Sustainable produce packaging debate far from wrapped up
"This story of recycling is the wrong subject. You want to make the grower earn money and monetize the product."
Before he rushes off to a meeting, this remark from Massimo Bellotti of French plastic packaging company Groupe Guillin shows the conflict at play between the commercial interests of the fresh produce industry and a tide of anti-plastic sentiment sweeping across the globe.
In the words of Will Mercer of British company Coveris, technical advances in plastic packaging have extended shelf life and improved hygiene by warding off microbial threats while also substantially cutting food waste and the associated environmental footprint.
"But the big bit that we actually forgot was to bring the consumer along," Mercer said during a talk at Fruit Logistica in Berlin last month.
So where exactly have consumers been left behind on this journey? And how can the fresh produce and packaging industries get them back on board while also responding to shifting preferences towards more environmentally-friendly solutions?
The cold turkey approach to plastic adopted by a section of society and retail will undoubtedly help alleviate the gargantuan problem of plastic islands floating around the world's oceans, but a real solution needs to be systemic and involve the plastic companies themselves.
In this special feature, we take a look at the challenges of making 'green' packaging affordable and accessible, the competing environmental interests of plastic waste versus food waste, and the innovators harnessing new materials for the shopping aisle.
Compostable, biodegradable, recyclable
These three traits are exactly what Canadian company CKF has on offer through its EarthCycle packaging for the fruit and vegetable industry, but president Ian Anderson is making no apologies about the extra cost.
"It’s more expensive. It's the nature of the process and the materials and the energy - it's a thermoform article and you have to be willing to invest," he says of his packs which combine a blend of virgin and recycled wood fibers.
"What we’re offering here today is something for people who want an alternative to plastic. Plastic is a litter issue around the world. It gets into the oceans, it accumulates and it doesn’t go away."
But EarthCycle's origins were not entirely environmentally sound. Before the brand was sold to CKF in 2013 it was based out of Malaysia, and while the end product was compostable and biodegradable, the raw material came from more questionable origins.
The palm fibers used were a byproduct of Malaysia's palm oil industry that has become synonymous with the destruction of large tracts of rainforest.
"When I sold the company one of the strategic imperatives for me was to get out of Malaysia," said EarthCycle founder Shannon Boase, now the director of new market development at CKF.
"There was an issue with our supply chain and an increasing issue with palm; it has become very controversial," she said, adding all manufacturing was now done in North America.
The wood fibers used come from a local pulp mill in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and new packaging products on offer cater to both sustainability and aesthetic trends at retail.
"This is thermaform fiber. You can see that it’s got a very smooth finish to it and that it’s got a very sharp edge. That is new and there are not that many companies internationally that are doing this," Boase said, showing Fresh Fruit Portal a new pack on offer during Fruit Logistica.
"Because it has a smooth finish and we could do a very uniform flange, it allows for it to be heat-sealed...it doesn’t take any adhesive," she said.
"This [the seal] is just a PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) film which melts and bonds with the fiber."
So some packaging solutions are more sustainable than others?
"We do have a solution for that. There is a company that is offering a compostable film and it's commercial," Boase replied.
And what percentage of packs have the compostable film?
"We’re showing it for the first time now. However in North America many of our customers that are using this peel and re-seal, or topseal, they market it as 90% less plastic than a clamshell and that resonates with the consumer," she said.
"We’re the only molded fiber company that has this internationally – you can peel it back and then reseal it.
Boase clarified the adhesives used in the peel and reseal pack meant the film couldn't be recycled, however the regular easy peel film could be.
"Sadly the film goes into the garbage, but the pack can be thrown in your background compost if you do compost. I personally use it to collect business cards or hold pens and paper. It’s such a beautiful package," she said.
Anderson added that in fruits and vegetables the thermoform packs were mostly being used for organic produce, which Boase attributed to a "consistency of message".
"The organic consumer is shown to be more sustainable and they will pay the extra because they understand right now you’ve got to vote with your dollars," she said.
"We have a fabulous opportunity. We have been doing some shelf testing and in-store trials with mushrooms in the U.K. We are so happy with the retailer [Tesco] behind that.
"For them to take that stand and invest in this, it's a fundamental change in the packing of mushrooms. The packaging of mushrooms hasn’t changed in 30-40 years – it’s always been in a PE (Polyethylene) plastic container, but our partner G’s has shown that using a molded pulp punnet with a topseal extends the shelf life from one to three days."
She said the package was made so that it gave mushrooms the right balance of moisture.
"Tesco saw this right away – not only is this a sustainability message, it’s a food waste issue. They can get more out of their produce," she said.
Boase added the EarthCycle compostable packaging had U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, European BFR food grade certification and European certifications for compostability.
But with the higher cost involved, how likely is it that thermoform packs will take off?
