6 Things Zero Wasters Need to Know About US Supermarkets

So I’ve been with Whole Foods for a good 4 months now, and I think I can safely say that I’ve learned and seen enough to write a post like this. Because zero waste people make a lot of assumptions about the way supermarkets and grocery stores work – either in good faith, or because we assume that store policies are logical, which they aren’t sometimes – and I’m here to set a few things straight.

1. Most of how the modern supermarket functions is due to lawsuits.

Americans are a litigious people. We sue at the drop of a hat, and even the most ridiculous claims have the chance of settling out of court, granting the plaintiff a handsome sum of money. But we’re litigious because we also have a long and storied history of being screwed over by business interests, a history that is just as American as apple pie. See: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire; the meat-packing industry of late 19th century Chicago; current working conditions of Amazon warehouses.

Part of my orientation involved a 90-minute safety walk around our store, in which one of the assistant managers went over every square inch of the building to outline best practices for emergency exits, eyewash stations, where to put things, and so on. But the subtle language he used made it clear (to me, at least) that these procedures were less about employee and customer safety, and more about avoiding lawsuits, theft, and wasted money. For instance, if someone falls in the store, we are not allowed to help them up – they could sue and claimed we worsened their injuries. Or when taring for an imprecise amount – like butcher paper in the meat department – we always over-tare due to somewhat recent legal action taken against the company for overcharging on weighted items.

Most larger businesses that have been around for a few decades are like this, though, and the vast majority of laws on the books concerning business, public safety, and food handling are because of about 170 years of litigation of consumers and employees against businesses.

When it comes to supermarkets in particular, though, such troubled history sets the stage for the rest of this post.

2. They depend 100% on plastic and disposables.

I’m not kidding. I knew a lot of stuff got thrown away in the process of running a store, but I had no idea until I started working at one. As a floater, if I’m working in a department that involves handling an edible product in any way, I need to wear disposable plastic or latex gloves, and I’m to discard them before handling something else (if I have the opportunity to do so). In this way, I can go through dozens of disposable gloves over the course of a shift, sometimes even most of a box. And I’m just one employee, at one store, at one market chain, handling food at only the final stage of a long assembly line of processes that gets your purchase from the farm to your grocery bags.

Even Whole Foods’ much beloved salad/olive bars and bulk bins use up huge amounts of plastic just to get the stuff from the truck to its final destination out on the floor. For one, bulk product does not actually get packaged in large containers. The biggest olive containers we have, for instance, come from two-gallon buckets of very heavy duty plastic. Some of them come in smaller bags that weigh maybe only a pound or three, and some just come in larger consumer-sized containers.

Without even 5% of the disposable plastics we’re required to use to do our jobs, the store would not be able to function. There would just be no legal way to handle product without it.

3. Everything you return to the store gets thrown away.

Don’t ever, ever return something to a grocery store unless it’s gone bad, because it will end up in the landfill. We cannot put it back on the shelf, even if its been unopened. In fact, if you can compost it at home, do that instead. It’s probably not worth the $4 return.

4. There is little to no auditing of employee waste.

Every department has both black, green, and sometimes blue bins behind the counter, but no one’s there to make sure that they both aren’t treated as garbage bins, and emphasis from management on proper sorting is nonexistent (at my store, at least). Speed of service is valued above anything else at Whole Foods, so during rushes, especially, garbage ends up in whichever receptacle is closest. We have a composting program, but how it works is completely esoteric – we lump stuff that’s mostly compostable together, and set it outside with the other mostly compostable stuff at the loading dock. Where it goes or how they’re able to pick out the thousands of plastic drink cups, straws, gloves, rubber bands, twist ties, milk jugs, juice bottles, and produce stickers is beyond me, and I think, beyond everyone else I work with.

On to of that, there’s really no one to tell us to be more frugal with the tools we have on-hand to accomplish our work with, especially if wasting more translates to being able to do more faster. In the meat department, thawing shrink-wrapped shipments of chickens or racks of bison ribs is done with an industrial sink full of running water. Sometimes it’ll be running for over an hour just for one batch, wasting hundreds, if not thousands, of gallons our precious California water. Or in the juice department, where even the smallest problems are solved by throwing away the first cup and lid and using another one, or using a plastic bag. (And that’s not even mentioning how much waste juicing produces. It’s really almost equivalent to killing an elephant for its tusks or a deer for its antlers and leaving the body to rot. Most of the nutrients is left behind in juicing – it’s truly just a gross status symbol.)

5. Even stuff that looks like it would have been packaged in less plastic is sometimes packaged in a lot of plastic.

During the holidays, all of our drip coffee at the coffee bar came in small baggies of pre-measured grounds that we had to cut open individually, pour into another bag, weigh, and re-measure for use in our industrial coffee maker for the dispensers we have on the counter. At the bakery, all of our “fresh baked” bread comes frozen, shrink-wrapped, and sandwiched between layers of parchment paper (no grocery store actually makes its own batters or doughs on-premises) before being put on baking sheets and thrown in the oven, to give just a few examples.

6. Keeping product topped up is to make you feel better.

Keeping a product topped up – that is, making it look like there’s plenty of it on the shelf – most times has nothing to do with keeping it in-stock in the case someone wants to buy it, and more to do with making the customer feel good. 

This is how a lot of stores wind up throwing so much stuff away – the need to keep shelves and displays immaculately organized and full ensures that there’s more to toss into the garbage bin when the whole display meets its sell-by date.

What does this have to do with customers, though?  Psychologically speaking, a business like this instills in the customer a sense of comfort when they are visually reassured that there is no shortage of goods for them to buy. This is why so much effort is spent on keeping every square inch of shelf full of something, and as I can assure you, doing that with a good ten or twenty thousand different products is a maddening game of physical, logistical, and financial tetris. Because who wants to shop at a store where what you want is out of stock? Or where shelves sit empty because everything sold? Consumers want what they want, when they want it – if that means throwing away 10 pounds of smoked brisket every evening because the display would look bad if one of the warmer trays sat empty for more than a couple hours, then so be it. Spoilage is cheap; customer discomfort is not.

These are all big problems, I’m sure you all can agree. Even Whole Foods, supposedly one of the leading environmentally-conscious companies in the US is up to its eyeballs in environmentally-destructive bad habits with no monetary or legal incentive to change.

The consumer culture we have is ruthless in its hunger for more, for cheaper, and for comfort; the litigious culture we have is ruthless in its conniving greed, its paranoia, and its short-term gain over long-term sustainability.

Most of the problems with the US supermarket, though, has to do with how we understand the concept of sanitation and consumer safety. I’ll dedicate an entire post to that at some point in the near future, but for now, suffice to say, nothing will change if health codes stay the same. I don’t know if we can change them without some major industry shake-up – much of what we want as zero wasters would be considered a step backward, and would be a very hard political sell to anyone, not just policymakers. But I suppose, if you insist on something to do, write to the appropriate people in appropriate places, and write them often. Study the health code, and relevant laws. Familiarize yourself with previous litigation to see how this bloated legal machine came to be.

And while you’re at it – Whole Foods recently, quietly, decided not to let customers use personal cups at their coffee or juice bars. It was a decision that came down from corporate, I heard, and had nothing to do with a lawsuit. So please write them, and please get angry, and please remind them that every other goddamn coffee shop on the planet lets you use your own cup. Thanks.