Whole Foods Becomes 1st National Grocer in US to Ban Plastic Straws

©. Whole Foods Market

In addition to straws, the market is further reducing plastic use across all of its stores in the US, the UK, and Canada.

If you only ever knew the early iterations of Whole Foods in Austin, Texas way back when, you might not even recognize the new versions. Popping up in trendy neighborhoods from coast to coast, the green-ish yet corporate vibe belies the chain's groovy, health-food-store beginnings. Where is the patchouli, now, anyway?

As the chain became a behemoth, it wasn't all that surprising to see some things slip away, like attention to plastic. I still like my local Whole Foods, but the prodigious amounts of plastic (especially in the produce department) make me cringe. There are ways around it – bring reusable produce bag and the bulk sections are good – but still. You wouldn't have seen all the lettuces encapsulated in clamshell packaging at the rooster-crowned original.

whole foods

© The first Whole Foods Market

So it is great news to hear that the chain is jumping on the plastic bandwagon; a vehicle that, given the levels of plastic pollution this species is perpetuating, we should all be jumping on.

The news comes in an announcement by the retailer, saying that they will become first national grocer in the U.S. to ban plastic straws as of July 2019. Now for those of you who will now start complaining that "we" are coming for your straws, do not fret. They will be available upon request for customers with disabilities; and Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper straws will be available for those who want them.

(If you are wondering why it's a big deal that a supermarket is giving up straws, it is because Whole Foods stores have very popular coffee bars and juice bars and other straw-dispensing components.)

Despite my kvetching about Whole Foods' plastic, this is not the first time they've taken action on the perplexing polymer. In 2008, they became the first U.S. grocer to eliminate disposable plastic grocery bags at the checkouts in all their stores. They also switched from polystyrene foam meat trays to butcher's paper in all U.S. and Canada. Meanwhile, prepared foods like salad bar boxes are made of 100 percent commercially compostable material.

Now, in addition to plastic straws, they will also be making smaller produce bags and new rotisserie chicken bags that use approximately 70 percent less plastic – they say that this should reduce an estimated 800,000 pounds of plastic per year. And I don't know about an official position on this, but recently the size of paper bags at our location have decreased too. The new size doesn't really affect how many groceries I can carry home on my walk (on the days I don't have my reusable totes, of course), but they are a lot less paper – I am sure that really adds up to a lot.

“For almost 40 years, caring for the environment has been central to our mission and how we operate,” said A.C. Gallo, President and Chief Merchandising Officer at Whole Foods Market. “We recognize that single-use plastics are a concern for many of our customers, Team Members and suppliers, and we’re proud of these packaging changes, which will eliminate an estimated 800,000 pounds of plastics annually. We will continue to look for additional opportunities to further reduce plastic across our stores.”

And in that search, I feel certain they will find some more opportunities. As Greenpeace Oceans Campaigner David Pinsky points out, we need more change than eliminating plastic straws. We need fundamental commitments to work towards a circular economy.

“It’s good to see Whole Foods acknowledging its role in the plastic pollution crisis and making some changes, but retailers must go much further than phasing out plastic straws and cutting down on the amount of plastic used in select packaging," Says Pinsky. "As a forward-thinking company, Whole Foods must release a comprehensive public plan to reduce plastic throughout its stores to match the scale of the problem. Now more than ever, we need retailers like Whole Foods to embrace real innovation – moving toward systems of reuse and thinking beyond throwaway materials. Our oceans, waterways, and communities depend on it.”

Whole Foods was able to usher in a real sea change for wholesome foods, it would be great to see them lead the charge on plastics. They may be owned by Amazon, but hopefully some of those early values haven't gone the way of the rooster on the roof...