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The Search for Non-Styrofoam Trays

By Jim McConnell, September 18, 2010  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by Jim McConnell
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.
Category: Green Action




Mary says ...
Hey! I think it's great that you're working on replacing Styrofoam--I hate that stuff and its impact on the environment. Have you tried wrapping the fiber trays with your plastic wrap before putting the meat on it and then wrapping it again? It would help with the breakdown and might be cheaper than separate soaker pads, since you are already buying plastic wrap. I think most people will get over the color since it is so much better for the environment--although, I did have a question. Are you using more petroleum to ship in the fiber from China than you would be just buying Styrofoam from a local US company? Also, is there a product available in the US that you could use instead of either and thus save on fuel and shipping costs? My $0.2.
09/18/2010 7:09:00 AM CDT
Matt says ...
Wow, styrofoam trays something I never gave much thought to and of course it's something worth moving away from. Great blog post and great insight, thanks WFM!
09/18/2010 8:04:13 AM CDT
Kathy G says ...
You can't get rid of Styrofoam trays quickly enough for me!
09/18/2010 8:26:20 AM CDT
Charlie says ...
Good idea to move away from styrofoam. What about plain butcher paper? Kind of like a meat department like a deli department..or an old fashioned butcher shop.
09/18/2010 11:33:41 AM CDT
Lori says ...
Go for it! Am willing to pay more for a cleaner environment (we will in the end anyway). And I don't see the change of color or curling edges as a problem, especially if you let people know why.
09/18/2010 12:15:01 PM CDT
Brynne says ...
It's great to look at options, but this option sounds terrible: It is MUCH more expensive. It's MUCH heavier which means more fuel will be needed for transport. It breaks down. More food will likely be wasted. Let's work on alternatives to Bisphenol A in food grade plastics and can linings!!
09/18/2010 8:47:48 PM CDT
jonny says ...
don't give up this is awesome!
09/18/2010 9:55:51 PM CDT
amanda says ...
cool! i love to hear that you're trying to get rid of styrofoam. i really hope that you're able to work out the kinks and get this rolling! :) thanks for being an awesome grocery store <3
09/18/2010 10:43:35 PM CDT
Amber says ...
Personally, I have always wondered why Whole Foods uses Styrofoam, I know they can do better! I really like how the chicken breasts are now vacuum-sealed in plastic, not perfect, but a nice alternative.
09/19/2010 9:04:01 AM CDT
Peggy says ...
I'd be thrilled to see all styrofoam containers become a thing of the past....Keep this great work going! Another comment on packaging.....could we get rid of the little plastic spout on the orange juice cartons? Everytime I open one (and my family buys it by the case!), I cringe to think of the unneccessary plastic waste on each carton. Couldn't the cartons just open the old-fashioned way like the kids' milk cartons at school?
09/19/2010 9:54:40 PM CDT
Troy S-N says ...
As a Whole Foods Team Member, I am proud that we are once again leading the way in finding ways to help eliminate petroleum-based packaging from our landfills. While the new trays are a bit odd-looking now, I have no doubt that in time we'll all get used to the appearance. And really, the long-term environmental benefits of such packaging are what is most important.
09/20/2010 8:28:08 AM CDT
Preston Hamren says ...
Hey there! I got your email and really enjoyed the article. I don't know what say in the product you have but something that would be nice to have is a product made here in the states to cut down on fuel emmissions from transporting across the ocean. We have plenty of grasslands and farm lands here. I use compostable cups for my sampling that we get from Solo Be Green. They also make plates. I'm sure they would be able to make the trays we use for meat and produce especially with there being such a high demand for them and the prospect of other companys using them too. I have been using them for all of my demos and they seem to hold up much better than what you discribed with the trays they are testing now. They don't compost as fast so that is a definite plus. Might be something to look into.
09/20/2010 2:02:33 PM CDT
Marie says ...
Why not just wrap them in plastic wrap and then display them on reusable washable trays? Butchers paper? For me, as long as I don't get all wet from the meat juices, I don't care how it comes home or what it looks like. So greener and maybe less attractive would never be an issue for me.
09/20/2010 4:35:15 PM CDT
Diane Diller says ...
