I 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.
I 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.)
The 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.
5) 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.
6) 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.
7) 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.
10) 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)” ,
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
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.
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.
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.