Perceptions around plastic packaging in the produce aren’t monolithic. They vary from person to person, from stakeholder to stakeholder, and frankly, they depend on whom you ask. Meanwhile, at the time of this writing, PW is unaware of any master algorithm that accounts for all the supply chain and manufacturing variables (including weight, carbon footprint, food waste/shelf life/spoilage properties, right on down to the cost of mining ore in the case of aluminum or steel, and anything else you can think of), that m might crown a single winner of the most sustainable material sweepstakes. It’s completely application-dependent, may look different depending on a CPG’s goals or values, and there are a lot of competing claims out there.
All of that hemming and hawing out of the way, it’s undeniable that there has been a recent push for a reduction of plastic in produce packaging, one that has been driven by laws, bans, and consumer demand. The trend is propelling fruit and vegetable producers to investigate alternatives to their existing plastic packaging formats. In turn, this is driving a conversation asking whether plastic alternatives are actually more sustainable for fruits and vegetable packaging.
Some countries are implementing laws and bans to eliminate single-use plastic used for certain items, like produce. On Jan. 1, France banned single-use plastic packaging for 30 types of fruits and vegetables as a part of a 2020 French law that aims to promote a circular economy and minimize waste.
This ban comes at a time when most major global consumer products manufacturers have committed to reducing their use of plastic. Since France is one of the first large global markets requiring producers to switch from plastic to paper and more sustainable packaging, global manufacturers will be watching closely to see how consumers respond, the cost of switching, and the impact on the market for paper-based packaging.
While many products—like bell peppers, cucumbers, cabbage, potatoes, and more—are subject to the ban under French law, some other product types have a longer deadline, until 2023 or even 2024, to remove the use of plastic. Similar laws are being observed within certain countries and regions. In Spain, the sale of produce weighing less than 1.5 kg in plastic will be banned by 2023. A plastic packaging tax (PPT) has also been implemented in Europe and is under review for implementation by several countries including the U.K., Italy, and the Netherlands.
“We expect a domino effect throughout the globe,” says Darren Lynch, Vice President of Consulting at GEP, a supply chain consulting and strategy firm. “There are similar-themed legislations in various stages of review in the U.K., Spain, China, and India. U.S. companies doing business in the French market should have data, research, and scenario planning regarding potential outcomes, and what the implications are for their respective packaging decisions both short- and long-term. The market leaders have already jumped on this and see it as an opportunity. Environmental packaging is a unique opportunity for brands, and companies should take advantage and move quickly now.”
Is plastic necessary to minimize food waste?
While there are many alternative materials and strategies to plastic, including the use of sugar cane fibers, wood pulp fibers, and other biodegradable materials, there are significant shortages on commodities like pulp and paper, which is contributing to price increases and inflation.
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“In Europe, finished paper prices in most markets have increased by more than 10% over the last 12 months,” Lynch says. “While this began due to pent-up demand and a greater shift to e-commerce, it is being sustained by the push towards more sustainable packaging. Additionally, there are searches underway to meet this new law with less expensive alternatives, which in and of itself may not be the most economically friendly in the long run.”
As new legislation forces produce growers to think differently about their packaging and look for alternatives, it’s becoming apparent that these more sustainable materials may have environmental impacts of their own. Regardless, Parkside, a U.K.-based compostable and sustainable packaging supplier, predicts to see more countries across the EU and potentially the U.S. start to adopt similar legislation over the next 5 to 10 years.
“There is no silver bullet for creating the perfect packaging,” Staci Bye, Business Unit Manager, Parkside. “All materials have their drawback whether carbon or water footprint, use of fossil fuels, recyclability, use of recycled materials, and so on. The key is that all brands optimize what they do by following the principles of the waste hierarchy in their design thinking.”
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, one-third of food is lost or wasted globally every year, contributing to 8% of greenhouse gases emitted. And fruits and vegetables have the highest wastage rates of any food as nearly half of all fruits and vegetables are wasted globally every year, according to the UN Environment Program.
“Fresh produce waste contributes to approximately 8% of global carbon dioxide emissions, yet the plastic packaging used to protect and reduce this number represents a very small percentage of the total plastic packaging used,” says Gary Ward, CTO of StePac, a manufacturer of breathable modified atmosphere bags and liners for fresh produce.
While plastic packaging can keep produce fresh for longer periods of time, an 18-month study that was conducted by Wrap, a British sustainability charity, discovered that produce wrapped in plastic packaging forced consumers to purchase more fruit and vegetables than they needed, which resulted in more food waste.
The study also found that if apples, bananas, broccoli, cucumber, and potatoes were sold loose rather than packaged in plastic, it could save more than 10,300 tons of plastic and 100,000 tons of food from being wasted every year.
