Working together to “break up” with plastic pollution

We need policy and corporate actors to work together to curb our plastics problem.

Litter on beach
Elizabeth DiSanto

If we paused all global plastic production today, the existing plastic pollution in our oceans and on land would continue to harm our natural ecosystems, wildlife and public health for decades to come. Because once plastic enters our environment, it will persist for lifetimes. 

These were the findings of a 2021 World Wildlife Fund review of nearly 2,600 research papers on marine plastic pollution. Even if no additional plastic enters  our environment, the article concluded that removing existing plastic litter from our oceans is nearly impossible. Microplastic particles as well as larger pieces of plastic waste can be found in the deepest most remote parts of our oceans, wedged in arctic ice caps, buried deeply on the ocean’s floor, and in the bodies of fish, marine mammals and humans. A plastic bag or straw that we use for only five minutes will continue to pollute our environment, harm wildlife and threaten public health for thousands of years.

For years, environmental groups and zero waste activists have been pointing this out. But studies like the one from the World Wildlife fund reinforce the point that marine plastic pollution is an increasingly alarming global crisis and it will continue to worsen – even if “significant action” is taken today to stop more plastic from entering our oceans.

Considering the stakes, we must take action now to curb the creation of more plastic junk. From the legislature to the boardroom, there are so many ways to tackle plastic waste. But one of the first actors that needs to address this issue is America’s “green” grocer: Whole Foods. 

Whole Foods, and companies like it, are in a prime position to lead the way to a plastic-free future. 

Single-use plastic packaging, including food wrappers is a major source of pollution, accounting for 40% of our total plastic production. Whole Foods has been a leader on sustainability in the past. They were the first U.S. grocer to eliminate plastic bags at checkout counters back in 2008, and more recently, they eliminated plastic straws and polystyrene foam from their store shelves. 

But since then, the high-profile market chain has fallen short compared to its competitors. For the past two years, Whole Foods has received an ‘F’ from As You Sow for failing to have a robust plan to tackle plastic waste. It’s clear the company could act to protect our oceans, waterways and wildlife – but they aren’t going to do it on their own. 

No doubt, governments are taking action. More than 150 countries recently took first steps toward a global treaty to reduce plastic waste as part of the 5th session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2)  This effort sets the stage for a legally binding agreement that covers the entire life cycle of plastic – from extraction and production to disposal. Notably, it will include metrics to reduce the amount of unnecessary single-use plastics produced worldwide.

But negotiations can take years, and implementation of a treaty can take even longer. 

That’s why we coordinated a week of action calling on Whole Foods Market to “break up” with single-use plastic packaging this past Valentine’s Day. Our plastics problem is too serious to take any longer to act. Not surprisingly, passionate customers speaking out on social media is one of the best ways to put pressure on the company to act.

Throughout the week, we facilitated thousands of consumers to like, comment, share and repost to get Whole Foods to move away from single-use plastic. Here’s what some of our week of action participants said:

  • “I’ve stopped shopping at your store due to my concerns about all the plastic. I love your products and would happily come back if you make a change.”
  • “Time to stop our dependence on single-use plastic, especially if we want our children and grandchildren to have a livable planet. Not to mention wildlife, forests and all the other wonderful living things of this planet.”
  • “Whole Foods, you were the leader in discontinuing the use of plastic bags and encouraging customers to bring their own bags. And you made that change very quickly. You have the power to again increase your impact by eliminating single use plastic from your stores. Make it happen!!!”
  • “​​Whole Foods, please DO YOUR PART to end the use of single-use plastic! Thank you!”

It’s clear that Whole Foods patrons expect the company to uphold high environmental standards and to take the lead on environmental protection – as they’ve done in the past. Plastic pollution will continue to pose a threat to the health of humans, wildlife and our natural spaces. But how much we produce and how severely we damage our environment and public health will largely depend on what our governments, corporations and grocery stores – like Whole Foods – do today.

As efforts to ratify a global plastics treaty continue, we can and should use our voices to call for immediate action from Whole Foods and other corporations, who have the ability to eliminate plastic from their operations and lead us into a plastic-free world.

Photo: Litter on Singapore’s ECP by Vaidehi Shah via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.


Elizabeth DiSanto