The widespread use of single-use plastic packaging for fruits and vegetables is in stark contrast to the agricultural industry's focus on sustainable growing practices. While consumers increasingly seek out locally and organically grown crops, more and more of them are sold pre-packaged.
Nature Fresh Farms Hiiros Tomatoes
Retailers are a key driver behind this trend. They prefer fruits and vegetables to be packaged for several claimed reasons:
Protection: Packaging helps to protect the produce from damage during transportation and handling, ensuring that it reaches customers in good condition.
Extended shelf life: Packaging supposedly extends the shelf life of fresh produce by maintaining the right temperature and humidity levels. This should reduce waste and allows retailers to keep the produce for longer, reducing the frequency of restocking.
Convenience: Packaged produce is often pre-washed, pre-cut or pre-peeled, making it more convenient for customers to use.
Branding: Packaging can also serve as an opportunity for retailers to promote their brand and provide product information such as nutritional information and cooking instructions.
Increased sales: Packaging can make produce stand out on shelves and attract more customers, leading to increased sales.
Overall, the packaging is meant to benefit both retailers and customers, although there is growing awareness of the environmental impact of plastic packaging and doubt about some of these claims.
Research conducted by UK waste reduction nonprofit, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) found that plastic packaging and use-by dates on whole, fresh fruits and vegetables increase food waste.
The group’s 18-month study investigated sales of apples, bananas, potatoes, broccoli and cucumber both with plastic packaging, including “Best before” dates, and loose without the dates. They found that along with the added pollution from single-use plastic packaging, the sale of fresh produce wrapped in plastic and including a “Best before” date increased food loss.
In its study, WRAP notes that in the UK alone, nearly $3 billion worth of produce is thrown away annually because it has either gone moldy or its date label has expired. The group noted that the plastic wrapping on produce in-store made “little or no difference” in shelf life but did force consumers to often purchase more of a product than they needed, leading to waste. Additionally, a “Best before” date often leads to the disposal of produce before it is necessary; according to WRAP, 1 in 10 people throw food away if it has passed its label date, even if their judgment says the food is still good. The group found that eliminating plastic packaging from produce would save more than 10,000 tons of plastic and more than 100,000 tons of food annually.
For apples, potatoes and bananas, enabling people to buy the right amount is the most impactful way in which selling loose will help to reduce food waste, the report reads. While most supermarkets sell some of these items loose already, the research shows a compelling case that this should be significantly increased across these three products, but a wider range of fresh fruit and vegetables.
In France, the government passed an anti-waste law that banned fruit and vegetables from being sold in plastic packaging from January 1st, 2022.
The anti-waste law was voted into effect in early 2020, with the first stages banning the sale of disposable tableware, plastic straws, and polystyrene boxes. The current law targets fruit and vegetable packaging and bans any plastic packaging for fruits & vegetables weighing less than 1.5kg.
The French Government says the law will eliminate a billion single-use plastic items every year. Currently, it estimates that 37% of fresh fruits and vegetables are packaged in plastic.
Paper-based tomato packaging
In the absence of laws banning packaging, growers, buyers, and retailers there are several alternative packaging methods for fruits and vegetables, including:
Compostable or biodegradable packaging materials: These include materials such as paper, cellulose, and biodegradable plastics.
Reusable containers: Customers can bring their own containers to the store or purchase reusable containers made of glass, metal, or cloth.
Paper or cloth bags: These can be used as an alternative to plastic bags when buying produce.
Loose or bulk display: Some stores offer fruits and vegetables for sale in bulk, allowing customers to take as much or as little as they need, reducing the amount of packaging used.
Returnable and reusable crates: Some farms and stores use returnable and reusable crates for transporting and displaying produce, reducing the need for single-use packaging.
Reduced packaging: Stores can also use minimal packaging, such as simple paper or biodegradable wrapping, to reduce the amount of waste generated.
Packaging is currently seen as a way to add value to a product that may otherwise be perceived as a commodity.
Innovative solutions are needed that allow growers to promote the benefits of their produce without creating more plastic waste.