Smart supermarkets of the future can leave behind much of their reliance on single-use packaging, a new report from Greenpeace USA claims.

However, one produce industry consultant said there are reasons the use of packaging has increased over the past few decades, and those motivations are overlooked in the Greenpeace study.

The report, called The Smart Supermarket, said retailers can move faster to transition away from “throwaway” packaging.

“It’s time to build smarter supermarkets,” Greenpeace plastics campaigner Kate Melges said in a news release.  

“Globally, we’re starting to see examples of retailers moving away from plastics and throwaway packaging, but not at the urgency and scale needed to address this crisis, especially in the U.S. market.”

Challenge of fresh

The Greenpeace report said the presence of single-use plastics on fresh food is a flash point for consumers.

“Plastic-wrapped cucumbers and bagged bananas have become symbolic of the problem, with customers actively removing packaging from produce in the store and handing it over at the checkout,” the report said. 

While many farmers markets and street markets still offer unpackaged produce, the norm is now plastic packaging, according to the report.

“Food waste largely has resulted from the current food system, which cannot be solved by adding layers of plastic packaging,” the report said. 

Retail requirements for “perfect appearance” in fruits and vegetables, excessive amount of supply, and undervaluing food are all drivers of food waste, according to the report.

Packaged food is “oversupplied” to consumers, the report said, with customers forced to buy a bag of potatoes rather than one or two spuds.

“Ironically, customers looking for the most environmentally friendly option, such as organic produce, often find it wrapped in even more plastic than its nonorganic counterparts,” the report said. 

“The Smart Supermarket allows customers to buy what they need, with energy-efficient refrigeration systems keeping produce fresh, plastic-free labeling to distinguish organic from non-organic, and a weighing and barcoding system that avoids single-use plastics altogether.”

Retailer Foodstuffs in New Zealand has started a project called “food in the nude,” working with suppliers to stop using plastic wrapping for most fruits and vegetables sold in stores, according to the report. The supermarket uses misting to keep produce fresh.

“Since implementing the system, sales of some vegetables have soared by up to 300%,” according to the Greenpeace report.

Among the report’s recommendations, Greenpeace advises that retailers should implement a straightforward weighing and barcoding system that allows customers to weigh their produce and “eliminates the need” for single-use packaging. In addition, energy-efficient refrigeration systems need to be installed to manage the shelf life of unpackaged produce, the report says.

Purposeful packs

Bruce Peterson, president of Arkansas-based Peterson Insights Inc., said produce departments in the late 1970s and 1980s offered more bulk produce than today, but for a variety of reasons the use of consumer packaging has steadily increased.

“What packaging started to do in first place was to provide a more sanitary option because when you have anything exposed to the public, the likelihood of contamination can can increase,” Peterson said.  

“What really drove a lot of that was to provide a more sanitary option for items that are consumed raw.”

In addition, putting produce in packages helped protect fresh produce on the way to the store, resulting in more produce suitable for sale. Packaged tomatoes, for example, will typically show less damage than bulk tomatoes after being shipped across the country.

Packaging also helps merchandising, both in terms of how the product is displayed, but also getting the product rung up properly at checkout and giving the consumer more information by way of a label on the package. 

The growth in value-added produce also has required the use of more packaging as well, Peterson said.

Perhaps the biggest factor in favor of packaging, Peterson said, is that packaging can help consumers and the supply chain in the event of produce recalls and food safety issues.

“If you don’t have a package or have some way to identify what the product was and you consumed (the produce), there’s nothing left to trace,” he said.

Peterson said the idea of getting rid of produce packaging is unrealistic, but he said efforts are underway to make packaging more environmentally friendly.

“The industry and academia are working more toward packaging that is is more environmentally friendly, as opposed to eliminating packaging altogether,” Peterson said.