Can grocery stores help solve the plastic pollution crisis?

Grocery stores like Whole Foods have a big role to play in reducing single-use plastic waste.

Beyond plastic

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Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG

It’s hard to cut back on plastic trash in our day-to-day lives — grocery stores simply don’t give us the chance.

Who hasn’t come home from a shopping trip with piles of plastic packaging in addition to whatever they actually needed to buy? Almost everything on a grocery store’s shelves comes with a side of plastic, from drink bottles to snack packaging, and sometimes even plastic wrappers on fruits and vegetables.

This is frustrating, but we can change it. The fact is, grocery stores like Whole Foods have a big role to play in our fight against plastic pollution.

Why grocery stores?

At one point, Whole Foods was a prominent leader in sustainability. In 2008, it became the first U.S. grocer to eliminate single-use plastic bags at checkout. But things have changed.

Today, Whole Foods has earned an “F” on its use of plastic for two years in a row. It earned this failing grade due to the company’s failure to embrace reusable packaging and recycled content, and its lack of transparency about the packaging materials it does use.

All in all, it means there’s a ton of excess wasteful plastic on Whole Foods’ shelves. But if Whole Foods does commit to phasing out unnecessary single-use plastic, it wouldn’t just reduce its own contribution to the plastic waste crisis — it would also set the stage for other stores to follow suit to make an even bigger impact.

Plastic is a big problem, but PIRG has a plan

More than 28% of all the garbage in America is packaging. That adds up to millions of tons of material that is typically thrown out after a product is purchased or used — much of it originating from grocery store shelves.

We can’t recycle our way out of this one. Only a tiny fraction of the plastic that gets manufactured is ever recycled, even though lots of Americans are putting plastic in the recycling bin.

So what can we do?

Convincing Whole Foods and other major retailers to get single-use plastic off of their shelves is just one part of our ongoing work to put a stop to the plastic pollution crisis. Here are just a few of the other policies we’re advocating for with your support:

  • We’re working toward nationwide bans on the worst single-use plastics. One of the best ways to reduce the amount of plastic headed toward our landfills and waterways is to ban items such as foam takeout containers and plastic bags. These are items we don’t really need, as plenty of reusable alternatives exist.
  • We’re championing legislation that puts the responsibility of plastic waste back where it belongs.  For too long, the cost of cleaning up plastic pollution has fallen on us as consumers and taxpayers. We envision a different system — one where plastic manufacturers are held responsible for the waste their products become.
  • We’re advocating for the right to repair. Electronic waste contributes to dangerous pollution, but companies intentionally make it so hard to repair the stuff we own that we often throw items out instead. With our Right to Repair campaign, we’re working to give every consumer and small business access to the parts, tools and service information they need to repair products.

Together, we know we can achieve a future where nothing that we use for five minutes is allowed to pollute our environment for hundreds of years.


Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG

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