Opinion: Sustainability, a contradiction to plastic packaging

January 29 , 2018

By Oster & Associates president Bev Oster

As a marketer I tend to want to ensure that every product I deal with is well branded, so that when a consumer buys it they know what promise is being made to their experience with that item. 

This can hold true for a car, a piece of jewelry or a banana.  But in the produce industry, we have some unique challenges to the issue of effectively representing our brands. 

Many consumers feel that there is too much packaging on their fruits and vegetables, and they’re probably right. 

We are an industry that talks a lot about sustainability, and yet walk into the produce section of any supermarket and you find a plethora of plastic clamshells, plastic bags, bags that contain produce as well as complementary items – in plastic. Perhaps it’s time to take a step back and remember that we’re selling produce, not plastic. 

Across Europe there is a push to lower the use of plastic packaging, and many cities in the U.S. have outlawed disposable plastic bags for grocery shopping. But these things are not reducing the number of shoppers or the people buying produce. 

What we need to consider is not the necessity of plastic packaging, but what the alternatives are for continuing a branding program since we need to reduce our use of plastics that are clogging our landfills and destroying our oceans. 

A few years ago, we started branding efforts for Organics Unlimited that included materials that would be a part of the packaging of the organic bananas. The push-back from many natural food markets, often pioneers in the sustainable packaging efforts, was strong and deliberate.

The retailers said their customers didn’t want to see a lot of packaging, and they didn’t want materials that would clutter the displays and the aisles of their stores.  We could have given up and said that branding can’t be accomplished in the produce aisles without plastic packaging, but it can.

Here’s what you really need to define if you’re stuck on plastic packaging:

  • What is your goal with the plastic packaging?
  • Are there labeling alternatives that don’t include extensive packaging?
  • What other creative ways can you talk to consumers about your product without causing the waste and hazards of your current packaging?
  • What other packaging alternatives provide the same efficiency to retailers without the tons of plastic being used?

“Necessity is the mother of invention” is a saying that has been attributed back as far as Plato. And what we have here is necessity.  We need to find other means of convenience and branding. With Organics Unlimited packaging, we didn’t give up. 

We simply created a new label that goes on the individually self-contained bananas.  Yes, like many produce items, bananas already come in their own natural container.  And our newest labeling has strong, important messaging for consumers, but it isn’t adding to the pollution problem.  Other companies use containers made from bioplastics, corn, rice or wood products – all recyclable and naturally resourced. 

2018 is a good year to make strong steps toward reducing and/or eliminating plastic packaging of produce.  Think creatively about the alternatives.  Before plastic, people still ate fruits and vegetables.  How can we use this challenge to be simpler but also successful in both our own eyes and those of our customers?


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  1. John H Keeley says:

    Thank you for your opinion article on such an important topic. “Other companies use containers made from bioplastics, corn, rice or wood products – all recyclable and naturally resourced. “. That statement is not entirely correct. While it makes people feel good when they use “bioplastics”, many are not recyclable. For example, PLA (from corn) is not recyclable. It must be composted. However, it will not break down in your backyard composter. It must go to a commercial composting facility. Therefore, it ends up in a landfill or contaminating the PET recycle stream which causes many more tons of plastic to go to the landfill (that would have been recycled/reused if not for the PLA). The key is to REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE in that order of importance. Your Banana plan hits the mark on the #1 Sustainability goal to REDUCE. Unfortunately, the current use of “Bioplastics” is detrimental to sustainability. Hopefully, technology will someday allow for “Bioplastics” to be sustainable on both the front and back end and offer the same performance characteristics on high speed filling equipment. Until then recycled PET (RPET) is the most sustainable choice if you choose to have your produce packaged in plastic.