Store Report: Whole Foods, Berkeley & E-mail Response

Whole Foods logoI took a notebook, pen, and some canvas bags with me today and went on a fact-finding mission to Whole Foods Market on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. I wanted to find out what non-plastic options were available at this hipster natural foods mecca. And mostly what I found were shelves and shelves and shelves of plastic. Unless you stick to the produce or bulk foods sections, which inhabit about 1/4 of the store, you will find it difficult to find much in this store that is not contained in or does not contain some type of plastic. So, here’s a run-down, section by section.

1) Outside — the garden section. I was curious to find out if I would be able to purchase plants for my roof garden that were not contained in plastic pots. While Whole Foods does carry herbs and vegetables grown in biodegradable Eco-Forms pots, all non-edible flowers and plants come in plastic. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to buy another shrub or if must stick to planting seeds from now on. Seeds are not so bad. I have a beautiful money plant that I planted 2 summers ago, and just look at it now!

2) Bulk Foods — There is one aisle of bulk foods. It’s not as extensive as Berkeley Bowl or Rainbow Grocery (Oh how I miss shopping at Rainbow Grocery when I lived in San Francisco!) but it does contain a fair selection of nuts, dried fruits, flours, salt, sugars, broth mixes, granola and cereal flakes, rice and other grains, beans, trail mix and candy, honey, and you can grind your own peanut butter. I was thrilled to find bulk pretzels, but when I got them home I discovered they were stale. There was a bin labeled “chocolate chips,” but it was empty. And surprisingly, there wasn’t any bulk pasta at all. There were both plastic and paper bags available for the bulk items.

3) Frozen Foods — I addressed the problem of frozen meals in my previous post. It’s impossible to tell what plastic is inside the box without opening it, so I bought a Seeds of Change brand frozen meal this time, just to test it out and see. I’ll let you know after I open it. Vegetables — surprisingly, all the vegetables except for one brand were packaged in plastic bags. What ever happened to the cardboard boxes covered in wax paper that used to contain spinach and peas and french cut green beans? I got excited for a second when I noticed the square Cascadian Farms box of spinach, but then I noticed the label that read “microwaveable flavor seal pouch” inside.

Stahlbush vegetablesI did discover one excellent-looking non-plastic enclosed brand of vegetables: Stahlbush Island Farms Fruits and Vegetables. These vegetables are flash-frozen and are packaged in natural kraft paper bags. Unfortunately, Whole Foods only carried 2 varieties: cauliflower and butternut squash. Nothing green, although, according to the web site, Stahlbush also produces spinach, peas, broccoli, corn, and sweet potatoes, as well as fruits. I’ll have to do some research to find out where else these products are sold. (7/13/07 update: The “natural” kraft paper bags are lined on the inside with a layer of plastic!

03/23/2011 Update: Stahlbush’s new “biodegradable” packaging is also made with petroleum-based plastic.  Here is my full report.)

Straus Family Creamery ice creamThe other important frozen item I checked out was ice cream. Ben & Jerry’s comes with a plastic seal around the lid. Haagen-Dazs has a plastic film under the lid. I surreptitiously pulled up the lids on 2 other pints of ice cream — Stonyfield and Strauss Family Creamery — and the winner is: Straus Family Creamery! There was nothing but creamy, inviting, chocolate ice cream under that lid. I can’t wait to finish up the Ben & Jerry’s I already have so I can buy some of that!

4) Bottled water — My favorite drink during the day is 2/3 sparkling water mixed with 1/3 fruit juice. Here, the choices were better. Besides San Pellegrino mineral water, which is just expensive, Whole Foods also carries its own 365 brand of Italian mineral water which comes in your choice of plastic bottles or glass bottles with metal caps. I think we know what my choice is. There were other flavored sodas in glass bottles as well.

Sappo Hill soaps5) Personal care items — Several brands of soap are sold plastic-free, including Sappo Hill bar soaps which have no packaging at all. All of the deodorants come in plastic. All of the toothpastes come in plastic. I saw something called Eco Guard bandages (an alternative to bandaids) and when I looked them up online I saw that they were made from recycled PVC plastic. How much of it is recycled content, they don’t say. Whole Foods also carries Preserve toothbrushes, which are made from recycled Stonyfield yogurt containers and are 100% recyclable, and also Natracare feminine hygiene products that are biodegradable and non-chlorine bleached. (i’ve been using their panty liners for years.) Another product I’m going to check out are BioBag trashcan liners. They are made from corn and according to their web site, 100% compostable. Does anyone know anything else about these? Are they legit?

