Dear Lotus Foods, Why Package Healthy Stainless Steel in Toxic Styrofoam?
Dear Lotus Foods:
My husband and I used our old rice cooker a lot. We used it so much, that we burned out the fuse and had to replace it. I was pretty stoked about being able to fix our appliance and make it last longer instead of tossing it out. So recently, when the connection between the machine and the power cord started to get loose (and we had to lay something heavy on the power cord to keep the machine from cutting off each time we used it), I told Michael that I was going to see if I could fix it again. But Michael’s reply surprised me. This time he said, “Why don’t we just recycle it and get a new stainless steel one?”
Repair vs. Recycle
See, there is a trade off sometimes. It may be gentler on the planet to fix things and make them last as long as possible rather than replacing them when they break. But if the old things are made of materials that might possibly be toxic to our health (plastic containers, for example, or aluminum cookware), then it might be a better decision to replace them with newer, safer materials. Alzheimer’s disease runs in my family. Both my grandmother and my mother died from it. Scientists still don’t know if aluminum plays any role in Alzheimer’s disease or not. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, the jury is still out. So, with my history, I’d just as soon exercise the Precautionary Principle and avoid it.
When it comes to rice cookers, there are only a few choices… ones with aluminum pots, ones with non-stick coatings, or the stainless steel version from Lotus Foods that I had seen a few years back at the Green Festival in San Francisco. So, a couple of weeks ago, Michael and I dropped off our old machine at Green Citizen in Berkeley (a company that will fix and resell as much as possible before even considering recycling, and then will recycle responsibly without shipping e-waste overseas), and picked up a new Lotus Foods rice cooker from Berkeley Natural Grocery. We were happy to be able to find it locally instead of having to order through the mail and generate even more packaging waste.
After all that effort at being as mindful as possible about our environmental footprint, I was shocked when I opened the box and discovered a great big chunk of Styrofoam.
Really, Lotus Foods? Styrofoam?
Styrofoam is Toxic
On your site, you have gone out of your way to explain why stainless steel is the healthier option when compared to aluminum or non-stick choices. But you package your healthy product in unhealthy packaging. Styrofoam is made from styrene, a chemical listed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to be a human carcinogen. You may argue that we are not really exposed to leaching styrene from the packaging in your box because it is not in direct contact with our food. But workers in the plants that produce this material are very susceptible to it. And toxic chemicals like styrene end up in the environment, where we are all susceptible.
What’s more, polystyrene is hard to recycle. As I wrote in my book, Plastic-Free:
According to the EPA, only 1 percent of all polystyrene waste was recycled in 2010. Second, when littered, it crumbles apart easily and blows everywhere, making it very difficult to clean up. The wind carries it out to sea, where it can mimic food for marine animals. A California Department of Transportation study conducted during 1998-2000 found that polystyrene foam represents as much as 15 percent of the total volume of litter recovered from storm drains.
No Need for Plastic Wraps and Plastic Cups Either
In addition to the Styrofoam on the top, the rice cooker is covered in plastic wrap, and inside the pot is a plastic rice scoop.
Why is that necessary? People who can afford to buy rice cookers will certainly have at least one cup in their kitchen cupboard with which to scoop rice. Like Styrofoam, which is a kind of plastic, other plastics are not biodegradable and are made with very toxic chemicals. Why use these excess plastics at all?
One of the companies I profile in my book is called Life Without Plastic. They sell lots of stainless steel containers. And they don’t wrap them in plastic. Life Without Plastic’s products come in a cardboard box without inside plastic wrap because they know that the environmental impact of the packaging is as important as the product inside the packaging.
We want healthy products AND healthy packaging
There seems to be a disconnect sometimes between the healthy product a company makes and the packaging it is shipped in. Organic foods are another example I ranted about back in 2009 and have continued to be mystified by to this day. Why take care to reduce the chemicals used to grow and process foods and then package them in a material that not only can leach harmful chemicals back into the food itself, but are so toxic in their manufacture in the first place?
