Q&A: Biodegradable packing and the closed-loop dilemma for plastic
Netherlands-based Modiform is relatively new in the packaging game for fresh produce, but it is set to make its mark in European retail with biodegradable pulp products to hold fruits and veggies. During the Amsterdam Produce Show last week, Fresh Fruit Portal caught up with the company's eco expert and retail & industry division manager, Shaun Hersman, who discussed this as well as the tricky issue of plastic recycling. The executive calls for change to help make the fresh produce sector more sustainable.
Your group has traditionally focused on plastics but retailers are now looking for new solutions. In response you've gone for pulp packaging - could you walk us through how this has come about?
We’re predominantly a plastics company making packaging in horticulture. We were getting requests from retailers to come up with something more sustainable. And this has happened for the last five years so we’ve looked at lots of different materials, mainly sustainable plastic or as they say ‘sustainable plastic’ based on plants – PLA.
We looked at it and the market and actually it’s not really sustainable; it can’t be recycled. It is biodegradable but it takes a long time to biodegrade, so we looked at something else and we came across pulp, which is made from waste paper.
This uses the offcuts from cardboard boxes – it’s mixed with water, heated up and then you can form different shapes with it. So we started making horticultural products from this material pulp, and that led us to also make products for the fruit and vegetable industry.
Just to clarify, a lot of our readers will see horticulture as including fruit and veg. What do you mean when you say horticulture?
I’m referring to ornamental plants. So we’ve just introduced it into Europe as fruit and vegetable packaging. What we’re finding is that plastic is a good, sustainable material if you can get it back and recycle it.
But once it goes to the retail or the consumer, it never comes back and we really don’t know what happens to it; either it goes into the ground for landfill or they call it recycle to heat, which is just burnt, or who knows? The worst scenario, it goes into the ocean. We wanted to stop that from happening.
Plastic is a sustainable solution in certain systems when we can get it back and recycle it to make the same material again.
How do you do that with fruits and vegetables? What are some practical solutions you’d like to see implemented?
We haven’t been able to do that with plastic in the sector, because everything for fruit and vegetables goes to the retailer or the consumer, so we haven’t been able to get a sustainable, closed loop system in fruit and vegetables.
In ornamental plant production, we can do that with transport trays because we can transport plants in pots and the retailer can give us the transport trays back and then we can recycle them again. But plant pots we can never get them back, and fruit and vegetable punnets or packaging, we never get it back. So it either has to be recycled at the retailer or recycled at the consumer.
Is there some sort of program that could be done with the retailers themselves where they encourage consumers to bring back clamshells, like some do with beer bottles, where you bring the clamshells or punnets back and you get some discount? Is that a possibility?
It is a possibility. We’ve tried it in the past, but what happens is the retailer maybe has some kind of recycling bin. But it’s amazing what gets put into the recycling bin – it’s all types of mixed plastic, and you really can’t recycle mixed plastic. You need to separate the PET, the PP, the polystyrene, the expanded polystyrene - there are too many different kinds of plastic so you really have to do it by hand and then it gets too expensive to do. Some retailers have tried it but it just ends up being a big mess – everything goes in there. It’s just not feasible to do.
And like you were saying earlier, people don’t know about these types of plastic either. It’s not easily identifiable for a consumer.
No it's not. Plastic has a recycle number at the bottom of it, but for instance PET is recycle number 1, but there are many different types of PET. Some are easy to be recycled and some are difficult to be recycled, so the whole system is flawed.
It really has to go back to the manufacturer. Governments could do something – they could say such and such type of packaging needs to made with a particular type of plastic, single PET let’s say, like they do in the drinks bottles.
It's about standardization but for sure the government is just letting the economy take care of itself.
Also it would be a hot button issue. A lot of politicians would struggle with their electorates promoting plastic as something sustainable.
We’ve struggled as a company. We started out in plastic so what message do we put out there – we’re saying plastic can be sustainable but we’re doing pulp as well. What we’re finding is plastic is more sustainable as long as you can get it back and recycle I, as we can use it again and again. Otherwise we are still using a material that gets lost into society. That material that’s in society has to degrade or be recycled through the current systems.
So in an ideal world there would be some sort of closed loop system either led by government, industry or consumer education, that would allow for specific types of plastics to be put into particular recyclable lots that could be collected before being re-used again and again and again.
I believe the best situation is a combination of all three. It’s got to start with the government – they should really put pressure on the packaging industry to organize the plastic – which plastic should be made for which kind of product.
They also have to organize the recycling system, and they also have to educate the consumers. That’s probably the most difficult one because it’s been tried; the government have tried to educate consumers to recycle plastic but it’s so hard to do. It’s an uphill battle – there are just so many kinds of plastic, so many kinds of packaging material; some plastic is good in some situations. But the answer is not really there at the moment.
So for the timebeing as a packaging company that’s trying to do more with fruits and vegetables, pulp is the answer for you at Modiform?
Pulp is the answer. Not only is it recycled – it’s made from waste material. It's the offcuts from another production industry. It is biodegradable, so if it goes into the ground it will biodegrade within a year, or the consumer can just put it into their existing paper recycling system which there is a good recycling system for, so then eventually we’ll come back and recycle it to maybe make the same products or paper or cards or something.
Another issue is affordability. Could you enlighten us as to how these types pulp packaging compare with the standard plastics that are out there?
It can be cheaper than some plastic, for example expanded polystyrene which is used in fruit and vegetable packaging because it stacks more closely together so the transport is cheaper. But on average it is a little bit more expensive compared to standard plastic.
But despite that extra cost, are you finding a lot of consumers and companies are willing to pay for that due to the environmental benefit?
The retailers certainly are, because for products that go to a retailer they have to do something with it. For example, if they receive the plastic carry tray it doesn’t go to the consumer – it stays with them, or they have to pay to get that removed or recycled. If it’s made out of pulp they don’t have to pay. They just put it with a standard cardboard recycling system.
And what has been the take-up so far? How many retailers or different fruit or vegetable packers are on board with your pulp packaging?
Well we’re brand new in both horticulture and the fruit and vegetable sector in Europe. In the U.K. it’s widely used already – it’s quite new in Europe so we’re talking to about five big retailers at the moment in Europe, but within horticulture even more. The difficulty is that for growers and packers there is a little bit more cost; the real value is for the retailer so it has to be driven by the retailer.
And when you say it’s quite common in the U.K., is that through competing companies or Modiform’s affiliated partners?
Modiform's affiliated partners. We’re working with a company in the U.K. – they’re driving a lot of innovation with the pulp.
It’s manufactured in the U.K. as well, so they’ve mixed tomato plant waste into pulp as well so you can imagine delivering some tomatoes in a punnet made of tomatoes. So it’s fantastic. The innovation is really coming from the U.K.
How is the tomato waste collected?
A crop lasts let’s say four months. They pick all the tomatoes and then there are these tomato plants that are seven to 10 meters long. They have to get rid of the waste. They used to chop it up and spread it on a field or something like that and it would sit there for months.
Now we work with tomato growers – they chop it up and give it to us, and then we mix it in with the pulp and then make the same punnets again to sell the tomatoes in.
And does this practice lend itself to all kinds of fresh vegetable crops?
Potentially yes. There’s no reason why not. We’re also doing some experiments with cucumber plants as well, so we think cucumbers could be the next thing.
Great. Well we've covered a lot. Let's get a photo at your stand and see some of the packaging itself.