Manufacturers make packaging more environmentally friendly, but its role in preventing food waste remains important.
Originally printed in the October 2022 issue of Produce Business.
Times are changing for consumer packaging in the produce industry. But even though plastic packaging is under closer scrutiny, that doesn’t mean that it is on the way out.
Grand View research recently forecasted the global food packaging market will reach $562.3 billion by 2030, expanding at a compound annual growth rate of 5.5%. The market research firm expects food delivery services globally as well as demand for single-serve and portable food packs to propel the industry growth through the decade.
Expectations for the paper and paper-based material segment are high, gaining at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.4% due to the increasing demand for biodegradable and more sustainable packaging solutions. Grand View expects certain flexible packaging products to grow quickly, as they occupy less space during transportation, consume less plastic material and present a better sustainability profile versus their rigid counterparts.
More narrowly, the market for plastic clamshell packaging also will grow, despite the crosshairs trained on that particular container.
Dr. Eva Almenar, an associate professor at the Michigan State University School of Packaging, says regulation is the major consideration behind packaging change in the United States and Europe, where rules are even more advanced.
The changing environment is forcing the consumer packaging industry into making single-use containers recyclable, reusable or compostable, which is driving change in materials to meet those criteria, Almenar says. The U.S. Plastic Pact calls for packaging to be one of the three by 2025.
The Recycling Partnership and the World Wildlife Fund launched the pact as part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s global Plastics Pact network. Among businesses, retailers initially signed on including Aldi, Target and Walmart. The Food Marketing Institute also was an original participant.
CAN’T IGNORE FUNCTION
Yet, at the same time, the systems in recycling, composting and other packaging disposal are insufficient to handle the degree of waste, Almenar says, which contributes to low recycling waste rates. She says the overall capabilities to deal with waste have to become more robust before they are truly effective.
“For fruits and vegetables, and food products, we need to keep in mind that a package extends food shelf life,” she says. “Energy, all the damage we can cause to the environment, is lost if food is thrown away.”
Jeff Watkin, director of marketing at Sev-Rend High-Performance Packaging, Collinsville, IL, concurs change is in the air.
“We are seeing a large evolution in the single-use packaging world with a big shift to more sustainable packaging options,” he says. “The retailer demand for these options is really steering the industry right now. With the packaging options we sell into the market, we are advising our clients into such options as recyclable that is more widely accepted right now, but there are also other options we both have available and are trialing that will meet further needs in this topic.”
Still, packaging has to have practical purposes, Watkin says.
“I would say the form of packaging is driven by its practicality with the commodity going in it,” he says. “We see the film/mesh or tag/mesh option popular with the onion and potato market, but you would not see an item such as cherries using this packaging.”
Rachel Kenyon, senior vice president of the Fibre Box Association, Itasca, IL, says single-use packaging in produce is evolving to meet consumers’ needs. “Produce is an area where the health aspects of the product also have to align with the environmental values of consumers, and the way to demonstrate that alignment is through packaging.”
Practicality is an important element in continuing consumer acceptance.
“I think consumers are most accepting of packaging when it’s the right fit for the product,” Kenyon says. “It’s when items are over-packaged or when the packaging doesn’t match the product that acceptance slides. If packers/distributors and retailers are willing to share their packaging story, consumers will be more accepting.”
Already, products are emerging with their own sustainability story.
This summer, Boskovich Fresh Food Group, Oxnard, CA, debuted a new line of organic, value-added salads in fully compostable packaging, says Deep Silver, the company’s senior marketing director.
“We take pride in nurturing the earth with the food we grow,” Silver says. “It is only logical that our sustainability principles and our capacity to continue giving back to the planet will advance as we increase the variety of value-added produce we provide.”
The company’s Fair Earth Farms products come in plant-based, fully compostable packaging, which is printed with water-based inks and will break down after being disposed of in home compost, commercial compost, or even the trash. The packaging is conspicuous in its compostable messaging, so shoppers can feel better about purchasing, Silver says.
“We spent over two years of rigorous testing to get the film to work with our various produce items, as they all respire at a different rate,” she says, adding the company has a patent pending on the film technology. Fair Earth Farms compostable packaging is also BPI certified, “which ensures the composability of the packaging has been properly tested and that consumers can dispose of the packaging in their compost bin without worry.”
Packaging can serve a general purpose or an immediate one. Steve Greenfield, director of sales and marketing, NNZ Inc., Lawrenceville, GA, offers a case of immediate purpose with Amazables! microwaveable potatoes.
NNZ explored how to use heating films in packaging that could produce a better microwaveable potato. After some experimentation, they discovered the surrounding material and packaging configuration that would heat a potato in a way that produces results closer to oven-baked. Then, a factor they deemed to be a problem, as the material shrunk in heating turned out to be an asset, as it improved the result. Now, with Amazables!, consumers can prepare a potato in seven or eight minutes rather than having to wait 45 minutes for their spud to reach prime form in the conventional way, Greenfield says.
The film and its application took time to get right, but the result has been solid and Amazables! is in test run now at a major retailer.
“You put it into the microwave, and it does shrink around the potato and the skin around the potato is crisp, and inside is a fluffy baked potato,” he says.
