What Grocery Stores Won’t Tell You About Plastic

Huge companies like Walmart could slash single-use plastics — if they really wanted to.

It’s next to impossible to be a plastic-free grocery shopper. Unless you live near a boutique store that offers goods naked, you likely don’t have much choice about buying food wrapped in plastic netting or transparent film.

Walk into any of the biggest grocery chains in the United States, and you’ll see row upon row of items in containers and bags that are designed to be used once and trashed. Americans produced 14.7 million tons of such waste in 2015, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Of that, only 14.6% was recycled.

Plastic is necessary for boosting the shelf life of perishable foods, without adding much to the sticker price. Getting rid of it entirely isn’t realistic. But there is a growing consensus that companies responsible for creating this packaging overuse plastics and could easily cut down on the amount sold to consumers.

Shoppers can petition and tweet all they want about reducing packaging waste, but grocery store chains have a far bigger voice that could be put to use. And none would be louder than mega-grocers like Walmart. These massive companies have started taking small steps to address plastic use, though advocates say they could be doing more ― if they really wanted to.

“They are the interface and broker between the makers of plastic consumer goods and the individuals buying those goods,” Nicholas Mallos, director of the Trash Free Seas Alliance at the Ocean Conservancy, told HuffPost. That role gives retailers “great power” in the fight against plastic waste, he said.

Walmart probably has the greatest influence of any grocer in the country. Around 90% of Americans live within 10 miles of a Walmart, and most locations offer groceries at cut-rate prices. The company sold $184 billion worth of food in the United States last year, easily outstripping its next biggest rival, Kroger, with $121 billion in sales.

“No other corporation in history has ever amassed this degree of control over the U.S. food system,” according to a June report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance on Walmart’s dominance of local grocery businesses.

Walmart is also the world’s largest retailer overall, with hundreds of billions of dollars in annual purchasing power.

“Walmart has the ability to influence the supply chain, not just for its own brand products but with large consumer goods companies,” David Pinsky, a researcher at Greenpeace, told HuffPost.

By and large, he said, major retailers haven’t done much with their considerable influence to crack down on plastic. Though most of these large retailers ― including Walmart ― have made some kind of public commitment to reduce packaging waste, their pledges fall far short of what’s needed to stem the tide of plastics that end up in landfills or incinerators, escape into the environment and contribute to climate change.

A Walmart worker stocks produce, some of it packaged in single-use plastic.
A Walmart worker stocks produce, some of it packaged in single-use plastic.
Rick T. Wilking via Getty Images

Walmart did not respond to HuffPost’s repeated requests for comment. However, the company has made previous public statements about its attempts to limit plastic waste — like recycling, for example. Walmart, along with several other retailers, participates in the How2Recycle labeling program, which helps people navigate America’s confusing recycling requirements by printing simple instructions right on product packages that explain how to properly dispose of them.

But helping people become better recyclers doesn’t fix a major problem with recycling facilities themselves: Most of them can’t process the packaging we try to recycle, so they have to send it to a landfill. In addition, recyclables in the United States are often shipped to developing nations, where they might end up being dumped or burned illegally.

“No amount of labeling will solve broken recycling systems,” Pinsky and co-author James Mitchell wrote in a June report by Greenpeace assessing U.S. retailers’ efforts to address plastic pollution.

On the other hand, major retailers could achieve much more by forcing suppliers to use a minimum amount of post-consumer recycled content in their packaging, Mallos said. While that’s still a recycling-focused strategy, it creates demand for existing recyclable plastic that has nowhere to go. It also supports the construction of better recycling infrastructure. A handful of major producers, including Unilever North America, are already moving aggressively in this direction. Walmart has made a more modest commitment: By 2025, the retail chain wants its proprietary brands to come packaged in 20% post-consumer recycled materials. (This figure is “painfully inadequate,” Pinsky wrote in the Greenpeace report.)

Walmart has not even pledged to stop handing out plastic shopping bags, one of the easiest nonessential plastics to cut. Top retailers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have already nixed plastic shopping bags from their stores. Last year, Kroger announced that it would follow suit by 2025. In comparison, Walmart said it will train employees to use fewer plastic bags at checkout.

Although Walmart said it also wants to promote more environmentally friendly packaging, existing efforts at other grocers are controversial. Whole Foods, for example, offers compostable containers in its prepared foods departments, but this doesn’t make much of a difference if there aren’t local industrial composting facilities available, Mallos said.

Walmart and a number of other major companies have also signed on to join multiple efforts that bring together business leaders, government officials, environmental activists and scientists to study plastic pollution and search for solutions. But Walmart is also a member of the Plastics Industry Association, a lobbying group that has spent millions fighting plastic bag bans, according to The Intercept.

While many of the country’s biggest grocers dither, smaller stores are actually getting their suppliers to cut out more plastic. So-called “zero waste” shops are popping up all around the world, eschewing plastic packaging and encouraging the use of reusable containers.

Kate Marnach, who co-opened the Minneapolis-based Tare Market in April, said she thinks it’s the responsibility of retailers to challenge the system. “Sometimes, it’s just a matter of asking your vendors, ‘Can this be done a different way?’ rather than just accepting the way it’s been done,” she said.

Her store doesn’t offer produce, but she said businesses often bag fruits and veggies simply for the convenience of using a barcode on multiple items at once. Selling produce without packaging should be simple, she said.

Whole Foods stopped giving out plastic grocery bags in 2008.
Whole Foods stopped giving out plastic grocery bags in 2008.
David McNew via Getty Images

Things are trickier for perishables. Meats, for instance, need some kind of packaging to keep them fresh. Still, there might be less single-use trash if stores let people provide their own reusable packages. Metro, one of Canada’s biggest grocers, started a pilot program in Quebec earlier this year that allows consumers to bring their own containers and resealable plastic bags to buy meat, seafood, deli items, prepared foods and pastries.

In the United States, however, guidelines on containers that are brought from home differ from state to state, so large grocers tend to discourage it. Pinsky thinks retailers should instead work with regulators to find common ground on plastic waste.

Zero waste retailers have become increasingly more outspoken about packaging requirements. Lyndsey Manderson, co-founder of ZERO Market in Denver, Colorado, said she thinks many of the state’s food container rules are unnecessary. She wants to start selling food at her waste-free store, but she doesn’t want her customers to take it home in single-use packaging. Other states are more flexible about shoppers bringing containers from home, and Manderson is trying to get her local legislators to consider different rules. She is also considering a deposit system, in which consumers could pay a small fee for containers that are later returned, sterilized and reused — just like the returnable bottles of the early 20th century.

As for consumers navigating the minefield of single-use plastic at grocery stores, Pinsky and Mallos recommend speaking to store managers, voicing concerns about plastic waste, and perhaps requesting unwrapped produce, shelf-stable foods in bulk, or permission to use their own containers from home.

“It may seem insignificant, one single request,” Mallos said. But if decision makers at retailers keep hearing the same asks, he said, it is a “very strong signal” that consumers want change.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated that ZERO Market is based in Boulder, Colorado.

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