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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

Steph says …

YES!!! Go for it! But... China sourcing? :-( Can you please look someplace else? Such as in our backyard... Anyway, great idea! Keep them coming!

Jeff Jones says …

Anything to get rid of the styrofoam [#6] trays! I "get" eye appeal issue. Folks will get used to it... and it's a simple, viable explanation. Signage will solve that, and small labels on packaging short term. I've been after all the stores I shop at for replacements. I'm printing this to show them what a committed, environmentally responsible company can do. Well done. Keep up the good work!

Mary says …

I detest styrofoam. I try to never buy anything packaged in it. I am really happy that you are making an effort to get rid of it. I am not that impressed with shipping something all the way from China or the plastic wrap involved in the packaging either. I really like getting meat wrapped in simple butcher paper.

Sharon says …

Glad you are trying to move away from styrofoam. Why not just get rid of the prepacking totally and let people get their meat fresh from the butcher/meat counter. Order -- wrap in brown paper -- eliminate the cost of trays entirely.

Sheila says …

Have you thought about plain paper-type trays that have a coating to prevent leaking, instead of the more expensive version mentioned in this article? Just a thought. I'm certain that with all your top guys trying to find viable solutions, this may have already been visited.

Anne says …

I applaud your efforts, but, please do not import from China! Surely we have the technology right here in the US. We need the jobs here!

Arlene says …

Best news I've heard all week! But isn't there an alternative to be made in the US?? Too much garbage from China and we need the work!! And then there is the carbon foot print. Come on, China? Really.

Norm Strong says …

About compostable food trays....even if I must pay a bit more than for same item in a styrofoam tray. by all means do compostable. But, surely folks, it must be possible to grow the raw material in the US!!! I hope that you will bring American farmers, big and small, into the process.

Anne says …

I agree with those proposing to move to meat-counter only, and would rather pay for more service jobs in my purchase price than to packaging of any type, with the advantage of the social interaction. Presumably eliminating the convenience and immediacy of pre-packaged would require more hands on deck at the counter.

Sr. M. R. de la Secoya says …

I know that I have seen some pressed paper trays advertised, but I didn't pay attention at the time. I thought that the information came from www.globalspec.com. But, I am not able to find the data in their database now. If I see it again, I will keep your need in mind.

Jaunda Payne says …

I think this is a wonderful idea and would certainly not be offended by the less desirable look of the fiber trays! I am always 100% behind making cleaner/greener changes. Sign me up!

