Equilibrium & Sustainability

Whole Foods lags in reducing plastic pollution, report says

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Customers who shop at Whole Foods are getting their groceries with a side order of plastic, a new report has found.

After early progress in removing single-use plastic from its stores, Whole Foods’ efforts to move away from the material have lagged, according to a report published on Thursday morning by the nonprofits PIRG and Environment America.

“Whole Foods was a pioneer in the movement to reduce plastic waste and shift toward sustainable packaging,” the authors wrote.

“But when it comes to plastics, its environmentally friendly rhetoric is no longer followed through in practice.”

The last several years have seen rising concerns over the health impacts of plastic particles in food and the environmental impacts of the growing surge of single-use plastic packaging.

Those concerns have particular salience against the backdrop of the East Palestine trainwreck last month that led to the release of a toxic chemical used to make plastic, highlighting the risks posed by the production of the material.

The Austin-based grocery chain has built itself into a national brand by cultivating an image as a high-end purveyor of healthy, sustainable foods — and as a perceived refuge from the health and environmental concerns that haunt the American food system.

One key element of that push was a bid to rid the store of single-use plastics — a campaign that began with the elimination of single-use plastic bags at checkout and plastic straws at the deli.

But in recent years, the company has backslid, according to reports from other environmental nonprofits. In 2020, the advocacy group As You Sow gave the company an ‘F’ for its plastic packaging policies — ranking it below many companies which boast a far less sustainable public image.

For example, As You Sow ranked Whole Foods’ single-use plastic policies below those of Walmart, McDonalds, Kroger, Taco Bell and Clorox.

In an ironic counterpoint to the store’s image, Whole Foods’ nearest peers in the As You Sow report were factory farming giants Tyson, Hormel, and Smithfield — precisely the sort of corporations that Whole Foods has long defined itself in opposition to. 

The Environment America and PIRG report found that many of the chain’s stores offered no plastic-free packaging alternatives for a wide variety of 365 items.

“At most Whole Foods stores we visited, a customer would be hard pressed to find Whole Foods branded products in packaging that doesn’t contain at least some plastics,” the report found. 

For some products, like milk, spaghetti and yogurt and packaged bread, it ranges from difficult to impossible at most stores to find an option that doesn’t include plastic, the report found.

Others, like rice, deli cheese, bakery bread, and produce, were sometimes available in non-plastic packaging if customers search for them — but the report found even at stores that offered these options, plastic remained the easy default. 

For some of these products, plastic could be easily eliminated, the report authors argued. For example, many Whole Foods-branded pastas come and easily recycled cardboard containers — which feature an ornamental plastic window to allow shoppers to gaze upon their pasta.

“There is simply no need for it, as the percentage of the same products sold in boxes without plastic windows prove,” the authors wrote.

Similarly, only about a third of stores offered a non-plastic option in either the bulk section or the produce section — two areas where customers encounter products and unpackaged form.

“It’s time for [Whole Foods] to step up and start leading the field once again,” the authors wrote.

The Hill has reached out to Whole Foods for comment.

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