Walking the Packaging Tightrope

In fall 2022, Stemilt launched the EZ Band, the first 100% recyclable four-pack package for apples in North America, to provide retailers with solutions for moving larger-size fruit in a scannable unit and help continue deliver convenience and sustainability.

Produce packaging must weigh a precarious combination of factors, such as protecting product, extending shelf life, adding convenience and allowing for visual appearance — all at affordable cost.

Originally printed in the August 2023 issue of Produce Business.

Consumer demand for reasonably priced, sustainable and convenient packaging presents a continued balancing act for produce companies.

“While consumers crave convenience, I believe they also want to reduce packaging waste,” says John Paap, brand marketing and sustainability manager at Jac. Vandenberg in Tarrytown, NY. “Consumers will pay more when they deem the packaging adds value — whether it be value in shelf life, meeting environmental values or convenience.”

Packaging in produce will continue to grow due to the convenience factor for retailers and consumers, asserts Brianna Shales, marketing director at Stemilt in Wenatchee, WA.

“It also helps with our brand real estate and ability to market new apples,” she says. “Currently, packaging focuses on small-medium sized fruit, so it will be important to find solutions for larger sized fruit in the future.”

Amanda Brigham, marketing communications director at Belmark in De Pere, WI, estimates approximately 70% of the produce department has some type of packaging. “People want convenience and shelf quality,” she says. “The other day I was at the store and could have purchased nectarines in bulk for $2.99 per pound or I was able to pick up a 2-pound bag of ready-to-go nectarines for $2.99 total. I skipped the bulk and grabbed the bag of ready-to-go — convenient, ripe and easy.”


Like a high wire act, produce companies and packaging suppliers must provide visual, as well as functional, attributes.

“It’s get onboard or get run over,” says Teri Gibson, director, marketing and customer relations for Peri & Sons Farms in Yerington, NV. “All of us in the produce industry are climbing aboard as fast as we can, but the onboarding process is riddled with challenges.”

“It’s get onboard or get run over. All of us in the produce industry are climbing aboard as fast as we can, but the onboarding process is riddled with challenges.”

— Teri Gibson, Peri & Sons Farms, Yerington, NV

While many packaging options abound, the trick is to find and adopt solutions addressing produce’s unique needs. “Our packaging team is diligently exploring and testing new sustainable packaging options,” says Gibson. “Any new options must work with packaging equipment we’re already invested in, keep product fresh, be strong enough, provide food safety, be visually appealing, be either plastic free, single-stream recyclable, biodegradable and/or compostable and be affordable.”

Draeger’s Market in Los Altos, CA, with four locations, uses sustainable packaging on the salad bars. “We use a fiber box with PLA lining,” says Karim Wahhab, produce manager. “This helps us balance convenience and environmental issues.”

The current challenge, explains Paap, of Jac. Vandenberg, is there are just so many solutions and options in the marketplace today.

“Some of these are really fascinating and others less so,” he says. “We as an industry need to educate ourselves, particularly those making packaging decisions. The more knowledge, understanding and confidence we have in making the right decisions, the faster we will get toward more meaningful and affordable options.”

Produce companies should look at all their options, suggests Shales, of Stemilt. “The big question is how do you choose different alternatives and how do you increase the recyclability of your plastic,” she says. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. We must continue staying on top of new solutions, but be careful about messaging the sustainability aspects of the packaging with full transparency to consumers.”

Using recycled materials can be a viable option for some. “All the products we manufacture are made from recycled PET,” says Kurt Zuhlke, president and chief executive at Kurt Zuhlke & Associates in Bangor, PA. “We ran our first pint for cherry tomatoes in 1994 and it was a hit. Using recycled materials is feasible, and it’s being done. It’s about getting the resource back to convert it into something else.”

Compostable and biodegradable offers another alternative. Peri & Sons has seen success with an all-paper, eco-friendly package solution called Earthpak by Sev-Rend. “It’s 100% plastic-free, biodegradable/compostable,” says Gibson. “We have also been able to produce biodegradable clamshells with Warren Packaging for our organic shallots and cipollinis.”

