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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.