Whole Story

The Official Whole Foods Market® Blog

What’s The Story With…Plastic Cutlery?

So, Whole Foods Market is this really “super-green” retailer with a strong Green Mission. Right? Then why are we still providing single use, disposable, non-recyclable, non-compostable, fossil plastic cutlery in our stores? Our customers ask every day why we seem to overlook our values on this. What’s up with that? As with any decent conundrum, there are a number of ways to look at this issue. The Whole Foods Market Green Mission Specialists would like to share with you why this is one of the most complex and convoluted challenges we face in trying to put our values into action. Here’s the gist of the problem: As you may know, reuse is higher on the waste hierarchy than recycling or disposal. And prevention and minimization are higher still. So from a Green Mission standpoint, the best thing we could provide would be either no cutlery (so everything would have to be “finger food”) or reusable cutlery. At our Global Green Mission Congress in May of ’08, attended by about 70 company representatives (including store-level team members as well as Vice Presidents), this goal was adopted: Utilize reusable plates, bowls, coffee cups, drinking cups and serve-ware in cafes and team member break rooms (where Health Department regulations allow). Wherever we can adopt this goal and use reusable cutlery, we should be doing so. Yes, it adds expense to a certain extent, and, yes, it requires certain operational accommodations to make it work — such as bussing, dishwashers and the like. And, no, reusable cutlery does not cover all the bases, so there is definitely a need for cutlery that customers can take with them when they’ve purchased food to go. That need can best be served by recyclable cutlery first and then by compostable cutlery. Where possible we should be offering cutlery that can be recycled. Of the plastic resins that are known to be highly recyclable, the best choices for cutlery are either #1 PET or #5 Polypropylene. In a number of our regions, we have implemented the “Gimme 5” recycling infrastructure for recycling #5 plastics. This is a partnership with Stonyfield Farms, Organic Valley and Preserve/Recycline to promote recycling of these plastics (many of which are containers such as yogurt cups and other dairy packaging) and to return them to Preserve to be made into the housewares, picnic goods, and other items such as toothbrushes and shaving razors that this company makes and we sell. More stores are getting involved with this program. Compostable cutlery is where we get into the “nitty gritty” of some of the most challenging issues we face in trying to put our values into action. Here’s why: Editor’s Note 7/6/10: This article was originally written to address the issues surrounding the cutlery we provide for customers to use with our prepared foods. It was not meant to address any compostable cutlery products that we sell in our stores. The following bullet list has been edited to remove any confusion. Thanks!
  • Cutlery items need to break down and decompose within a strict time frame, without leaving toxic residues such as heavy metals, and must not inhibit healthy seed growth in the medium into which they evolve.
  • Source material for cutlery must be certified non-GMO to meet the very strict guidelines Whole Foods Market adopted for the use of materials in our supply chain.
  • We strongly promote the idea that source biomaterials (as they are referred to) should not be derived from food-based feedstock, such as corn, potatoes, wheat, soy, etc. — food should be used for food, not plastics or fuel.
  • Any cutlery developed would need to perform at least as well as existing cutlery (in other words, not melt or dissolve in hot liquids!)
  • It needs to meet our cost needs for a commodity item as vast as this is for us. Finally, it needs to be an acceptable material for commercial-scale composting at “end of life” since this stuff doesn’t break down well in home composting environments.
The good news is that many producers and manufacturers of foodservice wares know our requirements and are scrambling to make cutlery that “gets it right.” The bad news is that very few have hit on all cylinders yet, and those that have got most of this right, are not yet cost-competitive enough to fit our supplies budgets. We firmly believe that the answer to this challenge is to hold out for the “real deal” and to aggregate our demand together with other end-users in the natural products industry, as well as other industries seeking this type of goods such as the health care and hospital industry, in order to ultimately drive the cost down through this aggregated demand. So why don’t we just take items with some of the “right stuff” as a starting point, rather than holding out for the perfect solution? (In other words, why not settle for “less bad” as a step towards “good?”) The answer to this may not be so apparent, but it lies in the fact that Whole Foods Market is considered to be the voice, the authority, and the standard-setter for so many things that touch our industry. Many look to us to be the barometer for trends, especially when it comes to “green” issues. Because of that, we strongly feel that we need to hold out for the most optimal solution. One that really speaks to all of the issues and values outlined above, even on so seemingly simple a category as cutlery. It is coming; it will come. And we can dramatically influence the course of that development, if we keep the faith and hold fast to our values and standards. That’s the story with cutlery. Thanks for asking! Lee believes his two jobs (EcoCzar and Forager) are the coolest in the company, allowing him to combine several of his passions in a way that makes work a dance. (Thanks, Coach!) With Whole Foods Market since 1996, Lee enjoys all of the many natural wonders and flavors of New England with his wife Susan and their two teenage sons.