Companies can also explore process improvements, such as what Peri & Sons has done, to reduce the amount of material being used. “These include eliminating fingerholds along the edge of a consumer onion package,” says Gibson. “Every minute we produce these packages, we’re saving 36 square feet of material. That’s over 33,000 square feet per day of waste — a little change making a big difference.”


Packaging innovation is moving to address multiple concerns. “A grower may offer a prepped and packaged option for the consumer that values convenience over sustainability,” says Belinda Heidebrink, product marketing lead at Bedford Industries in Worthington, MN. “But, they could also offer a fresh-cut option using minimalistic packaging such as a produce tie, BibTie or ElastiTag for the consumer for whom sustainability holds most value.”

A grower could also offer a fresh-cut option using minimalistic packaging such as a produce tie, BibTie or ElastiTag for the consumer.

The advent of top sealing created various advantages. “Switching from clamshell and clip-on lids to top seal can save up to 10 tons of plastic for every 1 million trays sealed,” says Kaitlin Wyatt, marketing and communications manager at Proseal America in Richmond, VA. “There are other CO2 reducing benefits, and using printed film can enable online date coding. Top sealed PET makes the tray 100% recyclable, plus the rigidity protects the product during transportation, the product is visible to customers, it is tamper evident, and remains an economical choice.”

Replacing the top portion of a clam shell with lidding stock reduces the plastic by 30% and improves shelf quality, says Belmark’s Brigham. “The packaging provides protection and allows brands to share the benefits on the billboard space provided in the packaging platform.”

Tray-sealed packages are hugely beneficial in the growing curbside pick-up for groceries. “When produce is tray sealed, the product is completely protected and cannot be damaged or leak,” says Wyatt. “Packages are able to make the entire journey of the supply chain to the customer in the freshest state possible.”


The move to eco-friendly packaging has been a long-term culture shift across various industries, particularly food and beverage, explains Brigham. “A survey conducted by McKinsey & Company found U.S. consumers are more aware and concerned about the environmental impact of packaging in the products they purchase,” she says. “In fact, 60 to 70% of those surveyed said they are willing to pay for greener options and are searching for partners who offer more recycled, recyclable and fiber options available to them.”

Shoppers already demonstrate a willingness to pay more for packaged produce, adds Zuhlke. “Consumers want ease of purchase, and packaging gives them this,” he says. “It’s also easy to scan at checkout.”

While all customers watch prices, explains Draeger’s Wahhab, his store has found the value offered by packaging some items is important to shoppers as well. “Other factors such as convenience and sanitation outweigh the cost consideration,” he says.

Suppliers and retailers can help consumers understand the cost-benefit equation. “If the packaging lends itself to a higher cost, it’s important to share the story on or near the product to convey why it comes at a higher price,” says Bedford’s Heidebrink. “We hope to see the cost gap shrink through technological advancements and consumers continuing to value more sustainable solutions.”

Proseal’s Wyatt says they have noticed consumers will favor a product they perceive is packaged in a more sustainable manner. “For example, if we have one pint of blueberries in plastic and another in fiber board, shoppers will typically go for the fiber because it is ‘greener,’” she says.


The industry has been walking the innovation line. Jac. Vandenberg has invested in partnering and collaborating with leading minds and organizations to develop solutions, such as its home-compostable grape bags.

“Since grapes are virtually all packaged, we’ve been very concerned with packaging waste,” says Paap. “While plastic grape bags are technically recyclable (No. 5), many materials recovery facilities (MRFs) are unable to accept this packaging and therefore it goes to landfill. To ensure recyclability, we need to develop mono-material recyclable plastics that can be accepted by any and all MRFs. We can also look to alternative, bio-based solutions that can be home-composted, which, in the end, provides full circularity.”

Jac. Vandenberg’s cellulose netting for citrus (also adaptable to other products such as potatoes or avocados) is an example of balancing convenience, sustainability and cost.