5) The Dairy case — All the refrigerated soy milk cartons have plastic caps with one exception: the quart-size carton of Wildwood soy milk. However, the Wildwood half gallon does contain the plastic cap. What is up with all these plastic caps on milk cartons these days??? I don’t want to pay extra to buy quart-size cartons when I go through a half gallon a week! (If I don’t find a better alternative, I may stick to Silk even with the plastic cap.) Also in the dairy case, yogurt and cottage cheese — all in plastic tubs. Milk cartons without caps (but I’ve been told that some milk cartons these days are coated with plastic.) And butter. Good old butter in cardboard and waxed paper.

pasta with plastic windows6) Pasta — Every single cardboard box or paper bag of pasta in this section contains a plastic window. Why do we need this? Why do we need to see the pasta inside? We don’t get to look inside cracker boxes to see the crackers; we rely on the picture. We don’t look inside cereal boxes or cookie boxes or any number of other packages of dry foods. What makes pasta different? Can anyone answer that question? So, since Whole Foods has no bulk pasta and no packaged pasta without windows, I’ll be buying pasta elsewhere.

Frontier organic Earl Grey tea7) Herbs, spices & teas — Whole Foods sells bulk herbs, spices, and teas. I bought some Frontier organic loose Earl Grey tea that smelled just great! Most of the packaged boxed teas are wrapped in plastic. I didn’t really bother checking them too much. Whole Foods also sell herbs and spices in glass jars with metal lids, but do not be fooled! Under the lid is a plastic bottle cover with holes for sprinkling. Stick with bulk, I think. And oh, I was happy to see that you can still buy vanilla extract in a glass bottle with a metal lid, just like in the old days.

8) Meats and Cheeses — They only way to purchase these plastic-free is to order them fresh from the meet or deli case. Not much more I can say about that.

9) Hot prepared foods and salad bar — Whole Foods has a large hot foods section, soups, and salad bar. They use brown cardboard boxes for the salad and cardboard cartons for the soup, but the hot food is served in honkin’ big plastic trays and all of the packaged prepared foods in the refrigerator case, including salads, are in plastic as well. I don’t know if you can ask for a non-plastic option when you purchase hot food.

I have to give up Whole Treats Belgian Little Bites10) Chocolate candy aisle — One of the most important sections in the store, if you ask me. There are large bars wrapped in paper. But if you want something small to fill your candy dish, you’re out of luck. I’m giving up my favorite candy dish filler, Whole Treats dark chocolate Belgian Little Bites. They are velvety and rich and tiny — only 25 calories each — but they come in a plastic bag and are individually wrapped in plastic covers. I can’t justify them, although I’d like to.

It was these last two items, the Belgian Little Bites and the hot food served in plastic, that prompted me to write to Whole Foods Market a few days ago before my excursion today. I don’t have a copy of the e-mail I sent, but here is the response from Whole Foods:

——————————————————–

Subject: Green Mission and Private Label Packaging
Date: Wed, 20 Jun 2007 15:39:45 -0500
From: “PrivateLabel Customer Service” To: “Customer Questions (CE CEN)” ,

Dear Beth,

Thank you for your email.

The reason the Whole Treat Dark Chocolate Belgian Bites are packaged the way they are is to make single serving easier. They are meant to be able to grab a piece of chocolate and go. This way you the customer does not have to worry about the chocolate melting in their hands or pockets before it ever gets to their mouths.

As far as green mission goes, we are currently working with our package designers and outside firms to help us better walk the walk. We want to be as green as our customers expect us to be as it is one of our Core Values.

Caring About Our Communities & Our Environment

Sustainable Agriculture
We support organic farmers, growers and the environment through our commitment to sustainable agriculture and by expanding the market for organic products.

Wise Environmental Practices
We respect our environment and recycle, reuse, and reduce our waste wherever and whenever we can.

Community Citizenship
We recognize our responsibility to be active participants in our local communities. We give a minimum of 5% of our profits every year to a wide variety of community and non-profit organizations. In addition, we pay our Team Members to give of their time to community and service organizations.

Integrity In All Business Dealings
Our trade partners are our allies in serving our stakeholders. We treat them with respect, fairness and integrity at all times and expect the same in return.

I have logged your comments in our customer/product database, which is forwarded to the buying and product development team on a regular basis. It is comments like yours that help us constantly review and improve our products. “Satisfying and delighting our customers” is a core value at Whole Foods Market. We are always interested in hearing what our guests are saying about our products. We take everything into careful consideration when reviewing product lines. Thank you for your insightful input on our product.