Green Foodie says …

Get rid of Strofoam ASAP!!! I really support your move away from Styrofoam. In fact, our family completely stopped buying anything packaged in Styrofoam long ago. While your move to a more earth-friendly tray is laudable, and I hope to stop seeing styrofoam in all it's forms in your stores, I wish Whole Foods would consider eliminating use of this type of tray-and-plastic-film packaging (whether foam or fiber) altogether. (Compostable disposable containers are certainly far better than styrofoam, but composting facilities are not available to all - urban apartment dwellers are a huge group, so a lot of these containers still go to landfills, where they won't compost in an anaerobic environment). My family will only go to the meat or seafood counters to get our selections wrapped in butcher paper only. I'm with Charlie, Marie, JoeMerint, Mike, AlexaWilson, Mel, Heather, Denise, Chrissy, p, and many others. Let's move away from trays of any kind altogether! This goes doubly if there is no US company making fiber trays, requiring shipping heavy trays from China. Eliminating trays of any kind eliminates the cost to buy any kind of tray, cost of shipping heavy trays from China, cost of the plastic to wrap the trays, and all the extra packaging that truly is unneeded. If Whole Foods insists on offering tray-packaged meats of any sort, please put a charge for the tray on those purchases using trays, so those who buy the tray-packaged products rightly bear the high cost of using the unneeded packaging. Those who make the effort to eliminate the cost and waste of unneeded packaging should be spared unfairly bearing the cost for those who choose to use it. (This goes for both styrofoam and fiber). As shown by the great success of your "discount for bringing your own shopping bag" program, adding a monetary incentive makes customers actually stop to think about their ingrained default behaviors, and provides the impetus to get them to actually modify behavior. Eliminating trays of any kind altogether: For off hours when paying to staff meat/seafood counters fully may not be practical, and only tray-packaged product is currently offered, perhaps there is a way to implement some sort of pager or bell system, so customers could still easily buy non-tray-packaged product by ringing (a counter attendant, who might be doing stocking, meat cutting, or something else during the off hours, could then come over to help the customer, going into the back if needed to get what the customer needs wrapped in butcher paper. Some version of this pager system idea might be a way to completely eliminate all tray packaging, even in off-hours. Reducing the number of different items, and the number of packages of any one item, offered in wrapped trays would certainly be a start in the right direction (and would help with fiber trays degrading too soon as the article says). But the real solution is encouraging customers to actively think of using minimal packaging for meats (maybe signage at the cases to turn the lightbulb on?); someone here said the thought never even occurred to them, and this is likely the case for many (simple awareness is the key for this group). I think in general, the type of people who go to Whole Foods are largely receptive of going greener, especially when given incentive to do so, to get the ball rolling. Initially, it may take some thought to first start a green behavior to replace a default ingrained behavior, but ultimately, a lot of green behaviors then become second nature and the "normal" way. After all, a lot of these are the way everyone always did things before plastic/foam (the green way used to be the natural default way). For your concern about tray color, I also think most WF customers are receptive of green moves despite color/appearance, particularly when told why. Also on the subject of reducing non-renewable packaging, I wish it were possible to buy more produce items bulk without plastic bag packaging. For example, green beans, cherries, and brussel sprouts are sold in many Whole Foods stores pre-portioned into plastic zip-bags. We now live in the Chicago area, but when we lived in CA, many standard groceries there (including those that are not Whole Foods) sold cherries in bulk right out of the big cardboard flats, rather than pre-portioned in plastic bags. If your suppliers are shipping in the little bags, I would think it would be easy for WF to request they be sent without them. When shopping produce, we do a combination of bringing our own plastic bags to the store to re-use, and increasingly, our own non-disposable, reuseable cloth produce bags to use for small produce such as green beans, brussel sprouts, cherries, and the like, that need something to hold them. However, when we encounter them sold only pre-portioned in plastic bags, and not offered loose, we now just forego buying these things at WF, and opt for a Farmers Market instead. We'd buy these items at Whole Foods during our weekly trip for groceries, if it wasn't for the inability at some stores to buy them easily without consuming a plastic bag every time. The holed plastic bags commonly used for cherries and the like are also particularly hard to find another use for, due to the holes. It's also easier to get the amount one needs when these are not pre-portioned into bags (without taking some out of one bag and moving some into another). Many farmers markets across the country have gone "no plastic bags, BYO bag/container," and I wish Whole Foods would consider implementing this. Perhaps you could consider offering a small discount (as you do for shopping bags), as an incentive for customers to start bringing their own reuseable produce bags for these small produce items, rather than consuming disposable non-renewable plastic. You'd get a lot more of my produce business if there was a way I could buy these produce items in bulk, without consuming new plastic bags. Unfortunately, the WF stores I've come across that use pre-portioned plastic bags for an item, only offer the product that way, and there is absolutely no loose product offered. If there was at least a pile of bulk, un-packaged green beans, cherries, etc. offered under or next to the pre-bagged portions, I could at least choose to use my own bag, but in stores I've been in that pre-portion, this has not even been an option. Perhaps corporate could request stores to offer at least some loose product (with no empty bags and signage to encourage BYO-bag). I would love to see this non-renewable (and unnecessary) pre-portioned plastic bag packaging eventually completely eliminated from stores, and see WF stores move to "BYO bag" like many farmers markets have done. I'm with Kitty: I'd love for there to be a weigh-station, where I could bring my reusable glass containers to get tare-weighed before hitting the bulk section. I'd also love to see a similar set-up in produce, so I could put my green beans directly into a plastic food storage container (which can go directly into the fridge), and eliminate any sort of produce bag whatsoever (whether plastic first-use, plastic re-use, or even my cloth ones). I also agree with Lynn: I'd be willing (would even prefer) to bring my own reusable container for meats/seafood. Could Whole Foods come up with a system to weigh a purchase, then after weighing, put it in the customer's reusable container (a plastic or glass food-storage container or whatever) with no other packaging? That would eliminate any kind of tray, any kind of soaker pad, any kind of plastic wrap, and even the butcher paper, (along with the significant cost and waste stream of all of them). Something like this could both decrease costs for WF for all that packaging (and thereby the cost to the customer, who would not have those packaging costs passed on), while at the same time doing huge amounts for decreasing waste streams of all kinds. Decreasing costs, while doing better for the earth: a win-win combination. Going back to the old way (before plastic wrap and foam packaging was invented), would be a double-whammy step in the right direction. Please consider putting some research and logistics study into implementing a reusable container program like this. Everyone used to buy meat without packaging in butcher paper, and it would be great to go back to that, but even better would be going one step further to eliminate that waste stream as well, with a reusable container. Convenience: Some may consider trays more convenient while at the store, but if you think about it, getting no packaging has some convenience benefits over trays, after getting home. If I bring my meat home already in my own reusable container, it can go right into the fridge (without even putting a plate under it to catch inevitable leaks from the plastic-wrapped tray), and I can marinate right in the same container, without my having to unpackage it first. There's also the benefit of no smelly garbage from the soaker pad/tray/paper (soaker pads are nearly impossible to "rinse" to be smell free), which I find very convenient, and apart from the smell, there's the benefit of just far less volume of trash. So in my mind, trays vs. no packaging is at worst convenience-neutral, but I loath smelly garbage, so for me no packaging wins hands down! Bottom line: I whole-heartedly support WF efforts to move away from styrofoam (you can't get rid of it fast enough!), but while alternative packaging is certainly a step in the right direction, I think efforts would be better spent bringing a reusable container program to fruition. Especially given the cost and potential safety of shipping trays from China, and the fact that plastic-wrapped trays of any kind still have a significant waste stream (many will not be composted, plastic wrap mostly staight to landfill), I would like to see efforts spent reducing cost while still doing great for the earth. Eliminating packaging is the way to go - from a cost standpoint, from a waste standpoint, and ultimately, (though it may not seem like it until you really think about it) from a convenience standpoint, too.

