Would You like Some Produce with That Plastic, Trader Joe’s?

Every single item in this picture has one thing in common! It’s unnecessarily wrapped in plastic! Picture by Sophie Babka


Globally, packaging is the main use of plastic, with 146 million tons of plastic used in 2015. That’s a ridiculously large and unnecessary amount of plastic. Why is there so much plastic packaging? Think of all the food and other items you buy. Do most of them use some sort of plastic packaging?

A 2015 US EPA report stated that approximately 30 percent of municipal solid waste is generated from the packaging sector. That’s 77.9 million tons of waste. This is waste created for the temporary purpose of packaging that then sits forever in landfills environment due to its inability to break down, or too often skips the landfills and results in marine pollution. Plastic pollution has become such an issue that by 2050 the ocean is predicted to contain more plastic than fish.

In order to prevent this, efforts to increase plastic recycling have become popular. The issue with a lot of food packaging is although it’s technically recyclable, a majority of recycling facilities do not accept them, inhibiting the ability for consumers to dispose of these items in their curbside pickup bins. For example the above picture shows plastic salad bags (plastic #5), which technically can be recycled, but not in the average household recycling bin. In order to recycle plastic bags, consumers need to drop off these forms of plastics at certain facilities or drop points.

Another reason plastics are not accepted at facilities is due to food contamination. For plastics to be recycled they must be washed and cleaned in order to be accepted by recycling facilities. If they are not, the recycling facility will have to divert them to the landfill. Due to plastic type and contamination, the issue with depending on recycling as the solution to plastic packaging isn’t realistic because it often results in a large quantities of plastics being refused by recycling facilities and sent to landfills instead.

This has led to a multitude of customer feedback at different grocery stores to reduce their use of plastic packaging. In some cases, it has resulted in change! In December, Trader Joe’s introduced their new sustainability improvements to overall reduce its plastic packaging. For the packaging it will continue to use, Trader Joe’s has committed to source packaging from renewable and recycled material while avoiding harmful substances and using packaging that can be “realistically recycled.” This announcement came in response to consumer pressure and customer petitions about the amount of packaging they use, especially in their produce section.

Trader Joes has already made some steps towards increasing their sustainability. They removed all Styrofoam trays from their produce section and replaced them with compostable alternatives. Moving forward, their next step will be to replace their meat section trays as well. Furthermore, they aim to replace plastic sleeves on greeting cards and flowers with renewable compostable material. Trader Joe’s will also work towards reducing packaging in their produce section for items such as apples, pears, and potatoes. Trader Joe’s recently started selling reusable Waxed Cotton Food Wraps to use in your kitchen instead of saran wrap. Further, Trader Joe’s has made a recycling FAQ page about their different forms of packaging. So check it out and keep these non-recyclable materials in mind to avoid next time you’re at Trader Joe’s: Mesh produce bags, styrofoam, premade salad bags, plastic films, and milk/soup cartons (dependent on region). Once these efforts are fulfilled, they will have eliminated more than 1 million pounds of plastics from their stores. That’s a good first step!

Areas Trader Joe’s did not address for tackling plastic issues were its frozen section, bakery, snack packaging and other single serving items they offer, such as trail mix packs and juice boxes. Unlike some of its competitors, Trader Joe’s has not introduced a plastic bag recycling program at their stores. They have made impressive overall goals in waste reduction, but overall more steps are needed in order to be on sustainability levels competitive with other stores’ efforts.

Trader Joe’s is one of the few large scale grocery store chains in the state of California without a bulk section. Bulk sections are much more sustainable than traditional grab-and-go goods because they reduce packaging and even allow for zero waste options by allowing consumers to bring their own reusable bags or jars to fill. Since everyone loves Trader Joe’s snacks so much, the ability to buy them in bulk only makes them sound even more delicious!

A zero waste grocery trip at Berkeley Bowl, made possible thanks to its extensive bulk section and fresh loose produce. Check out my awesome reusable produce bag full of some yummy spinach! Photo by Sophie Babka

As a consumer here are some options you can do to realistically avoid plastic packaging.

  1. Buy fresh loose produce that is not packaged when possible. Bonus points if you use one of your own reusable produce bags instead of a “compostable” one provided at the store.
  2. Shop in bulk (again, when possible!) Shopping in bulk gives you the ability to bypass packaging all together AND save money. Not only is shopping in bulk more environmentally friendly, but you’ll also be able to save money. Again the option to use your own reusable bag or jar is highly encouraged!
  3. Shop locally! If you have the time and access, go to farmers markets on the weekend and buy produce or goodies there!
  4. Buy baked goods from the bakery section using a paper bag or your own reusable bag.

Realistically, we may not eliminate all plastic from our lives entirely, but just as Trader Joe’s responded to customer change to reduce their plastic footprint, we can do our power as consumers to influence others as well. Below is a list of some companies to sign petitions to reduce their packaging. Consumer actions can make a difference!

  1. Amazon: Another way to reduce packaging from Amazon is to fill out your settings requesting minimal packaging on all your orders!
  2. Safeway, Costco, Walmart, Target and Whole Foods! Tell them all to reduce their plastic packaging!!!!

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