Whole Story

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What’s The Story With…Plastic Cutlery?

By Lee Kane, October 31, 2009  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by Lee Kane
So, Whole Foods Market is this really “super-green” retailer with a strong Green Mission. Right? Then why are we still providing single use, disposable, non-recyclable, non-compostable, fossil plastic cutlery in our stores? Our customers ask every day why we seem to overlook our values on this. What’s up with that? As with any decent conundrum, there are a number of ways to look at this issue. The Whole Foods Market Green Mission Specialists would like to share with you why this is one of the most complex and convoluted challenges we face in trying to put our values into action. Here’s the gist of the problem: waste As you may know, reuse is higher on the waste hierarchy than recycling or disposal. And prevention and minimization are higher still. So from a Green Mission standpoint, the best thing we could provide would be either no cutlery (so everything would have to be “finger food”) or reusable cutlery. At our Global Green Mission Congress in May of ’08, attended by about 70 company representatives (including store-level team members as well as Vice Presidents), this goal was adopted: Utilize reusable plates, bowls, coffee cups, drinking cups and serve-ware in cafes and team member break rooms (where Health Department regulations allow). Wherever we can adopt this goal and use reusable cutlery, we should be doing so. Yes, it adds expense to a certain extent, and, yes, it requires certain operational accommodations to make it work — such as bussing, dishwashers and the like. And, no, reusable cutlery does not cover all the bases, so there is definitely a need for cutlery that customers can take with them when they’ve purchased food to go. That need can best be served by recyclable cutlery first and then by compostable cutlery. Where possible we should be offering cutlery that can be recycled. Of the plastic resins that are known to be highly recyclable, the best choices for cutlery are either #1 PET or #5 Polypropylene. In a number of our regions, we have implemented the “Gimme 5” recycling infrastructure for recycling #5 plastics. This is a partnership with Stonyfield Farms, Organic Valley and Preserve/Recycline to promote recycling of these plastics (many of which are containers such as yogurt cups and other dairy packaging) and to return them to Preserve to be made into the housewares, picnic goods, and other items such as toothbrushes and shaving razors that this company makes and we sell. More stores are getting involved with this program. Compostable cutlery is where we get into the “nitty gritty” of some of the most challenging issues we face in trying to put our values into action. Here’s why: Editor’s Note 7/6/10: This article was originally written to address the issues surrounding the cutlery we provide for customers to use with our prepared foods. It was not meant to address any compostable cutlery products that we sell in our stores. The following bullet list has been edited to remove any confusion. Thanks!
  • Cutlery items need to break down and decompose within a strict time frame, without leaving toxic residues such as heavy metals, and must not inhibit healthy seed growth in the medium into which they evolve.
  • Source material for cutlery must be certified non-GMO to meet the very strict guidelines Whole Foods Market adopted for the use of materials in our supply chain.
  • We strongly promote the idea that source biomaterials (as they are referred to) should not be derived from food-based feedstock, such as corn, potatoes, wheat, soy, etc. — food should be used for food, not plastics or fuel.
  • Any cutlery developed would need to perform at least as well as existing cutlery (in other words, not melt or dissolve in hot liquids!)
  • It needs to meet our cost needs for a commodity item as vast as this is for us. Finally, it needs to be an acceptable material for commercial-scale composting at “end of life” since this stuff doesn’t break down well in home composting environments.
The good news is that many producers and manufacturers of foodservice wares know our requirements and are scrambling to make cutlery that “gets it right.” The bad news is that very few have hit on all cylinders yet, and those that have got most of this right, are not yet cost-competitive enough to fit our supplies budgets. We firmly believe that the answer to this challenge is to hold out for the “real deal” and to aggregate our demand together with other end-users in the natural products industry, as well as other industries seeking this type of goods such as the health care and hospital industry, in order to ultimately drive the cost down through this aggregated demand. So why don’t we just take items with some of the “right stuff” as a starting point, rather than holding out for the perfect solution? (In other words, why not settle for “less bad” as a step towards “good?”) The answer to this may not be so apparent, but it lies in the fact that Whole Foods Market is considered to be the voice, the authority, and the standard-setter for so many things that touch our industry. Many look to us to be the barometer for trends, especially when it comes to “green” issues. Because of that, we strongly feel that we need to hold out for the most optimal solution. One that really speaks to all of the issues and values outlined above, even on so seemingly simple a category as cutlery. It is coming; it will come. And we can dramatically influence the course of that development, if we keep the faith and hold fast to our values and standards. That’s the story with cutlery. Thanks for asking! Lee believes his two jobs (EcoCzar and Forager) are the coolest in the company, allowing him to combine several of his passions in a way that makes work a dance. (Thanks, Coach!) With Whole Foods Market since 1996, Lee enjoys all of the many natural wonders and flavors of New England with his wife Susan and their two teenage sons.
Category: Green Action

