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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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Erika Shriner says …

I wish that responsible companies would simply refuse to use irresponsible packaging. I simply don't buy anything packaged in polystyrene (Styrofoam) for a host of environmental reasons. Additionally styrene - a potential carcinogen - leaches into food when used as packaging. For decades paper was used to package meat and vegetable based waxes can be used to prevent leakage. Regardless just saying "No" to polystyrene is the only policy I think worth adopting.

Bing Roenigk says …

Fast forward, three years later...What are you doing now?

Brenda Schultz says …

When are NON-styrofoam meat packaging trays coming to the Whole Foods stores in Minnesota? They have been providing the NON-styrofoam trays in the Seattle, Washington area for years (where I used to live) and so there's no reason why they cannot do this in other regions of the USA. Styrofoam is toxic to the environment and my friends and family do NOT want to even purchase that type of stuff! If consumers know there's another option, and they refuse to buy that poison, then the change will happen immediately.

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@BING - I spoke with Jim and he stated that the fiber tray usage is dwindling due to the challenge factors in my original blog – high cost and less than adequate performance. If ever a third party certified compostable coating could be found the performance issue would be solved. However, a coating would add to the high cost dilemma. There has been growing interest in rPET trays and polypropylene trays. The rPET is recyclable in some markets. The polypro trays can be recycled in some markets and in the Gimme 5 bin in participating regions. Both rPET and polypro are better plastics than Styrofoam.

Paula Vandermeer says …

I can see replacing all produce packaging. Thanks for explaining the issues involved in going to a fiber tray. This is why I love Whole Foods. Good luck... I hope you continue your research on a replacement for Styrofoam. As a member of my town's recycling committee, I am trying to get Market Basket to stop using it for packaging produce. You are an excellent example of a business trying to do the right thing. Thanks. Paula

hank says …

Thank you very much for your efforts. I've noticed with the black styrofoam trays that small flecks of the tray end up all over the meat. I imagine the same thing happens with white trays and is less noticeable. It can't be good to be eating this stuff cooked in our food. Thank you!

terry murphy says …

Are the compostable ' bullrush ' rectangular take-out containers with a separate lid available any more ? These are more environmentally friendly than the waxed containers for the salad / hot bars. Can they be re-ordered ? Please advise.

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@TERRY - Our containers are purchased at the store level. Check with store leadership to see what containers they are currently ordering.

Jack says …

Have you considered using a Polypropylene plate or a mixture of Polypropylene with a composite material? MVP Plastics is working in the same direction as yourselves to solve this problem