The Packer's Sustainable Produce Summit featured a discussion of sustainable packaging issues by a panel of industry leaders. ( The Packer )

Substantial investments in recycling and industrial compost facilities will be necessary to bring greater sustainability to produce packaging.

That was one conclusion of panelists participating in a Sept. 23 virtual packaging panel at The Packer’s Sustainable Produce Summit.

Moderated by The Packer’s Editor Tom Karst, the panel considered research conducted by The Packer on consumer attitudes toward sustainable packaging.

During the 45-minute panel discussion and a 20-minute video breakout for discussion groups, participants spoke of strong demand for produce packaging during the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for greater investments in plastic recycling efforts and some of the roadblocks to greater use of bio-based materials in produce packaging.

Survey says

Eight out of ten consumers believe sustainability is very important, said Scott Caine, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Aim Point Research. Caine presented research findings of a survey commissioned by The Packer and supported by Apeel Sciences and Emerald Packaging.

For consumers, Caine said packaging is an important measure of sustainability of a product because it is a touch point.

Consumers most value packaging that is either recyclable or biodegradable, Caine said.

When 600 consumers were asked “Which of the following product features help you define a product as sustainable?,” 62% indicated eco-friendly packaging (compostable or bioderadable), compared with 47% for organic, 43% for local and 43% for pesticide free.

Consumers surveyed indicated they are willing to pay about 5% more for a product if they understand the product is sustainably grown and packaged.

Caine urged industry leaders to find common ground with consumers in conversations about sustainable packaging.

The panelist talked about consumer willingness to pay eco-friendly packaging and the constraints on moving more fully into that packaging.

The raw materials to make biodegradable packaging are scarce and scaling production to meet consumer demand in the next 10 years is nearly impossible, said Kevin Kelly, CEO of Emerald Packaging. What’s more, the cost of biodegradable packaging is 30% to 40% more expensive than conventional plastic alternatives. Much more capacity is needed at industrial composting facilities to handle increased levels of compostable packaging, he said.

Kelly said switching to bio-based materials for packaging also could create negative environmental impacts, as more crops like corn or sugar will be grown to meet packaging needs instead of grown for food.

Jay Singh, professor and packaging program director at Cal Poly, said bio-based plastics don’t solve all packaging needs.

“I’m not saying bio-based plastics are not our future, (but) as it currently stands, there are a lot of issues with it,” Singh said, noting that consumer perceptions of biodegradable and compostable packaging don’t always match their performance.

“You cannot just make a choice because it sounds better,” he said.

Replacing plastic

Panelist David Bell, chief marketing officer for Houweling’s Group, talked about the attention the company is receiving for its English cucumbers, treated by a shelf-life extension product from Apeel Sciences. The plant-based coating from Apeel on the greenhouse cucumbers replaces the need for plastic wrapping.

“The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “In partnering with Apeel, what we did is found an alternative solution that didn’t involve plastic to provide that same life extension that the plastic provides.”
Consumers appreciate the opportunity to buy cucumbers without the plastic, he said. 

“We need to find our opportunities like this Apeel (application) where we can make incremental improvements and change and start to see consumers vote with their dollars,” Bell said. 

Bell said brands and retailers are hearing more from consumers regarding their distaste for plastic.

“What we haven’t seen enough of, for my opinion, at retail is where the consumer has backed that up,” he said. “But I do believe we’re on the precipice of where that is happening at a greater rate, and as brands and as retailers, the commitment needs to be on finding those incremental opportunities and being able to commit to saying we may not be able to get there all in one step, but many steps will get us closer to the prize.”

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