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Europe shows benefits and dangers of packaging revolution

European packaging trends are on the mind of Dr. Eva Almenar, associate professor at Michigan State University’s School of Packaging.

As the European Union moves toward requiring plastic packaging be fully recyclable, the produce industry will need to respond to these demands to keep selling to this market.

While Almenar acknowledges that environmental concerns can be a major impetus in new developments in packaging, citing things like compostable cardboard and molded fiber trays, these may not immediately result in cost savings and can even be more expensive when taking into account other factors such as shelf life.

Many big supermarket chains, she says, considered eliminating produce packaging altogether, an idea she doesn’t believe will ultimately be of benefit.

“I think this isn’t working out very well; as a packing expert, it doesn’t make sense to me. Containers extend the life of a product and ensure freshness and safety, and ultimately, it is more environmentally unfriendly if we throw food away than if we generate less waste to begin with.”

Marketing also plays a part in the decision.

“You have to look at the entire supply chain,” Almenar said. “Packaging is just a fraction of the overall cost of produce.” Even if packaging is more expensive, she explains, if it sells more product through improved advertising than it costs, it’s a win.

A good design, she says, can also ensure there has been no tampering with the product, facilitate handling and palletizing, reduce respiration, and other undesired physiological and physicochemical changes improve shelf life.

Future perfect
Still, she says, differentiation is something every company needs to stand out, and using sustainability to sell to customers works, because that’s what consumers are interested in right now.

Almenar raises two possibilities for future innovation in the field of produce packaging. The first is in the growing field of ecommerce: “Retailers are selling more and more product via online sales, and in this sense, all packaging needs to change. There’s a whole different approach to what it means to sell online, and the traditional way produce is retailed will not increase produce sales over the internet.”

The second is in the field of intelligent packaging, where product codes and labels allow companies and consumers alike to vastly increase the amount of data they can get from fruits or vegetables.

“Intelligent packaging relates to ecommerce, but it goes way beyond. It allows us to interact with consumers while ensuring safety, by tracking products from farm or field all the way to the market.

It also lets consumers know the source of every package they buy and gives them the ability to know the origin of their produce, as well as get instructions on how to prepare an amazing meal.”

This is multi-part feature on produce packaging adapted from the October 2019 issue of Produce Blueprints.