( File photo by Ashley Nickle )

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The COVID-19 crisis has caused consumers to see plastic produce in a new way.

The Produce Marketing Association’s periodic survey of U.S. consumer sentiment reflected consumer concern over the safety/cleanliness of fresh produce and the substantial preference for packaged produce over bulk or loose produce.

In its fourth update on consumer sentiment, collected May 11-13, the PMA report surveyed 500 U.S. consumers.

In the survey, consumers were asked “Why would you say you are buying less fresh produce?”

May 11-13 selected responses, with comparisons with an earlier survey conducted March 27-31, were:

  • I am concerned about the safety/cleanliness for fresh produce now: 58%, down 3%;
  • I’d be more likely to buy produce now if it came in sealed containers or bags: 50%, down 3%.

Inexpensive prices for plastic packaging compared with some other options, said Jay Singh, director of the packaging program at Cal Poly University. 

“At the end of the day, most of the businesses operate on making profits,” he said. 

Cheaper virgin plastic packaging may make it difficult for compostable packaging to make inroads in the near future.

“The pandemic has brought forward the value of single use packaging,” said Kevin Kelly, CEO of Emerald Packing, Union City, Calif.

“If you look at produce sales over the (COVID-19) period, packaged produce sold best because people see it as safe,” he said. 

Consumers are looking at packaging as a sort of guarantee of safety, he said. 

“A lot of the retailers are now asking the growers to send in package produce and not unpackaged,” Kelly said.

Developments in the past three months have changed the conversation around single-use plastic.

Earlier in the year, the California Circular Economy and Pollution Reduction Act — Senate Bill 54 and companion legislation Assembly Bill 1080 — would have required massive investment in California’s recycling infrastructure and mandate changes to the way produce is packed.

The legislation now being considered for passage in California would by 2030 largely ban all single-use packaging that isn’t recycled. The distinction is “recycled,” not “recyclable,” Kelly said.

The bill would require regulations to “achieve and maintain,” by Jan. 1, 2030, a 75% reduction statewide of the waste generated from single-use packaging and priority single-use products offered for sale, sold, distributed, or imported in or into the state through source reduction, recycling, or composting.

The legislation was expected to have big implications for the produce industry, particularly for some types of salad bag packaging that cannot be easily recycled because it is created by combining polyethylene, polypropylene and adhesive.

Now, Kelly said the legislation remains under consideration by California lawmakers but there may be more discussion.

“The COVID-19 (crisis) has certainly made the case for a produce packaging exemption to Senate Bill 54,” he said.

To read more COVID-19 updates click here. 

Sustainability progress

Even so, Kelly said that technology continues to advance in search of ways to improve sustainability in packaging, including new ways to improve recycling technology for polypropylene.

Another barrier for California’s packaging legislation, Kelly said, is the fact it would require adding new staff to CalRecycle to create a devision to handle packaging recycling.

“There’s not going to be money there to hire (staff), and there may be not much appetite for additional regulation of business,” Kelly said.

A ballot initiative to regulate single-use plastic in the upcoming election was shelved.

While the authors of the ballot initiative said they couldn’t gather signatures during the pandemic, Kelly speculated the public may be increasingly aware of the benefits of packaging in relation to food safety and preservation.

While many packaging materials can be recycled, most packaging ends up in a landfill.

“One of the reasons almost everything is going into landfills right now is because there’s no end market for waste material, especially when you can buy virgin low density resin at almost at historic lows,” he said. 

“Recycled resins are almost six times more expensive (than virgin resin),” he said.

With limited domestic demand for recyclable plastic, Kelly believes the government should be getting involved in creating a market for recycled material.

Looking ahead

Looking ahead, Kelly said consumers and the market place will still want recyclability.

“I think there’ll be an appreciation for the uses of single use plastic. and so outright bans are much less likely,” he said.

“Again, I think the push towards recyclability is going to persist, and it should; we can’t keep throwing stuff in landfills, or having it end up in oceans,” he said. 

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