Lotus Foods, please don’t allow your packaging choices to undermine the health benefits of your product. There are some great alternatives to polystyrene foam out there these days. For example, packaging made from mushrooms that replaces plastic foams. Or packaging made from recycled paper pulp.
Thank you for listening. I hope to hear back from you soon.
Click here to contact Lotus Foods and let them know your thoughts.
Beth Terry Thank you, I forget about teeth. I like the idea of showing the straw to remind them. Pretty soon there will be a “no straw” button on the servers’ ordering computer.
Yeah, I’m one of the sensitive teeth people. I always order my drinks without ice, but a straw is still helpful. A “No Straw” button would be awesome. I’ll mention that idea to Milo and Odale (the kid and mom who started the Be Straw-free campaign) when I see them next month.
please explain to me why adults need to suck on straws.
People with sensitive teeth often find straws helpful. But you know, as with so many pleasurable things in life, sucking a straw might not be necessary, but it can be fun. And one thing I’ve noticed about carrying a glass straw is that it’s a great conversation starter in restaurants. Showing it to restaurant servers and explaining why I don’t want plastic helps them remember not to stick a plastic straw in my drink, as they so often do automatically after I’ve asked them not to.
Try the Asian grocery stores.
Have you heard back from them yet? I hate to order online too but my area is very rural and it is more convenient to order products online than to drive an hour to a city area. I found that Crate and Barrel (where I get my Weck canning jars) is very conscious about their packaging – all paper, all recyclable. The only plastic was the return label/receipt.
I have not. I need to follow up.
Thank you for doing this but I’m a little puzzled, isn’t it more environmentally friendly to cook some rice in a pan? I understand the use of a slow cooker but it only takes 10-15 mins to cook up a batch.
Hi Beth. A rice cooker is much more energy efficient than a stove top, and you can cook many more things in it besides rice. Lentils, for example, or steamed vegetables. A gas stove top dissipates most of the heat. It would be similar to heating up your big oven vs. using a toaster oven. Also, if you walk away from it and accidentally forget, your rice won’t set the house on fire. :-)
Let’s battle the toy companies next! I think it’s harder to get a doll package open then it would be to rob a bank! :) Seriously, thanks for this post and making us, hopefully companies, aware!
I’m doing my best to reduce my carbon footprint. I now make all our bread and also eat as clean and fresh as possible. I just had my Cuisinart ice cream maker delivered last night (no more containers to throw away) and it was totally packed in cardboard! There was a few plastic bags but at least no styrofoam. Thanks for all your inspiration to help us all lead a more mindfull way of life.
Homemade ice cream is amazing!
Well that’s disappointing. Our rice cooker works great but we no longer eat rice or grains of any type, so I use it for steaming veggies.. but it has a plastic steamer rack :( does anyone know where to find a metal one? I would appreciate any ideas!
I think Chinese super markets still carry metal steam racks. Just place a shallow bowl on top of the rack and steam away!
good going Beth!
Same here! It would be so nice to see the end of Styrofoam. I don’t even like how it feels, it’s a horrible material.
So disappointing. I hate styrofoam. It breaks up so easily and gets EVERYWHERE. And then I find my kids eating the little pellets from it for weeks. Hate the stuff SO MUCH.
You are truly a changemaker, Beth, and so is your community! Not only are you incredibly positive in your efforts, but always striving to be better and expecting better of others. It would be such a success if two (or more) thoughtful companies here in the comments could make something work to alleviate the problem with the packaging. I look forward to hearing an update!
We Love You Beth, Speaking truth to power and changing the world, one comp[any & product at a time!
Way to change the world!
Never knew about mushroom insulation!!
This is a fantastic news! Another proof that, one person can make a difference!
There is so much that I do without because of the plastic involved.
Thanks for this inspiring example, and to all of you for your support of our mission.
Please see above, Deanna. And thanks for reaching out!
