Whole Story

The Official Whole Foods Market® Blog

Challenges of Recycling Plastic Containers

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.