"You have to realize plastic has been around since the 50s. Plastic has been around for so long and the economies of scale of plastic are significant. This [thermoform] is a new material," she said.
A plastic packaging industry perspective
With a market capitalization of €680 million, Groupe Guillin certainly has the economies of scale to deliver plastic packaging solutions, not just in the EU but also to produce operations abroad that export to the European market.
The berry market in particular is booming, and while the European Commission puts forth its strategy for reducing plastics and establishing a circular economy for the material, the team at Guillin are skeptical based on past experience.
"First of all we are open to any innovation coming in this direction so we are ready to develop and switch our production to some real environmentally-friendly product," said Massimo Belotti, international sales manager at the company's produce division.
"Second, PLA (polylactide, a plant-based plastic) is not biodegradable – first you have to split it in the garbage which nobody is doing so it’s not really serious, and third you have to biodegrade this only in special conditions which are almost done by nobody today. No country is really recuperating the PLA,"
The produce division's export manager Mateo Diaz said the group tried switching all its systems from PET to PLA 10 years ago.
"We failed totally in supplying the market because of the shelf life of the product, the incapacity of the product to travel into containers because of the temperature inside of the containers, and the market wasn’t ready to pay the premium for the PLA," Diaz said.
The executive team was then forced to ask the pressing question: What is the real environmental footprint of using plant-based plastic?
"We saw that it was so little compared to all the solutions," Diaz said.
"Now our group has decided to stop PLA and we have gone to rPET which is recycled PET. Our punnets are composed of up to 80% recycled PET and 20% virgin PET," he said.
"We could go 100% recycled PET but then we’d have to compromise the transparency of the product."
Bellotti said the most pragmatic way the company could be sustainable was to "not use new petrol", harnessing as much material as possible that has already been produced.
Diaz said half of the recycled PET was post-industrial while the other half was post-consumer, such as recycled water bottles.
"The bottles of water are already coming back and being recycled. Also with this and the new systems like the topseal, we reduce the weight of the punnet and reduce the amount of plastic used," Bellotti clarified.
"The consumer needs to be educated to not throw something that can be recycled in the garden or in the ocean or on the ground."
Diaz said the private and public sectors needed to work together to find solutions to the problem.
"On this Groupe Guillin participates in a company in France called Valorplast, which is a company in charge of collecting the plastic waste in all the cities - this links both of them with a solution because politics alone cannot do the job if you don’t have an incentive for the industry to use this plastic," he said.
Sustainable packaging in practice - a matter of execution and willpower
As part of Bellotti's pragmatic approach to finding practical, sustainable solutions for reducing plastic waste, there was one important sticking point.
"Don't say ‘we use biodegradable plastic’ because it doesn’t exist. It's only compostable and that's different," he said.
Shaun Hersman of Netherlands-based packaging company Modiform disagreed with Bellotti's claim, although the difficulties of recycling plastic have led his company to move into pulp material with a similar product to that offered by CKF.
"Everything is biodegradable with time. I think it depends on how thin it is," he said, pointing to a heat-sealed plastic film on a perforated pulp pack - a technology he claimed took two years to develop and will be ideal for soft fruit and mushrooms.
"If this PLA was like a punnet it would take maybe five years to biodegrade but because what you see here is microns thick, it will take a few months to degrade.
"You put it in your green waste bin and it gets industrially treated. It’s heated at about 60°C and then it disappears much quicker."
But how effective are the recycling systems already in place? The team at Groupe Guillin sees that they needs improvement and this is the view as well for many fresh produce marketers, themselves also keenly watching developments in the sector and trying to find solutions that are economically viable.
"We produce packaging that is made from renewable materials that come from corn starch or sugarcane, but the thing is some of the communities are not prepared for that yet," said Christiane Bell, global produce general manager at German group BayWa, which also owns New Zealand-based T&G Global.
"When the customer throws it away in the biodegradables, when it is being picked up the people from the mill leave the container there thinking it’s plastic," she said.
"It’s a matter of training. You need to secure the entire chain."
Thies Claussen of Germany-headquartered importer Global Fruit Point said his company was offering industry stakeholders the option of incorporating biodegradable packaging material into their programs.
"This is a way out of this dilemma but we are also taking into account that biodegradable things are more expensive," he said.
"Honestly I believe the power of the decision finally lies on the consumer side – the individual consumer is going to decide whether he is going to go the extra mile and pay that extra cent, creating that extra demand so that the supply can take place.
"We don’t want to 'die in beauty', you could say. We put the options on the table and our clients are going to decide whether they go on with the old way or the new way."
Claussen said biodegradable packaging tended to cost about 30% more than the standard plastic alternative, but the actual effect of that on the consumer price was minimal.
