The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

November 21, 2007

Store Report: Struggling with plastic at Safeway

I am really fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay Area with stores like Rainbow Grocery and Berkeley Bowl that sell so many foods in bulk bins without any packaging at all. It would be much harder to live plastic-free without these kinds of stores. So I thought I’d take an aisle-by-aisle tour of my local Safeway to see how I’d minimize my plastic consumption if I had no other place to shop. The exercise was enlightening.

I planned to write this post in the same way, as an aisle-by-aisle assessment of Safeway’s offerings and how to shop there while consuming the least plastic possible. But writing the post that way became so tedious tonight, I just had to stop. You don’t need me to tell you what products are on the shelves of Safeway. Anyone who shops there can see for themselves. But there are some important principals to keep in mind when shopping at any mainstream grocery store, so I’ll list those, as well as a few other things I discovered during my trip to Safeway.

    1. Bring your own grocery and produce bags. This should be a no-brainer for us at this point. The produce section is the easiest place in Safeway to shop plastic-free. Bring your own produce bags or don’t use any at all. Most of the produce is sold without packaging. Stick to the “naked” fruits and veg, and you’ll be fine.

      I did write a letter a few months ago to Safeway CEO Steven A. Burd asking the company to switch to biodegradable produce bags and also asking why the Vons store I visited in Anaheim this September had only plastic grocery bags at the checkout. Here is a copy of his response (PDF). As you can see, Safeway has no plans to eliminate plastic produce bags and wouldn’t be eliminating plastic grocery bags if cities didn’t force them to.


    1. Have meat and seafood wrapped in paper. Find out if you can have your meats wrapped in paper by the butcher. Our Safeway has a seafood counter with fish and other shellfish on ice. If you ask, you can get your fish wrapped only in brown coated paper. Of course, the paper is coated with some kind of plastic, which keeps the liquid from leaking through, but if you don’t ask for the paper, the fish will be handed to you on a Styrofoam tray covered with plastic wrap. I’d go for the coated paper.

      Our Safeway does not have a meat counter. With the exception of whole birds and some sausages and hams which are shrink-wrapped, all of the meat and poultry is pre-packaged in Styrofoam trays covered in plastic wrap. But you can get meat wrapped in the same brown paper if you come to the store early while the butchers are still working and request a special cut of meat wrapped in paper. If they have it in the back, they’ll cut it for you. But make sure you specify that you don’t want them to simply remove the packaging from a cut of meat and wrap it in paper.

      And come to think of it, it’s not much different from how I buy organic meat at Berkeley Bowl or Whole Foods: wrapped in coated brown paper. To avoid this type of plastic, I just don’t buy meat very often.


    1. Eggs are not just for breakfast anymore. They’re nutritious in place of meat and can be bought without any plastic packaging. And if you get cage-free organic eggs (of which my Safeway does have some), they are even more nutritious.


    1. Buy larger sized containers. Many products, such as yogurt, cottage cheese, and puddings come in plastic tubs. The only way to go plastic-free is to avoid these altogether. Otherwise, the best rule I can think of is to avoid individual-sized cups and buy the larger containers in order to minimize your plastic usage. This goes for cereals, too. Skip the individually-wrapped granola bars and stick to boxed cereal. You’ll save a lot of packaging overall this way.


    1. Buy concentrates. When you buy concentrated products, you not only save plastic but also the fuel it would have taken to ship the extra water. Instead of stressing about whether to buy refrigerated juice in a coated paperboard carton or a plastic jug, choose the frozen concentrate and add the water yourself. Or better yet, buy the whole fruit and juice it yourself. That way you get all the pulpy goodness as well as the sugar without any packaging at all.


    1. Ask yourself if avoiding plastic is always the best choice. Cheeses are wrapped in plastic, as I’ve mentioned before. The only exceptions seem to be boxed cream cheese (But I wonder what the foil around cream cheese is made from. I e-mailed Kraft to find out if it was 100% metal foil or some plastic, but the rep would not give me an answer, citing trade secrets!) and Laughing Cow, which is processed cheese food wrapped in foil. Cheese is the one product I’m willing to purchase in plastic because I’d rather sacrifice some plastic for a higher quality cheese. And Safeway does have some organic cheeses, although what that means is in doubt, according to the Organic Consumers Association.


    1. If you are going to buy a product packaged in plastic, choose the most nutritious choice.Lunch meat is always packaged in plastic, either shrink-wrapped or in plastic-coated paper at the deli counter. I don’t eat it, but for those who do, there is one new brand which seems better than the rest, and that’s Hormel Natural Choice, which has no preservatives. I think if you’re committed to eating plastic-packaged lunch meat, this is probably the way to go.


    1. Avoid disposable paper products. My Safeway doesn’t have any paper products that are not wrapped in plastic. By avoiding these products as much as possible, we can save trees as well as plastic. We can use cloth napkins and real plates and cups. We can use rags and cloths instead of paper towels. Most of us are not willing to give up toilet paper, so we can either buy the largest package of plastic-wrapped recycled TP we can, or order plastic-free brands online.


