Sustainability Takes Center Stage in Packaging

Customers need more consistent guidance on the role packaging plays in produce.

Originally printed in the October 2023 issue of Produce Business.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, which drove trends in produce packaging design with hygiene and consumer safety in mind, sustainability is again taking center stage in discussions.

One looming reality is more regulations will significantly impact the produce packaging marketplace, as California and the European Union impose new rules on food packaging. At the same time, demand for food packaging is growing, both to address convenience purchasing and remaining food safety concerns.

Golden State Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a new packaging law, June 30, 2022, requiring by 2032, 100% of packaging in the state be recyclable or compostable, 25% of plastic packaging be cut, and 65% of all single-use plastic packaging be recycled, according to the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery.


Steve Greenfield, director of sales and marketing at NNZ Packaging, Lawrenceville, GA, says gains in food packaging use and evolution have been strongly influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, in part so they could get through stores quickly.

Lately, however, bulk has made something of a comeback. At a time when food costs are a consideration, not everyone will pay for the convenience packaged produce, and retailers are seeing consumers are purchasing more in bulk, although they aren’t rushing away from packaged fruits and vegetables.

“The pre-pack stuff we saw dropped off a little bit,” says Philip Penta, managing partner at 3 Guys from Brooklyn, Brooklyn, NY. “I think because the cost of labor has gone up so much and packaging, etc., that the price point becomes too much even for people who want to pay for convenience.”

Rachel Kenyon, senior vice president, Fibre Box Association, Itasca, IL, agrees. “Produce packaging use increased in the pandemic due to illness concerns and the desire to get in and out of stores fast,” she says. “Since then, people I’ve spoken to have said that grocers have been leaning a bit back toward bulk, in part due to demand and in part to address environmental concerns some customers have raised.”

Greenfield expected packaged produce to hold its pandemic gains, but now says environmental concerns seem to be on consumers’ minds.

“Over the next few years, I do see a trend back to more sustainable packaging, but that all depends on inflationary developments,” says Greenfield. “Sustainable packaging has always been more expensive, but the growers/packers have been the ones having to bear the burden of the extra cost. Unless a retailer demands the product to be packed in a more sustainable package, the grower/packer has no financial incentive to do so.”

On the flip side of the food packaging equation, practicality remains a key consideration. “Packaging is a necessity in some situations to ensure freshness and cleanliness,” says Kenyon.


Jeff Watkin, director of marketing at Sev-Rend High-Performance Packaging, Collinsville, IL, says the shift to more sustainable packaging options is an ongoing process. Still, the prime consideration is the product that goes into the packaging and how the packaging contributes to consumer satisfaction.

“Single-use packaging has, and always will be, a necessity in order to have less food waste,” says Greenfield. “If anyone thinks we can do away with packaging for produce, they need to educate themselves.”

Packaging is necessary for many kinds of produce, he emphasizes, “so, the question becomes, what is the best packaging that extends shelf life, while at the same time is good, or less harmful, to the environment?”

Recycling plastic is still a good option if, and only if, there is a reclamation process that works, he adds.
“Sadly, in the U.S., since proper recycling is left to the local municipalities, there is no standard in place. Europe has a much better system and does a much better job. They have gone to single forms of plastic substrates to make recycling easier,” says Greenfield.

Eva Almenar, associate professor at the Michigan State University School of Packaging, East Lansing, MI, says the dearth of plastic recycling is troubling for a few reasons. One of the most problematic is consumers are demanding recycling, but the truth is most plastic still gets landfilled anyway.

“We’re doing work on innovations, but how that’s going to be accepted seems to depend on the day,” she says. “Consumers ask for things, but they’re not very well educated and don’t know things about packaging and its role. When it comes to food waste, they have no clue.”

Greenfield agrees. “If the average consumer knew the amount of food that was being thrown out due to spoilage every year by retailers, they would be up in arms. I think many would be asking the question, ‘How do we stop this?’ But when the answer comes back: ‘More packaging and, yes, maybe even more plastic packaging,’ they have a dilemma.”

“If we want consumers to change their behavior, we need to first educate them, then offer them viable options,” says Kenyon.


The balance of need and sustainability plays out constantly. Mesh bags for many commodities may be seen in a better light than plastic clamshells, given they use less material per inch of coverage than, say, a clamshell. Greenfield points out they are usually recyclable, which consumers find attractive. Paperboard has advantages, like the ability to recycle and for marketing purchases.

Produce packaging use increased in the pandemic due to illness concerns and the desire to get in and out of stores fast, says Rachel Kenyon, with the Fibre Box Association, Itasca, IL. But grocers are leaning a bit back toward bulk, she adds, in part due to demand and in part to address consumers’ environmental concerns.

“Consumers are much more cognizant today of the impact that packaging has on the environment and marine life, particularly when it comes to plastics,” says Kenyon. “They are learning that plastic recycling is not a realistic solution and are concerned enough to be weighing this factor into their purchase decisions. We believe this naturally leads consumers to favor paper-based packaging they know is made from renewable, recyclable materials.”

Sev-Rend has developed Bio-Able Solutions to address plastic and food packaging sustainability. Watkin says Bio-Able Solution products are recyclable and formulated to fully degrade in both marine and terrestrial environments, leaving behind no micro-plastic waste.


In many cases, says Greenfield, practicality supports the ongoing use of packaging within the produce product mix.

“Unless a particular fruit or vegetable has its own package — think banana, apple, orange — it’s always a good idea to have it packaged for convenience. Obviously, smaller items like grapes, blueberries or strawberries, require packaging for grab-and-go,” he explains. “On the other end of the spectrum, larger bagged product is usually more convenient for bigger families,” says Greenfield.

Increased food delivery brings the sustainability issue into consumer households in the literal sense. “As products are delivered directly into consumers’ homes, packaging becomes the consumers’ problem,” says Kenyon. “This is affecting their awareness of packaging waste and the importance of their consumption habits, but also a greater interest in the recyclability of the package.”

However, packaging also can address consumer concerns. “QR codes can offer huge opportunities for providing product transparency, as they can be encoded with robust product information and promotion, all accessible with a smartphone scan,” says Kenyon.

Greenfield says consumers can make their own choices, but they need more consistent guidance. And regulation isn’t always a bad thing, if approached reasonably.

“The biggest issue I see with regulation is that it is not uniform,” says Greenfield. “I completely realize and agree that any food product needs to have some form of traceability and cleanliness of the packing facility needs to be maintained. But what I see in the industry is that an auditor from one company may not be as strict as an auditor from another company, or even within the same company or possibly different areas of the country.”

Greenfield says audits are not required for some of the imported products from other countries. “So, you are putting an undue disadvantage on the U.S. growers and packers to maintain these levels of accountability, which is a good thing, but their imported competition is not required to do this to the same level.”