"Let’s be careful with percentages. For the end consumer sales price in the shop, I wouldn’t say it’s nothing but it’s 1-5%," he said.
Ireland-based Total Produce is one of the world's leading fruit and vegetable traders, and the multinational will be the largest if its proposed acquisition of Dole Food Company goes ahead. CEO Rory Byrne told Fresh Fruit Portal he saw a greater awareness of environmental interaction from all produce sector participants.
"We have to work with the industry, consumers and customers to find a sensible balanced evolutionary process to get an answer that’s economically and environmentally sensible," Byrne said.
Will this mean a greater focus on recycling or biodegradability?
"I think it can be a combination. Historically I suppose cost has just been such a big factor in these things – recyclable plastic and trying to find the right cycle to return them, reuse them and the transport costs associated with that," he said.
"We’ve got to find the balance between having appropriate recognition of any environmental damage that some of those products do, and finding a suitable solution which can be a combination of biodegradables, recyclable plastics or a range of other options; even new solutions that are yet to be invented."
Graham Young of U.K.-based avocado importer Greencell, a subsidiary of Westfalia Fruit International, expects a two-step solution will be found to the plastic waste dilemma.
"The first will be biodegradable packaging which is getting better with the print quality, the clarity, the opaqueness – it’s all achieving what consumers want," he said.
"But biodegradable packaging is quite often still synthetic and it’s not natural. Although it degrades it doesn’t degrade in the optimal manner.
"The second and final stage will be bio-packaging which is where you move away from synthetics that involve biodegradable packaging and you concentrate on the production of natural starches that will fully degrade quickly.
"It’s one of the big pressures of our time and we’re all involved. We don’t want to leave the world like we’ve seen on TV. For our kids and for our future, the development of these technologies is absolutely essential."
Food waste versus plastic waste
The repulsion many consumers feel towards fruit or vegetables wrapped in plastic is understandable, particularly when the produce items - bananas or avocados for example - come in their own natural casings anyway.
But it would behove those same people to then ask themselves the following questions:
- How much fruit & veg do I throw out each month?
- How often do I reject fruit with blemishes or that's very ripe in favor of a better-looking product? For the majority of consumers the answer is probably most of the time.
- If my local supermarket or a produce item they stock were caught up in a food safety scare, would I shop there or buy that product again?
- Would I feel better about produce wrapped in plastic if I could easily take that plastic waste back to the supermarket or an appropriate facility for recycling?
According to Coveris R&D director Will Mercer, in the U.K. alone the level of food waste accounts for 10 billion metric tons (MT). Before we point the finger at plastics, it is worth considering the water and carbon footprints associated with producing that much food.
"That's a value of over £17 billion a year and is associated with around 20 million MT of greenhouse gas, and as much as 47% of household food waste is produce," Mercer said during the Fruit Logistica talk "Plastics Packaging: Maximising benefit whilst minimising impact".
"What we need to do is extend shelf life, maximize that resource and have the minimal impact on the environment.
"It’s [packaging] not just there to take it to the shelf. It’s actually there to keep it clean, to keep it in good form through the distribution chain so that when you get it, it isn’t contaminated."
He said Coveris' motto for packaging solutions was "reduce, sustain, recycle". In terms of 'reduce', he highlighted how the use of films had reduced the amount of plastic used, and for the 'recycle' element he said the company had put a major focus on using mono-materials and mono-composite materials over the last two years.
"So instead of having too many different formats, it’s looking to bring down to one or two different types of polymer so we can make that recycle side often easier," he said.
"Also we can control the portion sizes as well so people have the right amount of fruit and they’re not taking some and saying I only needed half of that for lunch today.
"If you are going to use packaging, use it for a positive reason."
And it is on the 'sustain' side that Coveris' expertise comes to the fore, especially with its 'Freshlife' modified moisture packaging. Using what it calls 'MAP' technology, the group's packaging is able to balance the respiration rate of fruits and veggies with the permeability of the film.
Eric Duncan, head of Coveris' U.K. food science division, cited numerous examples where this type of packaging and others can play their part in reducing food waste.
"Packaging can have a major impact on maintaining that quality in preventing undesirable changes in the potato such as greening, sprouting, conversion of starches to sugars, darkening problems," he said.
"To me it’s a staggering statistic that nearly half of the potatoes purchased in U.K. households end up being thrown away.
"Using a gram or two of packaging on a cucumber can actually extend the shelf life up to 14 days, and sure, the food waste is kept to a minimum and the product is actually used rather than being thrown away."
Duncan added the company was also working on improved packaging solutions for asparagus and pears.
"We’ve been looking at actually taking asparagus from unwrapped bundles to our MAP - our scanning laser technology...in doing so we’re removing some attacks the product goes through in the environment – things that attack the quality of the product, where we had a rapid dehydration of the product and microbial contamination," he said.
