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Hey Trader Joe’s: Less plastic with my food, please

Hey Trader Joe’s: Less plastic with my food, please
Vegetables at Trader Joe’s are wrapped in plastic (Mariel Garza /Los Angeles Times)

For many years, Trader Joe’s was my main stop for groceries, booze and dog food. But as I wrote more about the environmental cost of single-use plastic I started noticing my how much plastic I was bringing home as part the weekly Trader Joe’s haul — and was appalled.

American grocery stores in general sell a tremendous amount of products encased in some sort of plastic packaging. But Trader Joe’s, it seemed, had taken it to a whole new, horrifying level: Persian cucumbers entombed in hard plastic shells. Tomatoes ensconced in crinkly plastic bags. Individually wrapped tea bags. Greeting cards encased in protective plastic film. For crying out loud, that’s not even food!

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So my Trader Joe’s runs tapered off to occasional jaunts for wine and the few things I couldn’t find elsewhere (hello, blue cheese mustard). Now I rely on farmers markets for the bulk of my groceries, which still push way too much plastic on customers, in my opinion, and grocery stores with bulk grains and seed bins that don’t mind if you fill up with reusable bags from home.

I’m not the only customer who has been turned off by the chain’s volume of plastic packaging. In the Feb. 4 edition of the “Inside Trader Joe’s” podcast, a crew member at the Silver Lake store said that when people find out where she works, “their first thing is always, ‘Oh my God, I love Trader Joe’s.’ And the second thing is, ‘Why do you use so much plastic?’”

Greenpeace, which last year included single-use plastic as one of its top environmental concerns, noticed as well, and started a pressure campaign targeting Trader Joe’s, gathering more than 100,000 signatures. The pushback seems to have worked. On New Year’s Eve, the Southern California-based (but German-owned) grocery empire announced a plan to cut its plastic footprint by a million pounds this year. Also, it would continue to look for ways to deploy less single-use plastic packaging.

Whoa, big victory, right? That’s 1 million pounds of plastic that won’t have a chance to end up in the ocean to kill whales or in our food chain to do who knows what to our bodies. Hooray for Trader Joe’s for listening to public concerns and responding.

But….

I just can’t help being a bit underwhelmed by the proposal. It’s like the grocery equivalent of the state banning straws. For example, here’s what the company is working on this year:

  • Dumping plastic and foil packages from boxes of tea and finding a non-plastic bag for flowers.

  • Replacing polystyrene foam meat trays with a PET trays, which is a plastic that is easier to recycle — though we know that doesn’t guarantee it will be recycled, what with the global recycling market breaking down.

  • Replacing the plastic sleeve on greeting cards with something made from renewable, compostable material. (Better, but do greeting cards need really sleeves? Other stores don’t seem to think so.)

  • Evaluating plastic packaging for produce. Here’s a better idea: get rid of packaging for any produce larger than a strawberry. Most produce comes wrapped in its own natural packaging.

Tomatoes at Trader Joe’s
Tomatoes at Trader Joe’s (Mariel Garza/ Los Angeles Times)

See what I mean? Small potatoes — don’t need to be in a bag either. Who eats a raw, unwashed potato?

A spokeswoman for Trader Joe’s told me recently there may be another announcement this month about other sustainability steps. I hope so, and also that it will be more impressive than this first set of actions.Trader Joe’s, which has styled itself as a more socially conscious choice for young, hipper urbanites, ought to be a leader in sustainability, not a reluctant follower. This is an opportunity to do so.

I’m not in any way suggesting that people stop shopping at Trader Joe’s because of its plastic habit. In fact, I’m more inclined to return to my local store, now that I know Trader Joe’s is listening to customers’ concerns. It will also give me an opportunity to see if the company backslides on its commitment to continue cutting down in its single-use plastic.

What I am suggesting, though, is that everyone pay more attention to the plastic that’s being pushed upon them at every point of purchase — at the grocery store, the pharmacy, the department store and online retailers — and push back a little themselves.

Fill out customer suggestion forms and call customer service numbers and tell them about whales dying because they’ve ingested so much plastic there is no room for food in their stomachs. Maybe take it a step further and tweet pictures of the piles of plastic packaging accrued from just one shopping trip.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world in retailing these days as online companies chip away at the customer base of local outlets, and it’s just possible that local stores have never been as desperate to please their customers and ensure their loyalty as they are now.

That makes this a perfect time for this simple request: Less plastic with my food, please.

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