Thank you,

April Riggs
Product Information Associate, Private Label
550 Bowie l Austin , TX 78703 l (p) 512-477-5566 x: 20020

——————————————————————

So, that’s my Whole Foods report. Seems like they as a company, like many of us individuals, are somewhat conflicted. They sell organic food in plastic containers. They compost their waste and sell it to gardeners in plastic bags. Their Berkeley store is solar-powered, yet they sell regular light bulbs. I guess shopping at Whole Foods is better than shopping at Safeway, which I guess is better than shopping at Walmart.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll report on Market Hall, which is just down the street from me in Rockridge. Good night.

11 comments
Nicole Z
Nicole Z

Hi Beth, I called our Whole Foods in Milwaukee, WI and was very disappointed to hear that they wouldn't let me bring my own jars to fill from the bulk bins. They said that would cause cross contamination and they would have to throw the whole batch away if I did that. If you purchase from our bulk bins here, I guess you have to use either their plastic bags or the paper bags they also provide. Paper bags would I guess be a slightly better option, but you still aren't able to eliminate your waste doing that! Have you heard of this at a Whole Foods before?

Audra Hampstead
Audra Hampstead


I appreciated this report,  and,  as I have often puzzled over exactly how you do what you do, I felt like I was given some solid examples of your thought process,  and,  as well, any critique of their product line is most interesting ......  since I am familiar with the Whole Foods Market --- and even better,  Stahlbush Island Farms, (and so)  I am more comfortable with concrete examples.

Only today I wrote a comment which included both entities.   Notably,  WF prefers to package roast chickens in a rather enormous rigid plastic "boat" with a high -arched clear cover.    [Whereas my local New Leaf manages to package hot chicken in paper products---albeit with a clear plastic window---which [bag] I am now learning to wipe clean from the inside and re-use to carry dried fruit,  yes purchased in bulk.]    Every time I washed the lipids off one of those WF 'boats' --- preparing for re-cycling ....  I thought of you.   [btw: no longer buying WF product].

Am still poring over your NoroVirus Entry --- much thought provoking there.   One very real evil scourge upon this planet is "antibacterial this and that".   Seventh Generation makes a disinfecting wipe made with thymol --- and even that is used most sparingly.  You followed this with links to "too many re-useable bags" essay and photo.   Most frightening, visually.

I cannot get my partner to carry his lunch in a cloth tote [which I would love to make for him], insisting that "Paper is Cleaner"  --  the size needed is the large carry out bag with handles.

My reaction to the photo as above:  "too bad those bags are so limp"......it leads to trouble filling at the hectic check stand,  my guild mates are suggesting vinyl covered cloth.   Is it truly necessary to have a separate canvas tote for meat and for oatmeal?    How about a muslin drawstring bag to enclose the meat or the vegetables?     Is meat/poultry really  "that dirty"?

I've thought long and hard about the fact that,  while Trader Joe's brings us incredible savings and pre-packaged convenience --- prepared salads,  boil pouches for earthquake preparedness (asceptic tuna + green curry) -- now discontinued,  frozen brown rice,  "tom yam" soup made in Thailand --- all this convenience we pay for in petro-plastic.   Like the proliferation of cell phone signals,   [this trend] is going the wrong way.

BTW - still planning to COMPOST my Stahlbush Farms bags --- precisely why I buy them BY THE CASE  (and don't have to wash each bag one at a time when purchased "off the shelf")  -- preferring this brand to those utilising ever-thinner mil of plastic baggery.   I hope that you will share "how I buy and store food with less plastic" in bite sized morsels that even this humble reader can follow and comprehend...... I am very much looking forward to that.   [also btw] ... Discovered you on KGO news before Charter Cable removed them and before I had my first computer.


Jenn
Jenn

I know this post was from over a year ago, but I stumbled across it today. Just yesterday while at the grocery store, I purchased a bar of the Sappo Hill Soap because it had no packaging. I take my own grocery and produce bags to the store, so imagine my chagrin when I opened them to discover that the one bar of soap had been wrapped in a plastic bag! Next time I will keep a better eye on the bagger or designate a produce bag for the soap! Thanks for your blog and all your efforts.