09/21/2010 1:35:16 PM CDT
Lehoma Goode says ...
I celebrate your efforts to replace styrofoam trays and i will follow your progress with interest. Lehoma Goode
09/22/2010 12:54:26 PM CDT
Marsha Estefan says ...
I applaud your efforts and support them wholeheartedly. I am trying to move away from plastic packaging of ALL types opting for glass, paper and non-reactive metal containers whenever possible not only for the environment but mostly for health purposes. No one really knows the chemical impact plastics have on food products and subsequently our health. I know costs may be higher but I will gladly pay for the assurance that what I am consuming is not more polluted with chemicals unnecessarily. Keep up your efforts with my full and financial support!
09/22/2010 1:30:35 PM CDT
Don says ...
After seeing the trays at the store out here in Honolulu, HI, I'm convinced they are a great solution to the foam trays (which frequently broke and leaked on their ride out to Hawaii). 1. Ensuring that meats enclosed in trays is COMPLETELY defrosted or COMPLETELY frozen. This way, moisture won't seep out until they are either purchased or the stock is rotated out. 2. Drying meats before placing them in the trays. This helps with moisture and the ensuing breakdown of the fiber. 3. Using the recyclable plastic trays from other departments (deli, hot food, etc). Most people either reuse/recycle them OR give them to your local school's art department for use as paint trays. 4. Using a food grade wax to coat the interior of the tray. While this may increase costs, it will address the issue of the containers degrading quicker.
09/22/2010 1:41:41 PM CDT
B. Santos says ...
Thank you for trying to be in all levels green to the best of your abilities. It is what is necessary for today's environment. Last year I wrote an article on the recycling of styrofoam: http://ecoword.greenpress.com/uncategorized/recycle-styrofoam/ And got a comment about using a new alternative: containers made of sugarcane by a company called Ecogreenwares: http://www.ecogreenwares.com/ They specialize in biodegradable containers. Perhaps something you can look into or maybe strike up a deal and partnership. Looking forward to a giant company like yours to take a stand against non-biodegradable sources of packaging.
09/22/2010 1:53:38 PM CDT
Erin Sintros says ...
Thank you for informing your customers on your admirable efforts to move away from styrofoam packaging. I understand that it is a complicated multi-step process. I appreciate all that you are doing to be eco-friendly.
09/22/2010 2:04:44 PM CDT
tye block says ...
I am so happy to see this addressed. I never felt right about using those styrofoam trays.At the salad bar, I always ask for a brown recycled cardboard container from the prepared section instead of the plastic offered. Every little thing we can try to do can only help.Keep up with your good work.
09/22/2010 3:01:08 PM CDT
Organic Lover says ...
I came across some palm leaf plates/trays that are biodegradable. It looked nice and environment friendly. http://www.tradeindia.com/fp464920/Palm-Leaf-Plates.html -A "Trying to go Green" Family.
09/22/2010 4:09:48 PM CDT
mike says ...
What did people use before Styrofoam trays? Probably a butcher ... Why can't you go back to that?
09/22/2010 4:10:19 PM CDT
Kevin McGowan says ...
Keep working on alternative solutions for styrofoam trays! Necessity is the mother of invention - as more grocers seek and adopt biodegradable packing, the suppliers will develop a viable product to meet the demand.
09/22/2010 4:12:39 PM CDT
Joni says ...
I have thought a lot about these trays for along time (since I collected about 75 very large ones (food tray size - from Children's Hospital when my son was there for 27 days back in 1984!!) Over theyears, I have come to despise styrofoam and have sought my own alternatives, such as brining my own container when I eat out and know ther will be leftovers. Recently, I have wondered why no one has thought to use pressed cardboard such as the type used for egg cartons. If this material can protect eggs, why not meat and chicken? These trays could be lined with heavily waxed paper which, when heated, would stick to the pressed cardboard and then would make the tray waterproof, but wuld not impact the cold food. I am tryng to get someone to make a test tray for me. Joni Schockett copyright 2010
09/22/2010 4:59:23 PM CDT
Betty Dryden says ...
There IS a product that would be great. It is a food tray made of bamboo with a liner. 100% organic and biodegradable.
09/22/2010 5:51:09 PM CDT