Due to several factors, our products (grown from mycelium, without any spores or fruiting bodies) do not pose any allergen concerns. This has been validated by experts. The fungi group that we use is not an allergen producer. Additionally, the heat treatment process that we use at the end of production would kill or denature any proteins that could cause an allergic reaction.
We will be glad to see solutions to these packaging problems. We are having compaints from Amazon customers about our straws being wrapped in bubble wrap! We send #glassstraws daily in chipboard and minimal amounts of newspaper with lowest incidence of damage.
Good work! :)
All i know is Ive had a stainless steel rice cooker for all most 10 years and I love it ! Styrofoam wouldn’t touch it and its killing our whole world. It s not a big deal to label whats in the box, just ask if its not done. like gmo’s, just kidding
I don’t know about the packaging, but here is what Ecovative says about their mushroom insulation: Mushroom Insulation is safe to touch and can be installed without any special safety gear. Additionally there are no spores or allergy concerns associated with the use of this material, and Mushroom Insulation achieves a class 1 fire rating without needing toxic fire retardants.
Awesome news!!! Keep up the good work!!
Wow, great discussion here. You rock Beth!
Yes Julie!! I’d love labeling for what’s in packaging!!
Thank you, Thank you, Thank you! Plastic in any way shape or form is one of my pet peeves. Good job! I’ll contact Lotus foods as well.
I have a wheat allergy, so some of the fancy new biodegradable disposables scare me. We need better labeling requirements!
We can’t touch mushrooms and it can be an airborne allergy. It’s very serious so not something we play around with. I would never be okay with knowingly touching it.
Lisa, are you and Deanna allergic to simply touching something made from mushrooms? I’m wondering if ecovative design has encountered this issue and addressed it.
Thank you. The last sentence of that book always makes me cry.
As another person with a life threatening mushroom allergy this concerns me as well. Hope it’s labeled. It’s great for those that aren’t allergic though! :)
Beth – you are such an inspiration. Your stories often make me recall the end of The Lorax story — one person CAN make a difference.
Alternative options for packaging is a simple way to make a big dent in toxic plastic pile up. Way to get the conversation started between Lotus and Ecovative Beth!
LOL. No! We bought it.
Fantastic! I’m glad Eben is going to reach out. Let’s keep this going!
Did you get a free rice cooker, Beth? Give it to me, you know how I love rice, right?
As one who has a life-threatening mushroom allergy, I do hope companies who use this label it. ;)
Would love to see one of the alternative packaging solutions picked up. Packaging is just as important as a safe product to me.
Thanks for the nod towards Mushroom Packaging!
We’re going to reach out to the Lotus Foods team and see if they’re interested in switching.
Cheers, – The Ecovative Team
Awesome! I really hope that positive change can come from this blog post, even though it was a bit rantier than I intended. (Sometimes I just get frustrated and have to vent a little bit.)
thanks so much for sharing this valuable information. you are absolutely right about the packaging and i will really try to do something about this. It may not be easy though since Lotus Foods shares the manufacturer with another company who found this resource and our orders go through them but i certainly will do my best. I have questioned the silly plastic cup since it is useless not being a standard measure but I never questioned the packaging material. We were so careful about the quality of the stainless steel and even had them make the screw on the lid stainless steel so that only SS touched food but you bring up many important points that i will look into. Thanks again and I do hope that you are enjoying your rice cooker.
Hi Caryl. Thanks for your prompt response! Please let me know if you are able to make the changes. I would LOVE to see a world free from plastic and styrofoam packaging. Could you mention the other alternatives (paper pulp, mushroom foam, etc.) to the other company that uses the resource? Perhaps together you could get them to change.
Great post, Beth. You make some excellent points that I will borrow when writing to manufacturers about their packaging. Thanks.
Coincidentally, I just saw a new post go up today on the Green Sangha website about writing to companies about styrofoam. They have a sample letter that was created by Alison Vogel from the East Bay chapter. I didn’t see it until I had already posted this blog. http://greensangha.org/2013/07/foam-foodware-letter/