    1. Avoid commercial cleaning products. This is a scary aisle in my Safeway. You can pretty much forget everything here. We use vinegar and water for all-purpose and glass cleaning. Baking soda is a good abrasive. And any other natural cleaning products you might want are available online. No reason to buy any of this stuff at mainstream chain grocery stores.


    1. Avoid canned fruits, vegetables, and meats. As I’ve said before, most cans are lined with plastic, plastic which has been found to leach the hormone-disruptor bisphenol-A. I avoid this aisle for the most part, except for the occasional glass jar of apple sauce or can of tuna.


    1. When possible, make your own. Before buying a container of sauce, dressing, or condiment, ask yourself if you could prepare it yourself. My Safeway does not have one single brand of ketchup in a glass jar. Wow. Times have changed. Either buy the biggest bottle you’ll consume before it spoils or make your own ketchup. You can make your own mustard and mayonnaise, too. I haven’t tried it yet, but I know an 80-year old lady whose been making her own mayonnaise for years and has never had it spoil.


    1. Avoid mystery boxes. You know the aisle with box after box of mac & cheese and hamburger helper. You can read the label to find out how much nutrition is inside (usually not much!) but you can’t tell by looking at the box how much plastic is inside. These foods are loaded with additives and preservatives that we probably don’t want to be consuming anyway. Skipping this section altogether could be good for our health.


    1. “Think outside the bottle.” Skip bottled water and other bottled drinks. Opt for tap water, filtered if necessary, and make your own juice drinks.


  1. Ask for what you want! If your grocery store doesn’t carry the types of products you want, speak up. Ask the manager to order things for you. Or write to the company headquarters. Here’s the address to write to the CEO of Safeway, if you’d like him to know how you feel:

    Steven A. Burd
    Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer
    Safeway, Inc.
    5918 Stoneridge Mall Road
    Pleasanton, CA 94588-3229

    Yes, we vote with our dollars, but also with our voices. The more these stores hear from us, the more likely they will be to stock the kinds of products that we want and to operate in a more environmentally-friendly manner.

So, that’s my Safeway report. We can all minimize the amount of plastic and other packaging we consume, no matter where we shop, if we make a few sensible choices each time we visit the grocery store. We all consume. It would be nice if we all consumed mindfully.

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15 years ago

I think reduction of plastic is key, the amount of plastic bags that I see littering the town that I live in alone is just scary. I have made it one of my goals to not bring any more plastic bags home with me. I started by making my own grocery bags from recycled sheets, and drapes that I found at a local thrift store. I think that if I can make a bag from something that might end up in a landfill, then I have done twice the good!!! So check out my bags I sell them on ETSY under the name ThreadBeaur. It is one thing that is easy for us all to do on a daily basis!
I love your site!!!

15 years ago

I thought this (unpackaging at the checkout counter) would be an interesting approach even though I had not had the courage to practice it yet:

Radical Garbage Man
16 years ago

You know, other than stuff about canned goods and other commercially pre-packaged items, I have the same issues at my local farmer’s market.

Most meat is in plastic. I was feeling quite superior about myself for preferring the meat in freezer paper until I realized that I can’t recycle or compost it, so it’s landfill-bound anyway (I still prefer it, since it is re-sealable unlike a plastic wrapper, I just don’t feel superior about it). At least there are almost no styrofoam trays, except for the vendor who does the fresh and smoked trout — and really, isn’t local smoked trout worth the environmental degradation of a polystyrene tray?

Most cheese is in plastic. Same note about “waxed” paper cheese wrappers and my false sense of moral superiority.

If you don’t specify, all vendors will give you a plastic bag to put your stuff in. A few pre-pack produce in paper sacks, which I always save and never remember to bring with me the next time. The big difference is that they will often thank you for not taking it. About the only time I’ll take the plastic bag now is if I’m getting a couple of pounds of discounted over-ripe tomatoes to make sauce with, since they don’t play well with others loose in my canvass tote.

Cranberries come in 1 lb plastic bags. period. Apple cider comes in plastic jugs (recyclable, but plastic nonetheless). Fresh, locally made pasta comes in plastic, just like they sell it at grocery stores.

The farmer who sells eggs uses a mix of styrofoam and cardboard — all reused! He also specifically asks all repeat customers to bring the cartons back so he can use them again. Frequently, there are two or more date stickers on the carton, with the older ones crossed out proving that the reuse stream is doing well.

The big advantage at the farmer’s market is the local aspect of it and I guess saving some petroleum-based fuel by purchasing from local farmers somewhat offsets the petroleum-based packaging. The other big advantage is that they all seem to use as little packaging as they deem necessary to keep their product in good shape. You’ll never see a polystyrene tray with plastic film wrap then encased in a plastic-coated cardboard sleeve with a pretty picture on it.

