrofoam too! Whole foods is the best & we are so fortunate to have such a company in existence. Your influence is priceless!!

Tess says …

I would overlook a lesser appearance of the tray if it could be composted! In my mind that would actually make it a better product. I also wouldn't mind paying a bit more for the compostable tray. I work for a large healthcare company and we have had similar problems switching to styrofoam. If anyone actually reads this, could you please let me know the name of the company you use for these trays. We are trying to start a composting program at one of the large hospitals in Boston and something like this could really help out. Thank you, Tess Olson

Reza says …

Why not test it with your customers. Display the meat wrapped with both styrofoam and the fiber with the price difference and an explaination to the differnce in price.

olen says …

I understand an organic compostable tray is the best option, but in the meantime, are recyclable plastic trays not a better option than Styrofoam? Just curious.

Robin S. says …

I commend you for your efforts so much so that I will patronize your store even more than I do now, and encourage my family and friends to do the same SIMPLY because you are trying. I personally stopped buying food that was packaged on styrofoam trays a long time ago, and instead ask for meat in the meat depart to be wrapped in brown paper. I've always been a fan of waxed paper - I have no idea if that would help in terms of the material that could sit between the food product and the proposed tray. Thank you for trying.

Maggie Marlowe says …

Wow...I have been thinking about this subject for a few weeks now and bam...here it is. I am buying almost all my meat now from a full service meat counter now to reduce the crappy and earth unfriendly packaging but was wondering why not wax coated card board? I sure hope that this eandevor works out because it sounds like a win win situation that would also make me, for one, happy about eco friendly changes. Peace!

theJilly says …

My Whole Foods uses paper to wrap the meat and I much prefer that to meat in a prepackaged tray. It seems much fresher to me that way, and it's less packaging. I'd prefer to see more of this and fewer trays at all. However, if you have to use trays, I think you're onto something good. This sort of research and attention to details is what I LOVE about your company! Keep it up.

Mary K says …

I fully support the fiber trays instead of the Styrofoam ones. I like the natural look of them and the fact they can be recycled. Keep up the good work. I like Whole Foods because of their desire to keep going green. QUESTION: When I visit your hot bar, I use the fiber container. After the inside gets wet, can you still recycle it? If so, I suggest you post better sign by your garbage and/or recycle container because a lot of people still throw their used fiber container from the hot bar into the GARBAGE even though it's not very dirty inside. Let me know. Thanks. Mary

stellarwonder says …

I think that is great!! The less chemical that are introduced into our food the better.I think you are just exploring a great change.We wish you the best,keep looking out for your us!! Who cares about looks if we understand why it looks that way. Thanks, stellarwonder

James Lynch says …

Hi, Great article. I have an idea. How about using "green trays" like when people use green bags. Then can bring their cleaned reusable trays back to the store where the butcher takes their order and packs the meat using the "green tray." Sincerely yours James Lynch

Evelyn Born Shanley says …

I have been a Whole Foods customer for more than 20 years. Styrofoam trays are far too main stream for me. Whole Foods meat and fish departments display their goods in a very appetizing manner and the people behind the counter are helpful and friendly.It takes less than 5 minutes to select the product and have it wrapped. Why do we need trays at all?

Eddie Larson says …

Good idea. I,m and board.

Melanie Palmer says …

I have noticed the change from styrofoam to bull rush fiber at the Bellaire Store, but did not understand the reasoning. I am thrilled to see the styrofoam replaced! I have no problem with the color of the new fiber trays. Is it possible to get farmers to produce this product or something similar in the USA? I just got some fish cooked in the store and packaged with the soaker pad and fiber tray. The soaker pad did soak up all the juice but the fiber tray got soaked also. I would have liked to have the juice. But, because I know you are experimenting with eco-friendly ideas, I say YES to whatever changes to decide upon.

maria says …

Fabulous great and essential. I will ONLY BUY products that do not sit on toxic styrofoam which we know kills the planet. EVERYONE should know this by now and follow your example of being responsible. THe prices may go down if everyone does this! Great job keep it up!

Christos The supplement Guy says …

If everybody had these environmental concerns like you guys I believe we would eat better and cleaner foods and we would stop poisoning ourselves with what the big companies serve us for food .keep up the good job.

Miriam says …

I just wanted to post a quick comment on what Marsha Estefan wrote: I am trying to move away from plastic packaging of ALL types opting for glass, paper and non-reactive metal containers whenever possible... Just wanted to bring to your attention that all metals are reactive, becuase they are metals. They react differently with different foods, namely alkaline and acidic foods, but ALL of them are reactive. If metals dont react to food, then it is not a metal, that is just one of their properties.

Martina says …

I am so very excited that you all are even looking into an alternative to styrofoam trays. These first steps are what leads to big changes. Thank you!

Sarah E. Kline says …

Where do you purchase microwaveable safe pot pie tins for frozen pies that are safe to eat from? Can you let me know. I am producing a product and want to use the right packaging that is safe for the environment and also can be in the oven, freezer adn microwave. Thank you, Sarah

Barbara Sherman says …

I have some questions about rush fiber trays. I understand that people want to find alternatives to Styrofoam, but purchasing non styrofoam trays alone is not the answer. If your customers throw them into their recycling bins, will their town recycle them? Probably not, because they don't have the resources to compost them. If thrown in the trash, what good is spending more money to make, purchase these trays? Can you compost these trays yourself? If so, how long does it take and are there instructions available?

ACR says …

Why is is necessary to have food pre-wrapped on trays at all? Why not have it on ice behind the counter, and then when a customer wants it, you can put it on the tray - would have less worry about the tray breaking down, and customers (like myself) who don't buy things wrapped in plastic could skip the soak pad and have their tray wrapped in butcher paper.

Lori says …

Hi There, Great!! It's only our responsibility to keep our environment safe and clean. I used to work for years in a manufacturing facility for those Styrofoam trays. Now, for the past several years, I'm in manufacturing Eco-Friendly Packaging containers as an alternative to Styrofoam IN THE USA. There are some issues however. The green trays are fairly more expensive yet, they are recyclable and microwavable. Many processing facilities are moving over to those trays and even bigger chain markets are already using these trays. Come on Whole Food! We are sure you will do it! Keep going! I will definitely follow this blog with interest. Any questions or comments email me at loripacking@gmail.com. What's your problem however, in terms of color? Those trays are done in white, clear and black and can be customized in custom colors and designs.

Seth Scott says …

Just as you did with plastic forks, you bring up cost as the major inhibition in using biodegradables. This is hypocritical because: your entire business model is built around paying more for things that are better!!! You encourage customers to pay double or even triple for organic food because it is better for them, but that philosophy stops at your corporate supply chain? So what if they cost double? What is that, ten cents each instead of five? You can't add a few cents to the cost of the meat to cover it? Not one customer would notice, especially since meat has no standard price. As an early adopter of new and sustainable materials, you must expect to pay a premium. The price will go down once widespread adoption takes place. You know this. Just do it!

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