"Pears undergo a lot of changes. It’s an ethylene-sensitive product...if you have ready-to-eat pears, the pears continue to darken, they soften, they continue to lose quality, and also it’s hard to get a uniform ripeness so people might throw them away.
"By looking at some technologies to manage the headspace gas atmosphere or to manage the ripening rates or the ethylene or the effects of the ethylene produced by the pears, actually that packaging is very functional in making sure the pears get from the grower to the consumer and they’re consumed in somebody’s lunch or salad or dessert, rather than just going to the bin and going to landfill in the end."
From time to time supermarkets have been mocked on social media when they've used the 'reducing food waste' argument to explain the use of plastic wrapping for fruits and vegetables.
This is likely because consumers intuitively realize that while high-tech plastics may extend shelf life, it doesn't change the fact the goods inside them are still perishable and there will be waste all the same. Real food waste impacts will come down to inventory management, how well supermarkets can predict stock rotation and the extent of food waste disincentives.
As Duncan said, the amount of potatoes that go to waste in the U.K. each year is staggering, and it's the same for a wide range of fruits and vegetables in different markets. Only once we see those numbers come down will we be able to definitively attribute part of the success to the use of modified atmosphere packaging. Here's hoping that will eventually be the case.
And if this outcome could be combined with an appropriate recycling system, that would be even better.
Other initiatives that target food waste include restaurant concepts like InStock in the Netherlands which harness food surplus to bring added value, as well as the well-known 'ugly fruit' movement that also uses terms like 'wonky' or 'imperfect.
Could grass paper solutions be the next frontier?
Some of the most notable sustainable packaging solutions on show in Berlin last month involved the use of thermoform made of pulp, but what happens in a world where pulp is hard to come by?
This is the dilemma Scheufelen GmbH of southern Germany has sought to address through its grass fiber packaging 'grass paper - greenliner', which earned it the bronze by popular vote in this year's Fruit Logistica Innovation Award (FLIA).
"We see that pulp is becoming much shorter in the future and pulp prices are going up more and more, because packaging and tissue paper are consuming a lot of pulp with growing rates" said Scheufelen's director of sales Horst Lamparter.
"So we see that just using fiber material as pulp will not be enough in the future, and therefore a company which we are working together with - Creapapier - did some research to find alternative fibers to pulp.
Lamparter clarified that this was not your standard green grass but rather sun-dried grass that was not cut so frequently.
"At Scheufelen, since we have very high know-how for coating and printability we could make it printable, and this was a big step ahead of course," he said.
"We are looking not for the green fresh grass that you give normally to the cows. We are looking for grass that’s growing for a longer time, that you’d cut normally two or three times a year. That grass material also contains some small wooden fibers.
"Normally they just cut this material and let it stay on the ground, or they feed it to the horses. They like this kind of grass, but there are not enough horses for all this grass."
He added that the longer you let this type of grass grow, the more you contribute to biodiversity as well.
But it is a different environmental factor when compared to using pulp that really makes Schuefelen's grass paper products stand out.
"When you produce pulp you need wood from the forest of course, and the wood contains lignin. To get this lignin out of the wood of the trees you need a lot of water and a lot of chemicals," Lamparter said.
"There is a chemical treatment and then at the end you get a white pulp, and with this pulp you make paper.
"To produce one ton of pulp, like in the modern pulp mills you find in Scandinavia and Brazil, they need around 30,000 liters of water. Of course a big part of that water stays in the process but still they would lose 6,000 liters of water even if they recycle it."
In comparison, Lamparter claimed making grass paper only required one or two liters to keep the production flow.
"I can compare one ton of grass material to one ton of pulp and we save around 6,000 liters of water," he said.
"Our interest is not only that this grass paper is produced at Scheufelen. We would be very happy if other paper mills also jump on this idea and use it in the future so that it becomes a trend with greater demand in the market."
In terms of the produce industry specifically, Lamparter said so far the packaging solution had only been used for 'drier' items like potatoes, apples and tomatoes.
"For example Rewe or Penny, the retailers in Germany, they are interested for the apples. They put four or six apples in a tray and put foil around it, and use this grass material.
"We are talking to people like SanLucar to have 2x2 or 4x2 packs of apples."
As much as Lampartar champions the use of this new material, he said it would be difficult to displace plastic use at this stage.
"I think for some packages it can be alternative but of course you need to see what usage you need for plastic packaging.
"If you need protection against moisture it might be a bit more difficult because of course plastic gives you better protection than paper or board, but more and more people try to avoid plastic.
"There is a big discussion going on in Germany and other countries to avoid plastic, to go into the field of paper and board. We have to see the future and what further applications we can get with this material."
Headline photo: Twitter, @plastic_say