“The Plight of Plastics” at a Feb. 28 SEPC University session at Southern Exposure 2020 drew a standing room only crowd. ( Tom Karst )

View photos from 2020 SEPC's Southern Exposure here.

TAMPA, Fla. — Keep the customer in tight focus and work with other produce suppliers to reduce plastic and increase the recycling of packaging. 

Those were two key takeaways in 75 minutes of discussion in a session called “The Plight of Plastics” at a Feb. 28 Southeast Produce Council University session at Southern Exposure 2020.

Anabella de Freeman, Walmart’s senior manager of sustainable produce was the panel moderator, and said packaged produce now accounts for 53% of produce department sales. What’s more, she noted surveys have shown that many millennial consumers prefer packed produce because of its convenience.

The counterpoint to that, de Freeman said, is that containers and packaging make up about 30% of total municipal solid waste. 

While plastic packaging only has a useful life of months, it can persist in the environment for hundreds of years.

Adhesive paper labels can make clamshells impossible to recycle and very few collection points also make it difficult to recycle plastic packaging, she said.

“Importantly, the customers sometimes don’t know what or how to recycle,” she said. “So even if you as growers and retailers are trying to do as much as possible — if the customer doesn’t know what to do what the package after they use it, then part of the equation is not working,” she said.

De Freeman said the industry cares and has a sense of urgency that more must be done.

“The call to action today is (to) use less plastic, and make it recyclable,” she said.

Setting goals

By 2025, de Freeman said Walmart’s goal is to reduce plastic use as much possible from products they sell. A second goal is to make packaging recyclable; she said all of Walmart’s private label packaging will be 100% recyclable by 2025, with a goal for 20% recycled content in those packages.

A third goal, she said, is to help educate consumer about how to recycle, including using labels to clearly show which recycling stream is appropriate for the package.

 “Let’s keep our focus on the customer at all times and work with an end to end approach,” she said. 

Berry pledge

Janis McIntosh, director of marketing innovation and sustainability for Naturipe Farms, Salinas, Calif., described the pledge by berry growers and trade associations in the U.S., Mexico and South America to use 100% recycle ready packaging for all fresh berries by 2025.

McIntosh said clamshell plastic packaging has contributed to the success of the berry category, but marketers are seeking to reduce plastic use by as much as one-third with top seal films to replace clamshell lids and also to create more recycle-friendly labels for the clamshells by 2025.

Another important development in recent years, she said, is the opening of new recycling plants in the U.S. that can take low-grade plastics and create new packaging. 

In all changes to make more recycle-ready packaging, McIntosh said the industry can benefit from working together.

“Change is good, but it is better together — and that means competitive collaboration,” she said.

Shelf life extension

The use of plastics can be reduced significantly, and shelf life of produce can be extended by double or triple with use of Apeel Sciences plant-based solution, said Natalie Shuman, director of trade and retail marketing for California-based Apeel Sciences.

She said that Apeel’s technology will be used on long English cucumbers marketed by the Houweling Group this year.

“So, with Houweling’s alone, they will be able to eliminate upwards of 85,000 pounds of plastic packaging from their packaging stream,” she said. That’s equivalent to 85 million plastic straws, or enough plastic wrap to wrap the entire Empire State Building, Shuman said.

“We are really excited about this and invite you to join our cause,” she said.

Fiber fabulous? 

Thermoformed fiber packaging is a viable option to traditional plastics, said Brad Dennis, the vice president of sales and marketing at CKF Inc., Rexdale, Ontario. The company’s Earthcycle packaging, he said, is made from blend of hardwood fibers and recycled corrugated. The North American-sourced packaging is certified by European certification standard OK Compost and is home compostable and recyclable, he said.

“We can’t keep up with orders,” he said. The packaging, which removes 90% of the plastic compared with a plastic clamshell, can also be used with top seal film to extend shelf life, he said. Dennis also said the fiber packaging can match the packaging speed of clamshell lines in the packing shed.

Kathy Lawrence, director of new business development for Proseal America, Inc., Richmond, Va., said the company manufactures equipment that reduces plastic packaging by replacing the clamshell lid with a top- sealed film. “You can reduce the amount of plastic by 20% up to 45% just by replacing the lid of a clamshell with a film seal,” she said.

Creating new labels that more easily removed from clamshells is one key focus for Yerecic Label, said Elizabeth Yerecic, key account manager and team leader for product development the company.  The company has introduced a line of labels branded Sustainable that make clamshells easier to recycle.

Closing thoughts

De Freeman of Walmart said work should continue extending the shelf life of both packed and naked produce and educate consumers about recycling packaging options.

She also encouraged attendees to download Walmart’s recycling playbook, which assigns  packaging color-coded scores of green, yellow and red based on the material used.

“Finally, collaborate with your competitors, because we are serving a bigger cause,” de Freeman said.

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