 

21 Comments

Comments

Joanne Gibbons says ...
Have you thought about charging for the cutlery? That tactic has greatly reduced plastic shopping bags. If I'm buying food for home consumption, I don't need the plastic cutlery. Same for lunch at work; I leave knife, spoon and fork in my office and wash and re-use them. I certainly wouldn't pay for them!! If I do get some, though, I bring them home and wash and re-use them. We need to think about it and having to pay for it keeps it top of mind. That's my opinion.
10/31/2009 5:21:13 PM CDT
kanel says ...
A bunch of terrific responses to the cutlery blog, and much appreciated! I completely agree, on a personal level, with those who say that putting a price on an item like this forces it to have a value that it simply doesn't if it's free and "disposable". (People seem to forget that "there's no such thing as "away"!) I also agree, although I didn't convey it earlier, that it is a "good thing" to make use of agricultural by-products that would ordinarily end up as "waste". There is some very interesting work being done in Maine to develop a plastic from waste from the potato industry, and that is definitely an initiative worth pursuing for many reasons. More than anything, I personally appreciate and identify with keeping a set of reusable cutlery with me on my person at all times. How simple that really is, and think of how profound the impact could be if everyone adopted a solution like that!
11/04/2009 2:47:21 PM CST
denise petersen says ...
one of the biggest issues i find with compostable cutlery, or plates, or whatever, is that they end up in a garbage bag. so, compostable or not, they end up in the landfill... how many of our customers will put then in the backyard pile?
10/31/2009 7:12:07 AM CDT
Anne Brennan says ...
My understanding is that compostable tableware requires higher temperatures to break down than are found in backyard compost piles. What are we supposed to do with them when there's no access to "commercial scale composting"? I hate to see these used and then thrown in the trash.
11/01/2009 9:50:02 AM CST
Abbey Galindo says ...
Dear Lee and Group, What an excellent response. I went lunch with a friend in the Lakeview Whole foods and pointed out some of the same points. Having that heirarical chart would have greatly aided, but I can already see creating some future possibilities where I can use it. Educating individuals into what they can control about their environment definitely requires individual responsibility. Regards, Abbey Galindo
11/01/2009 10:15:54 AM CST
Katrina Rose says ...
To help with waste we reuse the plastic forks and whatnot when we can, most go in the dishwasher safely. That way if we go on a picnic or need it for luunches its there and everyone know to bring it back
11/02/2009 7:43:49 AM CST
leslie says ...
People might want to consider something like this: http://www.etsy.com/shop.php?user_id=5223953 or this: http://www.etsy.com/shop.php?user_id=6936902 Both shops sell reusable flat wear in neat handmade cases and are super cool. I particularly like the bamboo utensils.
11/02/2009 7:44:18 AM CST
ziekraut says ...
Why not offer steel cutlery for people who eat at the store and plastic for those "to go"? Probably too worried that people will take steel "to go". But, you're not trying. All boils down to profits.
11/02/2009 8:29:08 AM CST
jman says ...
the farmers market dispenses recyclable cutlery made from a potato base and we all through them into one bin at the end, why dont you utilize that idea?
11/02/2009 10:51:29 AM CST
KReilly says ...
I also think that you should charge for the cutlery - it will make people start to think about it. I'm trying to think what people did in the past. I guess in the olden days there were no takeaways for food needing cutlery. I am trying hard to be like a boy scout and carry my little fork/knife/spoon with me, but old habits (of not carrying them) die hard... Please see this link which shocked me to think harder about using all the plastic around us... http://www.chrisjordan.com/current_set2.php?id=11
11/02/2009 10:58:48 AM CST
Jennifermf says ...
I completely disagree with your distinction of "food is for food" not plastics. If we can reclaim corncobs or potato skins and turn them into safe compostable plastics, then it'll be much safer and greener than anything we can create in a lab. By refusing food-based plastics, you're continuing the status quo for overpriced products only the richest can afford your products. The cost of these items will be passed along to us.
11/02/2009 11:00:57 AM CST
Krista says ...
Thanks for this post! I always reuse the platicware I get and then I recycle it when it had its time. I would think that the customers of your store, at least the majority, would do the same. Though, I know that with any plastic (plasticware, water bottles, etc.) the problem is not necessarily the plastic it is the people who just throw them away because it is too inconvenient to reuse or recycle them. Oh well hopefully we will find a perfect solution one day, if not retraining humans to do the right thing.
11/02/2009 12:07:11 PM CST
Ronman says ...