Fresh Solution Network is partnering with NNZ on the product.
Kathleen Triou, president and chief executive, Fresh Solutions Network, Newport Beach, CA, says Amazables! is positioned as a premium convenience potato. “Premium because it truly creates an oven-crisp/dry potato skin with a fluffy interior. Convenience because it is ready to eat in seven minutes from your microwave. The fact that it is nutritious is the same messaging as other fresh potato nutrition messaging. The premium convenience nature of this product is what differentiates it from other ‘cook in the microwave’ items on the market.”
The Amazables! potato is best merchandised “in the convenience section of the fresh potato table in the produce department,” she adds, although it can also be merchandised in deli, on salad bars as a ‘take home and cook,’ and in the meat department. “The possibilities are many.”
Fox Packaging, McAllen, TX, has lately emphasized its turn in onion packaging: the Fox Fresh Mesh Bag, the Fox Fresh Mesh Wicketed Bag and the Fox Leno Bag. The products use a one-dimensional mesh to avoid produce damage and effective breathability to extend shelf life, according to the company, and they can be misted or iced without compromising the material, which comes in more than 10 color options.
Victoria Lopez, marketing and brand manager, Fox Packaging and Fox Solutions, says other attributes enhance the material, such as with the wicketed bag with its automation-compatible design. A belly band design used by Fox encourages air circulation while providing a messaging platform, and Lopez encourages companies to consider the belly band or any other surface that’s printable as important selling real estate, whether it is to convey nutritional content, preparation methods, mission statement or whatever is key to engaging the consumer.
Of course, Fox does packaging for multiple commodities, even beyond produce.
As part of its ongoing sustainability efforts, Fox joined the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and is an approved printer of the How to Recycle label. Also, the company has been working with its film suppliers and engineering department to down-gauge, reduce and lighten material to reduce the overall weight of materials so it will require less energy to transport. Lopez says Fox works to maximize the effectiveness of its designs to support product integrity with less environmental impact.
“One of the biggest parts of packaging is understanding the behaviors of the commodity,” Lopez says.
“Both packers/distributors and retailers are more willing to explore changes in packaging as a way of demonstrating to consumers that they are listening to their concerns and needs,” says Kenyon, of the Fibre Box Association. “Consumers like to buy things, particularly food items, that reflect their values and lifestyle approach and concerns about the environment extend to what they eat. Packaging is an easy way for packers/distributors and retailers to say, ‘we hear you, and are willing to make changes.’”
In the end, Watkin says, regulation is going to set the parameters of how the consumer packaging sector evolves, but he adds the industry needs to get involved in rules development.
“I believe this could be beneficial for the brand owner and consumer, if we play our cards right and are realistic about making a permanent shift to more sustainable packaging options,” he says.
“The real solution right now is twofold. One, we need to develop our recycling infrastructure so it is more widely available to the consumer, along with being dynamic to handle more single-use plastic items. Two, we also need to drive incentive for the brand owners to invest into more sustainable packaging options that truly work. Right now, we see options that are three to five times more expensive for the brand owners, and that is a huge turnoff for many to fully commit. If we see incentives from the government side, this may be what gets brand owners to commit to more sustainable packaging options for the fresh produce industry.”
Any moves by government should consider the supply chain and policies associated with extended producer responsibility, in a way that carefully weighs benefits and liabilities.
“Government is asking the right questions and exploring opportunities for changes in packaging, but before setting regulations, it should involve the full supply chain to understand both the consequences and unintended consequences of any regulation,” Kenyon says.
One of the problems, she adds, is the U.S. has a fragmented recovery system — each state, and individual communities within states, have their own practices when it comes to packaging’s end of life. “While trying to improve these systems, several states have enacted Extended Producer Responsibility and others are considering it, but without a national approach, we will continue to have a fragmented system that will treat each form of packaging differently and could leave consumers confused.”
On the other side of the coin, Lopez says the advantages packaging provides are vital. The market has welcomed packaging in produce, with the COVID-19 pandemic making it more attractive. Now, developments in the retail industry, including grocery pickup and delivery, are influencing how consumers select what they purchase. Produce goes into packaging, for the most part, graded and consistent, so shoppers know what they are getting, even if they didn’t pick every onion or apple or orange themselves. Further, Lopez points out that packaging supports branding and branding translates into trust.
“Packaging helps fulfill consumer expectations, especially in e-commerce,” Lopez says.
Kenyon says she’s not sure demand for packaging will grow due to grocery and restaurant pickup and delivery, but they will have an effect.
“I think what you’ll see is more of an evolution of packaging, where some forms of packaging will remain, others will be eliminated, and new innovations will take the place of many others,” she says. “It’s an exciting time to be exploring different options for connecting consumers to products.”
As events proceed, Almenar says, progress is not going to come from any single initiative, but from government, industry and consumers interacting and influencing the market. The best way forward, she adds, is to promote the benefits of packaging in extending shelf life and cutting food waste while improving environmental impacts both through the development of more sustainable material and better systems.
At the same time, education has to proceed so that everyone involved, including the consumer, understands what packaging can do and how it should be handled.
“All of us need to work together,” she says.