Gloria
Gloria

I was soooo dissapointed to discover that Stahlbush' fruit and vegees "natural" kraft paper bags are lined on the inside with a layer of plastic!" as you printed.I can only pray that this is of a 'safer' plastic/material (is there any?). Please-please-please let it be that this is not really plastic at all. DO YOU HAVE A WAY THAT I CAN INVESTIGATE THIS?I am attempting to empower my family and myself against plastic with knowledge about its use and its dangers (hidden though this knowledge may be at times).I think that it would be a lot better just to always simply purchase things fresh - fresh fuit, fresh vegees, fresh meat, fresh cheese. However, gone are the days of the hen/egg farms down the block, the fresh produce stands around the corner, our own gardens large enough to free us from the plastic-wrapped foods in grocery stores.I think that I may simply need to move to a warmer climate and grow my own foods.Thanks!Gloria

Flick
Flick

My wife Deanne and I are trying to rid our lives of plastic also and have found it is a constant in commerce these days. Best advise is buy less stuff altogether and make what you can (the frozen "organic" convenience foods are industrial products and we can't go too wrong expecting very little of them.) Try not to eat out, or at least see if you can bring your own container. Many establishments balk at anything different being done or cite health department rules, but sometimes smaller independent non franchise businesspeople are cooperative on this. Though I hate plastic on the whole, it is useful for many applications and should be reused as many times as possible. We reuse plastic water bottles for months. I hesitate to recommend this as a long term solution because old plastic, especially if subject to heat and sunlight releases chemicals over time. We are hoping to replace these with the stainless steel drinking bottles but these are expensive and may have to be on the birthday wish lists.(it feels good to give and recieve useful items for gifts, I have gotten and given a number of compact fluorescent bulbs the last few years. Deanne sends personal health products to family members as gifts. this exposes people to less reprehensible products they might not otherwise try , especially if they seem pricey). We often use recycled glass jars for water although they break sometimes. Always some trade-off I guess (no perfect technologies or methods anywhere in this world, we just have to experiment and make the best choices we can figure.) We wash plastic and foil wraps and reuse them. Heck we even reuse dental floss 'til it breaks. (a bit weird at first, but if you rinse it how is it any worse than using the same rinsed toothbrush over and over? It hangs on a nail by the sink.) Speaking of washing and reusing, paper coffee filters can be rinsed and used over and over. Some brands will last weeks. If you have a fancy metal screen filter that is a better choice. I guess cutting coffee out altogether is the most sensible option for those who can manage it, due to the lack of locally grown beans and health concerns. This is like most how do we get rid of plastic questions. Ask ourselves if we really need this item at all. If the answer is yes then look for the materials methods and products that the plastic has replaced. Ask an older person what they used to do before. Generally becoming less of a consumer, eating home grown and home cooked food, and buying bulk go a long way in reducing waste and increasing health. Usually it tastes better too. When I have to buy a new item swathed in many layers of plastic or the omnipresent indestructable plastic bubble-pack I get upset at the lack of options in the stores. It takes a lot of time to find the unwrapped alternative, if it's to be found anywhere. So thanks for writing to the companies and making your needs known. I tend to call them if I can get a phone number because I am a slow typer, but they probably take written queries more seriously. The more of us that do this the more reason for them to consider changes. By the way potting soil can often be gotten at garden and landscaping businesses out in the country if you buy a whole pick up load (at least where I live.) Maybe you can share a load with some other folks. Also for people with wells there are water filters that can be flushed and washed periodically rather than throwing out the disposable cartridges. They don't cost that much, pay for themselves in less than a year and are easy to install and flush. Sorry this doesn't solve the drinking water filtration dilemma if your well water isn't so good or you are on town water. Keep up the good work and thank you for sharing your findings. Flickeruiamb

Sunny
Sunny

I think you're going to be disappointed in the Stahlbush Farms frozen veggie packaging. I've used those products and seem to remember the bags being lined with a thin plastic liner. I could be wrong but that's what I seem to remember.

Plastic-Free Ericka Moderator
Plastic-Free Ericka Moderator moderator

@Nicole Z Wow, that is very disappointing to hear. The Whole Foods that I've visited in the Bay Area haven't said anything in regards to me providing my own containers. 

BethTerry
BethTerry moderator

@Audra Hampstead  Hi Audra.  I know you wrote this comment over a month ago, but I am just now catching up.  Thanks for sharing your own thought processes.  It is really heartening for me.  One thing I'll let you know is that in my book, I give lots of suggestions for individuals to figure out and prioritize how to shop.  I am blogging less and less these days because I am traveling a lot to give talks on plastic-free living, and I have a long list of blog posts that I need to write but haven't had the time, so I don't know if I will be able to do the ones that you are requesting.  But all of that info is in the book in bite-sized or larger portions.  And as far as I know, nearly all public libraries carry it now.  If yours doesn't, please ask for it!  But don't be surprised if you find the book covered in plastic.  All the libraries are doing it to protect the book (which is important) and I am not sure what, if anything, I can do about it.

Nicole Z
Nicole Z

@Plastic-Free Ericka Moderator I've found some stores that will let me bring my own containers for lunch meat, but other ones have also told me I can't do that. I guess it just depends on who is working and what mood they are in! I'll keep up my hunt and experiment with different stores until I am able to find one that lets me use my own containers!