In packaging, shelf life + convenience + appearance + sustainability = success.
Originally printed in the April 2023 issue of Produce Business.
As demand for packaged produce grows, the industry seeks to balance multiple aspects of the packaging equation.
“Packaging is a vital part of produce, from merchandising to making products last longer to convenience,” says Brianna Shales, marketing director at Stemilt in Wenatchee, WA.
And packaging is important for shoppers, too, for several reasons, explains Mark Cotê, regional produce supervisor at Redner’s Markets in Reading, PA, with 44 stores. “These include sanitation, environment, convenience and appearance,” he says. “And packaging helps sell multiples. For example, instead of buying one apple, customers buy a four pack.”
PRESERVATION AND CONVENIENCE
Packaging plays an integral role in the fresh produce supply chain. “It protects product during transport, helping to maintain freshness; prevents introduction of foreign matter and provides convenience to the end consumer,” says John Paap, brand and marketing manager for Jac. Vandenberg in Tarrytown, NY.
The function of packaging is not only to protect and deliver product to the consumer, but also to keep harvested product fresh as long as possible, explains Jason Vande Loo, director of business development, strategic products/markets for Belmark in De Pere, WI.
“Using innovative packaging technology can help overcome logistical and environmental challenges,” he says. “Innovative, engineered package designs create an ideal and controlled environment to place the produce in a state of sleep, slow its respiration, and keep it alive and fresh for longer periods of time than less optimized packaging.”
Vande Loo describes major activity in developing and employing unique, active package technologies to control or regulate produce respiration, inhibit ethylene production to slow ripening, or better manage moisture within the package. He says Belmark offers exclusive, patented analytical capabilities to test the respiration rate of any given produce item and design a package to provide ideal transmission properties.
Sanitation has also driven packaging demand. “Packaging became more important during COVID,” says Karim Wahhab, produce manager at Draeger’s in Los Altos, CA, with four locations. “We used to have an open olive and salad bar, but during COVID we had to package everything. We actually saw sales improve in those items when we started pre-packaging, and they’ve continued to grow.”
Environmental concerns are a major driver for packaging innovation. “We’ve become addicted to single-use plastic packaging over the last several decades that has, in many cases, improved the quality and condition of fresh foods, but is now creating serious problems,” says Paap.
Jeff Watkin, director of marketing for Sev-Rend in Collinsville, IL, says there’s a lot of innovation evolving around the sustainability theme “to bring a more sustainable packaging vehicle to the market while also trying to reduce food waste.”
Consumers are very conscious of where the waste goes, asserts Redner’s Cotê. “It’s become an important issue.”
In response, the industry is exploring upcycling reclaimed packaging into other usable materials or using eco-friendly material for product development, says Belinda Heidebrink, product marketing lead at Bedford Industries in Worthington, MN. “However, the need to find a cost-effective alternative that can withstand the storage requirements to protect the product throughout the supply chain remains challenging.”
In 2019, Bedford began its TagBack program, which empowers consumers and retailers to return produce ties and tags to be processed through Bedford’s in-house equipment and upcycled into other usable materials.
“Growers support the program by printing the TagBack logo to their ties or tags, and consumers return by mailing directly to Bedford or dropping in a collection box,” says Heidebrink. “To date, the program has collected and diverted more than 170,000 pounds of ties and tags from the landfill.”
Peri & Sons Farms in Yerington, NV, has seen success with an all-paper, eco-friendly package solution called Earthpack. “It’s 100% plastic-free and biodegradable/compostable,” explains Teri Gibson, director, marketing and customer relations.
“The industry is exploring ways to increase the circularity of plastic packaging by designing products that can be recycled or reused multiple times.”— Kathy Lawrence, Proseal
“We have also been able to produce biodegradable clamshells with Warren Packaging for our organic shallots, cipollinis and shallots. It’s a small-scale program, but organic specialty products such as these have a better chance of recouping the added cost at retail.”
Another industry approach is to reduce the amount of plastic used, explains Kathy Lawrence, senior category sales manager for Proseal in Richmond, VA. This can involve redesigning packaging to use less plastic, switching to more sustainable materials, or using alternative packaging formats such as top seal. “The industry is also exploring ways to increase the circularity of plastic packaging by designing products that can be recycled or reused multiple times.”
While Peri & Sons continues to look for more sustainable packaging options, Gibson says it is also making process improvements to reduce the amount of material being used, such as eliminating fingerholds along the edge of a consumer onion package.
“Every minute we produce these packages, we’re saving 36 square feet of material,” she says. “That’s over 33,000 square feet per day of waste.”
RESOLVING THE PLASTIC CONUNDRUM
Though single-use plastic packaging remains under intense scrutiny, the issue is complicated.
“There are many approaches, including moving toward materials made of recycled goods, moving to recyclable materials or moving away from plastic,” says Stemilt’s Shales. “There are tradeoffs with moving to recyclable materials because of visibility as well as limitations to what can be recycled in one country, state or city versus another. A balance must be found between all the options.”