So how are produce companies adapting to meet the needs of their customers, while reducing food waste and abiding by new and impending laws in certain regions? Here are a few approaches to produce packaging in 2022.
Recyclable functional barrier paper
French salad brand Group LSDH had to replace its transparent polypropylene (PP) packaging for its Les Crudettes packaged salad range in response to the plastic ban. The company used packaging and paper supplier Mondi’s recyclable functional barrier paper for a selection of its pre-washed, ready-to-eat salads. The new packaging is 95% paper with a functional barrier layer, meaning the salad remains fresh for up to 10 days—the same amount of time as with the previous plastic packaging. It’s verified as recyclable in the waste paper stream in France by the Recycling Authority (Cerec).
The bags are flexographically printed, with depictions of the salad contents on the front, along with a QR code, which informs consumers about the contents, quality, recycling, and refund policy, if they purchase a bag where the contents are not as fresh as expected.
“This is just the first step in the sustainability journey of our ready-to-eat salad range,” says Géraldine Collet, Marketing and Innovation Director, Les Crudettes. “The results are exciting, the packaging is created on our existing machines, it looks great on-shelf, is resistant to humidity, and supports our sustainability goals. These salad bags could revolutionize the ready-to-eat salad market, hugely reducing the amount of plastic needed, all while keeping the food fresh.”
PET stand-up pouches cut fresh food waste
For those who aren’t encountering a plastic ban, another path toward sustainability for produce companies is minimizing food waste, which reduces CO2 emissions. Divine Flavor, LLC, a San Diego, Calif.-based, grower-owned distributor of fruits and vegetables, is prioritizing packaging that extends the shelf life of its vegetables.
“We invest a huge amount of resources in growing high-quality produce so preserving this quality all the way to the final consumer and reducing food waste is key,” says Michael Dupuis, the Quality Assurance and Public Relations Manager of Divine Flavor, LLC. “We need to be smart and use solutions that preserve quality with a minimal footprint, but I am not sure that banning plastic packaging altogether is a good idea owing to the important role it often has in preserving quality. Providing food that has minimum impact on the environment is important and more and more consumers are seeking Eco-friendly products, but they also want good quality.”
To accomplish this, Divine Flavor adopted stand-up pouches for direct field-to-home refrigerator packaging of its Persian cucumbers for the U.S. market. The PET-based pouch from StePac’s Xgo line can extend shelf life and preserve freshness and valuable nutrients because of unique properties built into the packaging that lower oxygen (O2) and increase carbon dioxide (CO2), according to the company. This creates optimal conditions for slowing respiration and aging in plant tissues, inhibiting the growth of mold and other microorganisms. This creates optimal conditions for slowing respiration and aging in plant tissues, inhibiting the growth of mold and other microorganisms. The pouch technology also limits dehydration and product weight loss during storage, shipment, and home use and has built-in condensation control, which ensures high visibility of the packed products even under challenging supply chain conditions.
Divine Flavor has been working with StePac since 2010 when it began using the company’s Xtend line of bulk packaging for transporting its squash, cucumbers, and bell peppers from growing regions in Mexico to the U.S.
“The Xgo standing pouch is a remarkably high performing product with the ability to retain freshness and meaningfully extend product shelf life,” says DuPuis. “The feedback from our customers has been excellent. They’re really happy with the quality and attractive appearance and the fact that it has that sustainability edge consumers are seeking.”
The pouch Divine Flavor is currently using is not recyclable, but StePac does offer a fully recyclable, single polymer, laminated polyethylene structure version of it.
“Indeed, there is overuse of plastic packaging in the fresh produce industry, but much of it plays a crucial role in protecting fruits and vegetables and reducing waste in the fresh produce supply chain,” says StePac’s Ward. “Before considering banning the use of plastic packaging for fresh fruits and vegetables, it is imperative to ascertain that there are alternative solutions in place to preserve quality and reduce fresh produce waste and that those solutions are more environmentally friendly. We need to make sure that we are not solving one problem but creating an even bigger one.”
Compostable vegetable and fruit packaging
Other companies, like Riverford Organic Farmers, an organic produce supplier that delivers 80,000 organic vegetable boxes across England every week, began reducing the use of plastic to become more sustainable. The company says it currently uses 82% less plastic in its food packaging when compared to mainstream supermarkets.
Once Riverford began to remove and replace all plastic packaging, it realized it could become a more complex task for its perishable products, which required a solution that extended shelf life. The company turned to U.K.-based Parkside to develop a home compostable package that was transparent, lightweight, GMO-free, printable, and suitable to run at high speed through a vertical form fill seal (vf/f/s) machine.
