Buying about $200 million in packaging materials annually, Watsonville, Calif.-based Driscoll’s is actively pursuing options to introduce more environmentally friendly packaging options for its berries, one top executive says.
Sandor Nagy, group vice president of supply chain at Driscoll’s, said his job oversees everything related to the company’s post-harvest operations.
That includes logistics, transportation, quality assurance, material sourcing and all of the related planning functions for both the near term and the long term, he said.
Nagy said that the great majority of packaging purchases for the company relate to clamshells for consumer packs and also corrugated material for the tray packs that carry those clamshells to market.
Goals and ambitions
The company is pursuing a number of initiatives — both near-term and more long-term “moon shot” goals — to reduce plastic use and enhance recyclability of PET plastic used for clamshells, in addition to initiatives to make corrugated materials more weight efficient.
One of the near-term initiatives, he said, is active work on a top-sealed clamshell container for berries.
“If you eliminate the top of a clamshell, you reduce 25% to 30% of the volume of plastic material,” he said.
In addition, he said the company also is looking at labels that more easily separate from the clamshell container.
“If the label can’t be separated from the plastic clamshell, then it pollutes the recycling (stream) and really drastically limits the recycling (of) the clamshell,” he said. Driscoll’s is in the process of partnering with a company to develop an adhesive that can easily be washed off.
Increasing post-consumer content in clamshells is another goal, he said.
In addition, Driscoll’s is working with another large company on a place to give consumers incentives to return clamshells for recycling.
Longer term, Driscoll’s is working with supplier partners on molded corrugated and paper-based bioplastics that are compostable and biodegradable.
“None of these are a slam dunk,” he said, noting challenges of delivering the best quality berries with a high degree of visibility to consumers.
For all of the produce industry, there are no simple solutions, he said.
“It’s a complex kind of multi-variable challenge that we are driving towards solutions on,” he said. “There is no silver bullet here, and it’s going to be a combination of things that really moves us to a much more sustainable national system,” he said.
Listening to feedback
Consumers do engage with Driscoll’s about packaging, including comments about the use of plastics in packaging.
“I don’t have the precise number of Instagram posts and number of Twitter comments and those e-mails — we’re not getting deluged or flooded with inquiries from consumers, but you can definitely see an uptick in the conversation (about packaging),” he said.
The company tries to respond to each comment.
Driscoll’s has regional teams that determine the packaging solutions for each market, and those solutions weigh quality, costs and functionality and delivery to consumers.
“The European retailers are quite different than U.S. retailers and in some ways, you might argue the European retailers are further ahead on this effort around sustainable packaging and different types of packaging forms,” he said.
The differing perspectives between the U.S. and Europe offer the opportunity for internal “cross pollination” of ideas.
European markets also tend to be directed more by legislation relating to packaging or plastics, such as the regulation that only paper straws can be used in foodservice.
“So you go to a McDonald’s in Berlin or Paris, you’re going to get a paper straw,” he said.
In the U.S., there is some regulation, but most of the change is driven by industry demands, he said.
Consumers of organic berries in the U.S. aren’t necessarily more sensitive to plastic packaging than conventional berry consumers.
“We don’t see any evidence of that,” he said.
However, he said the percentage of consumers who buy only organic is quite low — perhaps in the single digits among all consumers.
Nagy said some retail customers are more receptive to innovating and trying new packaging than others.
Looking ahead, Nagy believes the focus on sustainability, recyclability and reducing plastic use are trends that will only increase.
Solutions will have to answer to economics, logistics and market acceptance questions.
“I do have the opportunity on a regular basis to interact with retailers, either visiting with retailers or meeting with their management teams, and it is very, very rare for (environmentally friendly packaging) not to come up,” he said.
“This is ... a marathon, not a sprint, and Driscoll’s wants to be a productive player in the circular economy,” he said.
“This is an industry-wide challenge and we have to look at solutions wherever they come from.”