There’s also been a move toward increasing recyclability of pouch bags, especially prevalent for apples, to offer sustainability and keep costs affordable, explains Stemilt’s Shales.

“On the cherry side, top seal packaging has been positive for reducing plastic compared to clamshells, while still delivering on convenience,” she adds.

Stemilt launched the first 100% recyclable four-pack package for apples in North America last fall, called EZ Band, to provide retailers with solutions for moving larger size fruit in a scannable unit and help continue deliver convenience and sustainability.

“The EZ Band has potential for packaging automation, which would drive costs out of sustainable packaging.”

Heidebrink explains produce packaging/identification products such as Bib Ties, Produce Ties, ElastiTag and PushTag are great options with regard to convenience, sustainability and cost. “One of the newer products to join Bedford’s produce packaging line is CloseIt Bio-Clip, a commercially compostable bag closure commonly used on items like bagged potatoes or carrots that is comprised of 100% USDA certified biobased content,” she says.

Bedford’s TagBack program provides a unique opportunity for growers, retailers and consumers to partner in a solution. “Growers print the logo and return instructions directly on packaging,” says Heidebrink. “Shoppers can drop the ties/tags into drop box locations or mail directly to Bedford to give the packaging another life.”

Jac. Vandenberg’s cellulose netting for citrus (also adaptable to other products such as potatoes or avocados) is an example of balancing convenience, sustainability and cost. “The tree fiber netting is made 100% from beechwood, recovered from the thinning of FSC or PEFC-certified forests,” says Paap.

“The netting is produced with a reduced carbon footprint and can be returned to the earth at the end of its life in the form of nutrient rich dirt.”

Paap says the cost for this pack is the same as the cost for the traditional plastic mesh netting and film wrap. The netting can be run on existing bagging machines with minimal calibration needed and runs at the same speeds as the traditional bags.

To meet shoppers’ sustainability expectations, Belmark has developed several solutions, such as eco-friendly pressure sensitive labels, flexible packaging, and folding cartons with options for responsibly sourced materials and post-consumer recycled (PCR) content, says Brigham.

“Belmark offers 75% PCR in its open top trays, which, at a million units per year, can prevent 60,000 pounds of virgin plastic from being used — about 2.8 million water bottles worth of plastic. In addition, our eco-READY solution offers recyclable packaging options,” Brigham says. “Choosing a sustainable packaging solution such as Sealutions can reduce a company’s plastic footprint by about 35% just by switching from a clamshell to an open top tray with lidding film.”


Stores can also be proactive in this arena. “Retailers must understand what it means to be recyclable, compostable, etc., and grasp the challenges of different packaging formats throughout the supply chain,” says Paap. “Once they have a strong understanding of these concepts and terms, then they can more confidently support the right innovations. Retailers can also leverage the knowledge of their suppliers and collaborate on initiatives to merchandise the product and help the shopper better understand the value of these innovations.”

Draeger’s shares information with suppliers about what packaging works well and what doesn’t. “We communicate with the person we give our orders to,” says Wahhab. “And, our corporate level staff attend packaging meetings to provide feedback.”

Shopper education plays an important role. “Putting a package out without helping it will be a threat to its success,” says Stemilt’s Shales. “With a new idea, you have to craft a merchandising and promotion strategy around it to make it more attractive to the consumer and that has to be with displays, promotions, attractive pricing and good placement. Retailers need to plan with their supplier to help sustainable packaging make an impact.”

Other opportunities include using end cards or signage to highlight what makes the package more sustainable, suggests Heidebrink. “Stores can also add a free TagBack drop box to the store so shoppers can easily return Bedford’s ties and tags, which, once returned, get upcycled,” she says.

Retailers can also educate shoppers on the recycling process. “Show what happens to the product containers after they’ve been used and go through the recycling process,” says Zuhlke. “Help consumers understand what can be done with the packaging and understand the importance of putting it in the recycling process.”