16 years ago

I am a very keen environmentalist like you, and I’ve only read a tiny fraction of your blog, but I have a minor comment. I actually think that letter from the guy at the supermarket had a valid point about use of paper instead of plastic. We do have to think of the environment as a complex system, and concentrating so much effort just at plastic risks preventing seeing the overall effects. I don’t know if he’s right, but certainly paper bags are not a perfect solution. If we keep the pressure on, the biodegradable bags will probably come down in price, but then we have to look at the energy used to make them too! Why can’t it be simple!

I can see your main point is to reuse bags, though, and on that I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately I think it will require a level of effort on the part of the consumer that they’re just not willing to make yet.
Keep up the good enviromental lobbying!

16 years ago


At least in Sweden, in larger stores, or in market type sales halls, cheese is stored in a fridge behind glass without any packaging. The person behind the counter cuts the part you wnat and wraps it in paper.

SOmetimes thin plastic foil as well, but you can ask them not to use that.

Leah Ingram
16 years ago

Beth: Thanks for that aisle-by-aisle trip down plastic lane. That was a real eye-opener and will definitely change how I grocery shop in the future.

Happy Thanksgiving!


16 years ago

Hi Beth – I am so glad I found your website. You’ve got great solutions to problems I hadn’t even considered! This post was great. Thanks for your tips – I feel a little more optimistic about the possibility of eliminating plastic. Thank you.

16 years ago

Hi Beth,
This is the first time I have seen your blog & it is amazing!!!! I am a big follower of the no impact man & found you from your guest post on his blog today!!
I live in San Francisco and am a keen environmentalist, I work for Clean Water Action in the city and do my best to keep plastic out of my life. My biggest problem is the plastic roll bags that you put your bulk produce in – like the Safeway CEO said there doesn’t seem to be an option. How about a couple of reuseable clear bags that you could take to the store, you could clean them & reuse them.
There must be millions of those clear bags out there!!
I will be checking out your blogs on a regular basis from now on – great work
Peace and happiness, Nigel

Raw Vegan Mama
16 years ago

I just put my produce in the cart, too! and I bring canvus bags, which everyone wants to line with plastic, first. If I forget them, and ask for paper, they want to put it in plastic first, too. *shrug?* Lots of times, if possible, I just request no bag at all. :)

I also avoid processed stuff. Helps the environment, my waistline, and of course — my overall health!


terrible person
16 years ago

Hey, the San Francisco ban on plastic bags has gone into effect!

But this means the big supermarkets will probably send all their plastic bags to areas where they are still allowed, and suck all the paper bags out of there to send to SF.

So ALL cans leach bisphenol? (“Bisphenol … we will not let you go!” — Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody”) Ugh. I liked getting things in cans because they last a long time, and you’re supposed to have some around in case of an earthquake and the collapse of civilization. Is it that the longer you have the cans, the more they leach, or do they get their leaching done early on? In other words, if you use up canned goods quickly (and get new ones, rotating stock) rather than letting the same old ones sit on the shelf, is that better, or worse?

I have to check out that recipe for homemade farm cheese!

16 years ago

My mom made our own mayonnaise when I was a kid. I’m not a huge fan of mayo but as a kid that was the only kind I would eat.

What I’m hearing from this experience is perhaps my shopping at Costco when I can’t shop in a bulk section is good because by buying larger items I’m saving some packaging. Perhaps those people who don’t need the large items can share with another small family. That’s what I used to do when I was in college – mostly for financial reasons but being green (I’m beginning to hate that word) can be quite good for the pocket book as well!

Deb G
16 years ago

What a great post! I had to smile about eggs being for more than breakfast-that’s actually the one meal I don’t eat them. I think it’s the Italian in me coming out.

Couple other things that I think are very easy to make-yogurt and farm cheese. Farm cheese makes a great substitution for cottage cheese/ricotta. I use the directions in Sandor Ellix Katz’s book Wild Fermentation and in Stocking up by Carol Huppington and Rodale Press. Yogurt can be used as a substitution for sour cream. I’ve cut out almost all of my plastic tubs by making my own farmer’s cheese and yogurt.

Regarding mayo, if the first batch doesn’t turn out, try again. It can take a little practice.

Cheese is the one thing that I buy wrapped in plastic too. It would be the hardest food for me to give up :)

16 years ago

I just started piling up my produce in the cart instead of putting everything in plastic bags, and I am becoming immune to the looks I get! I scope out the cashiers to see which one looks most amenable to my needs. I live in the midwest and plastics rule here. Thanks for the great thoughts. Other than breaking myself at Whole Foods or some such, I have to deal with regular chain groceries.

16 years ago

Great advice, Beth! I’m so glad I didn’t email you to ask your opinion on juice boxes vs. bottled juice ;-) I never even thought about buying frozen — even though that’s all we ever had as kids!