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The Plight of Plastics in fresh produce

Naturipe Farms’ Janice McIntosh discusses the challenges of recycling during the Plight of Plastic panel at Southern Exposure in Tampa.

TAMPA, FL—Think of what plastic packaging has done for entire categories. From seedless cucumbers to grapes, and especially berries.

Fresh-cut fruit wouldn’t exist without plastic packaging.

“Plastic packaging serves many functions – grouping, protection, and shelf life extension,” said Natalie Shuman, director of trade and retail marketing for Apeel Sciences, Galena, CA. “There reality is that we can’t eliminate all packaging, but there are areas where we can reduce reliance.”

Before joining Apeel, a company working to reduce food waste through shelf life extension technology, Shuman helped to introduce the stand up pouch bag to the grape category under the Sun World brand.

“When we launched that bag that is now ubiquitous across the produce department, we were thrilled because of what it did for merchandising and sales,” she said. “But I didn’t think we were thinking, at the time, about what it was doing to contribute to this issue of plastic waste.”

Shuman participated in a panel discussion of “The Plight of Plastic” at the Southeast Produce Council’s Southern Exposure conference on Feb. 28.

Over the past few decades, single-use plastic packaging has increased tremendously, said Anabella de Freeman senior manager of sustainability for produce for Walmart Inc., Bentonville, AR. Packaged produce now accounts for more than 50% of produce sales at retail, she said.

And what’s more, she said, “millennial consumers prefer packaged produce.”

Walmart has issued guidelines for the supplier community to meet, including reducing plastic and recycling metrics, but it can be difficult.

Why?

What we think of as recyclable often isn’t. The numbered guide on many plastic packages (think, No. 1 through No. 7) denotes the type of plastic, not that facilities exist to recycle it.

“Everybody thinks that clamshells are recycled,” said Janis McIntosh, director of marketing innovation and sustainability for Naturipe Farms, Salinas, CA. “It’s called wishcycling. I’ve been there. They take it right out and stick it in the landfill.”

Most municipal recyclers don’t take clamshells because they can’t handle paper labels. Paper labels turn to a mush that contaminates the caustic bath used to wash the plastic to prepare it to be sold to plastic manufacturers.

Rigid plastic packaging is an essential component of the berry business, McIntosh said, so the industry is collaborating on efforts to make clamshells recycle-ready with a film label that separates from the plastic.

The panel outlined other types of collaboration the industry can take to minimize the environmental impact, and waste, of plastic packaging.

Brands have to drive demand for the solutions, said Elizabeth Yerecic key account manager for Yerecic Label.

“As suppliers we can’t do anything to push that without the demand from the brand owners,” she says.

Panelists also discussed solutions like top-seal plastic and fiber-based containers, combined with a shelf-life extension like Apeel to reduce reliance on plastic packaging.

The biggest roadblock?

“Price. It always comes down to price,” McIntosh said.

Film labels cost anywhere from 15% to 40% more than paper labels, and the industry also is looking at challenges due to humidity and temperature that may affect the adhesive’s shelf life.

When asked what how the market will adapt to the higher cost of these packaging solutions, De Freeman the industry has to work together to mitigate cost.

“The easy answer is that nobody wants to pay more for anything else,” she said. “That’s why we need to come together to really collaborate to find solutions that maybe at first have a cost impact, and investment. We can get a return on that investment by lowering the shrink.”

Bonus content:

Yerecic Label debuted the following video about the challenge of recycling plastic clamshells at Southern Exposure.

Pamela Riemenschneider is the Retail Editor for Blue Book Services.