Trading Plastic for Plant-Based Fiber

Power Meals in new plant-based fiber bowls

Sustainability is a major focus at Wegmans. Every year we strive to further reduce our waste, carbon footprint, and use of plastic packaging. Not only is it the right thing to do for our communities, the environment, and the company, but it’s also a topic that’s near and dear to many of our employees and customers.

In fact, one of the things we hear loud and clear from our customers is their desire for us to reduce the amount of plastic packaging used throughout our stores, and specifically, within our prepared foods department.

“We’ve been on a journey to reduce plastic packaging since 2019. It’s a priority for our company, and for our customers,” says Jason Wadsworth, Wegmans packaging, energy, and sustainability category merchant. “The part that can be hard to understand is why it takes a journey. On the face of it, switching from one material to another seems like a fairly easy task, but the truth is, packaging is as complex as the food it’s protecting.”

One of the main reasons plastic packaging is so prevalent in the food industry is because it performs its number one job – protecting the product from start to finish – really well. When switching to a more sustainable material like fiber, which isn’t as inherently good at protecting food, finding a solution that holds up to this job is more difficult. The more complex the food, the harder it is to find a sustainable solution.

Take our prepared foods offerings as an example. “When looking for a fiber-based option for our poke bowls and power meals, we faced a number of challenges. The biggest one being the oils, sauces, and moisture,” says Ed Riederer, sustainability procurement area manager for packaging. “Finding anything made of fiber that can contain those liquids was a challenge. On top of that, the packaging also had to stand up to production, storage in the coolers, and cold and/or hot merchandising.”

Joe Pucci, restaurant foods group manager, adds, “You also have to look at how it travels and how it will hold up in a customer’s fridge. Then there are the labels – making sure they stick to the package, hold up, and then also peel off when necessary. And most importantly, of course, is maintaining the integrity of the product so we’re not changing the eating experience for our customers.”

To solve for all these challenges, our restaurant foods and sustainability teams partnered to find a solution that satisfied their combined wants and needs. For both groups, protecting the product and preserving its quality and integrity for customers to enjoy was the number one focus.

“We had been exploring fiber-based packaging options for these products for some time, but nothing on the market could solve for the use case we had,” explains Jason. “It wasn’t until recently that new innovation in fiber packaging made it possible for us to move away from plastic for these products.”

When it comes to sustainable packaging, the team’s focus is on reducing plastic usage and opting for packaging crafted from renewable or recycled materials. In the case of the poke bowls and the power meals, there was the opportunity to trade plastic for renewable, plant-based fiber. However, switching to a fiber container won’t always be an option based on the needs of certain products. When plastic packaging can’t be avoided, there’s still an opportunity to improve its sustainability, whether it’s reducing the gauge of plastic being used, increasing the amount of post-consumer content, or a combination of the two.

“When it comes to improving sustainability, it’s all about the journey,” says Jason. “There’s no one easy answer or approach for doing what’s best for the environment, and in many cases, it’s taking small steps to get closer to the ideal, as the science and technology continue to evolve. We continue to make progress, celebrating our wins, while also tackling the next project.”

The team continues to focus its attention on packaging within the Market Café, currently testing a recyclable coffee cup that uses a water-based coating in place of the standard plastic lining.