Parkside’s Park2Nature sustainable packaging range proved to achieve the best compromise between efficiency and product quality, according to Riverford’s Senior Buyer Matthew Mountfield.
The range is a specially developed duplex laminate of NatureFlex cellulose and biopolymer. All material components, including inks and adhesives, are designed to break down via microbial action within 26 weeks at ambient temperatures in a home compost environment. The package and its component are also non-toxic to the compost and are rigorously tested for eco-toxicity and a host of other criteria against the EN 13432 standard for bioplastics.
“Riverford is a classic example of where composting was a great fit for their business model,” Bye says. “The company has a great closed-loop organic recycling system and over 80% of its customers have access to a compost heap. The ones that don’t have the option to send their packaging back to Riverford with the next delivery to be composted by the business. This is a truly responsible business model for many other companies to emulate.”
The compostable package design for Riverford was created in partnership with Futamura, a renewable and compostable cellulose film provider. Futamura films provide oxygen, aroma, and moisture barriers that extend product shelf life while maintaining optimum flavor.
The package was recognized during the 2021 Packaging Gateway Excellence Awards for its greener package with product protection through the food supply chain, enhanced shelf-life capabilities, and meets the strict hygiene standards of modern food manufacturing.
Paperboard fruit carriers
Many sustainability moves are occurring because innovations in alternative materials are making them more practical.
Packaging World’s Pat Reynolds first reported on Canada’s Niagara Orchard & Vineyard Corp’s first season-long trial of paperboard carriers in place of thermoformed PET containers for fresh fruit in 2021.
The company tapped WestRock’s EverGrow Fiber-Based Produce Packaging Collection, specifically its auto-erect carriers made of 24-pt coated natural kraft. Niagara uses these carriers for plums, pears, nectarines, peaches, and grapes.
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“We tried a similar paper package about 10 years ago, but it just didn’t hold up,” says Niagara Sales Manager Spenser Greenfield. “But now with so many retailers and consumers trying to move away from single-use plastic packaging, we wanted to sit down with WestRock to figure out how to make it work, and WestRock had a lot of good ideas.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in the U.S. the rate of recycling for paper packaging is 80% compared to only 14% for plastic packaging since certain types of plastic packaging are either hard to recycle or not recycled at a high rate by consumers.
Since the EverGrow produce packaging range is made using fiber sourced from responsibly managed forests and is completely recyclable, consumers can simply empty and flatten the container before tossing it in their recycling bin, says Mike Mueller, Director, Product Management and Marketing WestRock Converted Packaging.
Other fruit growers have also transitioned from plastic packaging to WestRock’s fiber-based range, including Titan Farms, one of the largest peach producers in the U.S.
When nationwide sales of Titan’s fresh peaches dropped, they found that plastic packaging totes holding the peaches were deterring millennial shoppers. The company replaced the totes with WestRock’s uncoated KraftPak paperboard, which was designed to evoke the natural appearance of a wooden crate. The new carrier with a built-in handle is fully recyclable and offers ventilation and product protection.
In addition to the totes chosen by Niagara Orchard and Titan Farms, the EverGrow range includes tills, seal designs, punnets, and trays, making fiber-based, paper packaging a prime option for produce.
Post-consumer recycled resin
Since plastic packaging is still used and permitted in certain countries and plays an important role in keeping produce fresh, companies are looking for sustainable and responsible ways to continue to use the material. For example, Emerald Packaging, a California-based flexible packaging manufacturer that works with companies like Dole, Fresh Express, Organic Girl, Taylor Farms, and Grimmway Farms, is making a commitment to help drive the adoption of post-consumer recycled resin (PCR) in food packaging.
As a signatory to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, the company says 50% of its volume by weight will contain PCR by 2025. The process will reduce the amount of virgin resin required to make its flexible packaging while maintaining the same food preservation qualities that extend shelf life and helps reduce food waste.
“Emerald Packaging wants to play its part in mobilizing a shift towards a circular economy for plastics. We take tremendous pride to have been welcomed as a signatory, which required making specific commitments to reduce plastic use by 2025,” says Kevin Kelly, CEO, Emerald Packaging.
Sustainability may not be one size fits all for produce
Evidently, offering a more sustainable approach to produce packaging looks different for every company, country, and region. Keeping an eye on how these laws and bans affect demand and the environment may be an indicator for the trajectory of plastic packaging worldwide.
GEP’s Lynch says that in the meantime, companies need to accelerate their research and efforts to determine what will be most appealing to their customers as the likely momentum for change heats up. PW