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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




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!
10/01/2010 10:16:41 AM CDT
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!
10/01/2010 5:28:21 AM CDT
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.
10/01/2010 4:18:55 AM CDT
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.
09/30/2010 10:19:05 PM CDT
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.
09/30/2010 7:16:25 PM CDT
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!
09/30/2010 1:13:54 PM CDT
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.
09/29/2010 10:13:25 PM CDT
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.
09/29/2010 9:56:49 PM CDT
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.
09/29/2010 5:24:12 PM CDT
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.
09/29/2010 5:51:39 PM CDT
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!
09/29/2010 5:59:50 PM CDT
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.
09/29/2010 4:16:52 PM CDT
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.
10/01/2010 8:33:51 PM CDT
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.
10/05/2010 3:43:54 PM CDT
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
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.
10/04/2010 3:29:24 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
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.
10/04/2010 1:07:48 PM CDT