Innovation is key in this arena. Watkin says Sev-Rend is investing in alternative engineered plastic materials that break down in a rapid period of time, along with other avenues, such as compostable materials. “New technology is constantly coming to the market, but we also need to be mindful that there are no other materials available to the market with the durability of resin-based products.”
Belmark’s Vande Loo reports the packaging industry is working closely with growers, packers and distributors to address the needs established by consumer perception, retailer objectives and legislation.
“However, in many cases, plastic is the most environmentally conscious choice because of its ability to mitigate food waste, ensure food safety and provide consumers with clear visibility,” he says. “The balance comes in the form of singular polymer plastics that can be more easily recycled, incorporating pulp and paperboard solutions in applications where they perform well and simply mitigating the amount of plastic used.”
Lawrence relates Proseal’s peel-reseal film allows for multiple uses, such as convenient opening and closing, and keeping the product fresh after each use. Plus, it can save as much as 40% in the reduction of plastic by eliminating the clamshell lid.
Warren Packaging in Ontario, CA, has switched the window material on its boxes from a plastic material to a cellulose material made from wood pulp that is biodegradable and compostable, but serves the same purpose. This is gradually being done for bags, as well, says Mike Dittenber, business development.
“It is more challenging for plastic clamshells, since they need a thicker and more rigid material. This is a big reason why we started focusing on offering an alternative with our paper clamshells made of paperboard.”
CAN WE CLOSE THE LOOP?
This past year, Volm Companies in Antigo WI, developed and added a new packaging option that uses fully recyclable MDO and HiC2 films to produce single film structure pouches, bags and rollstock, according to Marsha Pozza, director of marketing and communications. “We talk about scrutiny toward single-use packaging, but are we overlooking available options to recycle packaging and close the loop cleanly?”
Stemilt is working on a #4 LDPE plastic pouch bag with good produce visibility. “It would provide shoppers the ability to recycle at store drop-off locations and through the How2Recycle program,” says Shales.
Draeger’s moved to a fiber box with PLA lining for its store salad bars. “We did this due to environmental concerns as well as disposable waste ordinances in some of the counties we operate stores in,” says Wahhab.
In-house retail fresh-cut, however, is not experiencing much innovation. “Commonly, the product is retailed in the same standard plastic container,” says Vande Loo. “Some retailers are exploring moving to lidding film for plastic reduction and packaging efficiency, but the associated equipment is an extra cost and the consumer perceives a lidded container to be ‘not as fresh,’ instead associating it with institutionalized prepackaged offerings.”
USING RETRO MATERIALS
In the move forward, old-school materials are seeing a resurgence. “Many are turning to paper and fiber-based materials as a solution to the plastic problem,” says Vandenberg’s Paap.
“Corrugated has seemed to perform well in instances where it’s a tray format with a transparent seal top. We’ve seen some of this with berries. In other cases, we’ve seen corrugated trays used for apples with a paper sleeve.”
Warren’s Dittenber points out, whether bulk or packed produce, nearly everything arrives to the grocery store in a corrugated box. He also notes the rise of club stores has elevated the box as a display.
One trend in corrugated packaging over the last several years has been the shift from virgin board to recycled (ECT) board, Dittenber adds. “This ensures that not only is the box recyclable, but it is also made from mostly, if not 100%, recycled fibers.”
Stemilt launched EZ Band packages in the U.S. last fall. “This is a four-pack of apples in a tray/band package,” says Shales. “It’s made of paperboard and 100% recyclable. Though the package type is not new for produce (it is widely used in Europe), it is new for apples in our marketplace and is already proving to be a tool for the future to sell larger-sized apples, with automation.”
Dittenber notes one of Warren’s most well-known and growing product lines is its paper clamshell, which can be customized to nearly any size or fully branded with printed graphics. “We have also developed corrugated master shippers to go along with these as a set,” he adds.
“In April, you should be able to find our new Persian Cucumber punnet tray in Trader Joe’s for the first time. These are replacing the existing plastic clamshells currently found in the store.”
FITTING INTO AUTOMATION
A major packaging consideration for suppliers involves compatibility with automation. “Bedford made a breakthrough in produce automation last year when it introduced TagTies and Tag Tyer, a new identification solution and compatible machinery,” says Heidebrink. “The Tag Tyer machine can be customized to apply TagTies directly in the field or packing shed. TagTies are similar to Bedford’s one-piece Bib Ties.”
Lawrence explains Proseal’s machine flexibility allows for sealing whatever material the supplier/retailer prefers, all on the same machine with a simple tooling changeover. “One of our latest innovations includes toolsets that can seal both paper and plastic trays on one toolset,” she says. “This provides the supplier with the ability to seal both materials without having to purchase additional toolsets.”
Finding and retaining laborers to support a packing line continues to frustrate packers, so automation is necessary, states Volm’s Pozza.
She adds plastic mesh pillow-style packaging remains popular. “Traditional wicketed poly and wicket style all-mesh bags are still in high demand due to the automation solutions available in packing,” Pozza says. “These styles continue to provide the fastest, fully-automated solution out there in fresh/whole produce.”