I disagree with food is food and not reuse for making cutlery. The products are made from waste of these natural resources that normally would end up in landfill or streets. For example, sugarcane, once the juice is extracted the fiber is used to make the bagasse tableware. As far as composting. You can put it with your yard waste (Green can) or if you forget, and it goes to the landfill, it still biodegrades much faster than plastic would. 2 years vs 400 years or styrofoam that never degrades. Think about that.
11/04/2009 10:12:27 AM CST
Cutlery says ...
Wow, what a brilliant environmentally friendly alternative for fast food restaurants and days out such as picnics. How long does this cutlery take to biodegrade?
01/21/2010 8:29:17 AM CST
Jerry Sadin says ...
Hi, I just read Lee Kane's specious blog on WholeFoods' decision to continue using plastic utensils until the perfect compostable products are available. While I appreciate Kane's logic of using WholeFoods' purchasing clout to incent eco-utensil and to-go container manufacturers to produce sufficiently compostable and affordable products, we (your customers) are all missing a huge opportunity TODAY to reduce pollution. Get real, only a tiny fraction of your customers compost. In fact, a high percent may not even recycle, because recycling isn't easily available in their area, or because it's simply too much trouble. So while you sound all green waiting for the perfect compostable products, tons of plastic and paper products are going into landfills across the country because of your decision. Your focus today should be biodegradability to solve your customer's biggest proportional pollution problem. Simultaneously you should continue the good fight to pressure your suppliers to develop safely compostable packages and utensils that are affordable in both commercial and retail quantities (so even I would be out of excuses). And, if WholeFoods really is serious about responsibly using its corporate clout, you would join with other like-minded corporations that also claim to be socially responsible, like Starbucks, and aggregate your clout. They too seem to have some trouble getting off their corporate dime in this area. We shop in your stores because you carry the quality products we prefer and your buying practices seem to align with the health and green-minded principles that many of us care about. Please get off your high-horse and find a biodegradable solution today that does the most good for the largest number of your customers and for their children's children. We're not stupid; if you pollute unnecessarily, you cannot claim to be green. Green is as green does.
10/14/2010 4:31:04 PM CDT
Tiffane says ...
wow. this was super informative on all of levels, in terms of standards, rationales, companies that seek to address the issues in their daily practice. thanks for your hard work.
05/31/2011 2:22:44 PM CDT
Don Ladanyi says ...
Obviously not familiar with TruFlavorWare non-metallic tabletop flatware that "Simply makes Food taste Better!" Actually allows normally bland salads to be all they can be with very little calorie-raising salad dressings needed! Unlike metal or plastic flatware can, TruFlavorWare imparts no "metallic taste", plasticizers, oils, formaldehyde or BPA.
01/29/2012 12:26:06 AM CST
jasray says ...
I own 50 to 60 restaurants. We have been using compostable cutlery sold by http://www.ecokloud.com/. They are made from bio-plastics, and work with hot and cold foods, sturdy and strong. They are BPI certified. It would be great, if Whole Foods introduce them to their stores, as more and more customers are ready to pay a bit extra money for green products.
08/03/2012 4:34:15 PM CDT
Lee Kane says ...
Thanks for your suggestion, Jasray. If you read through my original blog on this topic, however, you will see that the cutlery you suggest is made from PLA (polylactic acid), almost certainly derived from genetically-modified corn, and that is why we have not adopted this or similar materials as "responsible" packaging or supplies solutions. As an update, we are continually learning about and testing new materials all the time, so this search has by no means ended.
12/11/2012 3:47:46 PM CST
Shidoshi says ...
Hello: Just finished reading your blog re take out and in house use cafe cutlery issues. Blog dates combined with market place technology evolution in this area beg the question re what Whole Foods is using NOW in its stores to satisfy your iconic leadership role in being GREEN as possible I use WFMs in SoCal, CO, IL, NYC, and Vancouver regularly, and have seen and used what appears to be alternative technology knives, forks and spoons for takeout or eat in purchases. This cutlery is light colored (basic off white, sturdy, and works very well I recall). I've used it in Brentwood, CA, Santa Monica, CA, Los Angeles, CA, Chicago, IL, NYC uptown, downtown, Brooklyn, Denver, CO, Vancouver, BC, and numerous other locations. What's it made of? Is it biodegradable, or what? Keep up the great work by the way. Wish I'd have purchased stock many years ago before you became the rage1. :))
03/08/2014 2:44:48 AM CST
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@SHIDOSHI - The vendor that makes this more than likely differs between regions. I would suggest calling one of the stores or regional offices to see what the cutlery is made of. http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/company-info/regional-offices
03/12/2014 2:02:40 PM CDT