Emily Celano says …

I think it's wonderful that Whole Foods is moving toward compostable trays. In the article, the different appearance is mentioned several times as a limiting factor. For someone who cares about the environment, appearances don't matter as much as people tend to think and can be overcome with a sticker or some sort of label indicating that the fiberboard is recyclable. I would happily buy this product over the alternative, as would many other eco-conscious consumers, as this product lessens the environmental impact, which is the ultimate end goal.

Lenny says …

Jim - Everyone who has to bear the burden of the incineration or landfill process for the sytrofoam packs will benefit from this project as well.

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.

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!

Kathy G says …

You can't get rid of Styrofoam trays quickly enough for me!

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.

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.

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!!

jonny says …

don't give up this is awesome!

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

Nofoam says …

Please stop using styrofoam! Why are trays even needed? Get rid of all trays. It's just uneeded extra packaging, a lot of which will go to landfills. I'm on board with Alexa and p. I hope Whole Foods will stop selling mushrooms in the plastic shrink-wrapped styrofoam containers. Just have them out bulk, with paper bags (100% post consumer recycled if possible) for people to put their mushrooms in. Mushroom growers say anyway that mushrooms should never be wrapped up airtight in plastic and foam. They say they should be kept in a breathable container like a paper bag. So not only would this be better for the environment, it's also better for the mushrooms.

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.

June Bancroft says …

I am delighted to find out that your are researching ways to use a more environmentally friendly substitute for the styrofoam trays. I notice that a lot of your packaging is able to be recycled and I heartily approve. Keep up the good work.

Jenifer McLuskie says …

Love the fiber idea -- however I can't do any meat composting because of rodents, so worry that meat tainted fiber board would have the same results???

Terri says …

As someone who cares very much about the environment and does all she can to recycle and conserve I would LOVE to see all food's packaged in as little as possible. The over wrapping is annoying ,as it is waste.

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?

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.

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.

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.

Heather Gilmore says …

Hi Tess (Olson), I just read your comment and I would be more than happy to talk to you about compostable items for your hospital. I am in Boston as well. We specialize in all things compostable- trays, plates, cutlery, bags, etc and can help the hospital with efforts for zero waste. Please feel free to reach out to me. Heather@ecomv.net. I look forward to hearing from you.

joellen says …

Finally!!!! This is something that has plagued me for a long time. more than changing packaging we should be outlawing the use and sale of these disposable styro containers. Glad to see WF has responded properly as usual.

Diane Diller says …

HOORAY! YOU GO, JIM!!! Diane GM at STF

Lehoma Goode says …

I celebrate your efforts to replace styrofoam trays and i will follow your progress with interest. Lehoma Goode

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

mike says …

What did people use before Styrofoam trays? Probably a butcher ... Why can't you go back to that?

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.

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

rainy217 says …

What about a heavy cardboard tray with some type of coating. What do they typically use? Wax or something on that idea so that the tray is more waterproof. Would something like that work?

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.

Kitty says …

I like the idea that WFM is seeking more environmentally friendly packaging. However, I seldom buy anything "packaged." How about not passing on the costs of your experiment to those of us who already avoid "packaging"? I already take re-usable bags to my favorite WFM. Maybe I should also take my re-usable glass containers in and have them weighed before I hit the bulk aisles!

Deborah says …

I would definitely buy food this way instead of on Styrofoam! The appeal of buying something compostable refocuses my eye on the product not the packaging. PLEASE find a way to make this happen! We all need better options. And maybe we could then convince the schools to use an alternative to their Styrofoam trays too! Thank you for your efforts!

Alexa Wilson says …

Why din't we get rid of the trays alltogether. Here are some thoughts: Do we really need mushrooms on trays and plastic wrapped, right next to the same mushrooms that can be put in a reusable container? Can we have a program that actively encourages people to bring their own (reusable / second use) bags/containers for fruit, veggies, meat and bulk purchases. I mean in addition to those ridiculously overpriced netty things that are hidden away in the vegetable department as a gesture towards doing the right thing. Hauling something all the way from China to wrap our food is even crazier than hauling the food itself accros these distances.

Lynn says …

I live in a small town in Nova Scotia, Canada. We used to have a butcher and he used butcher paper. He retired and now the little store is closed so I have to purchase meat at the bigger supermarkets. I really dislike styrofoam. I'd be happy to see the old way come back as far as packaging meat is concerned and I'd even be willing to take in my own reusable containers. I'm glad you are taking steps to make things better.

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