More organic produce consumers are pushing back against the use of plastic in packaging, but will it matter?
Gene Versteeg, produce sales manager at Market of Choice, Eugene, Ore., said consumers at his store are have expressed preference for other options besides plastic for organic produce — which acounts for half of the store’s produce.
“This year especially it’s the most vocal I’ve ever heard people be about it,” he said “We have organic salads in the plastic clam shells and plastic bags, but we also have them in bulk (salad) bar where people can either use one of our recyclable bags or bring their own bag and they can buy in bulk.”
The bulk salad includes spring mix and spinach, he said.
“It seems like that bulk bar is increasing at a faster rate than the clamshell packs,” Versteeg said.
Versteeg said he hasn’t seen a lot of innovation in packaging to answer rising consumer resistance to plastics.
Anti-plastics sentiment continues to rise, said Joongmin Shin, associate professor of industrial technology and packaging at Cal Poly University, said.
“The consumer is being exposed to media and publications which show the negative aspects of one-time-use plastics,” he said, noting municipal bag bans and plastic straw bans in some cities. “Finding alternative materials which are sustainable and ocean degradable material seems becoming a trend and I believe the continued work in using renewable resources may yield a better material.”
While resistance to plastic may be increasing, plastic clamshells have proven valuable to the industry in many respects, said Dick Spezzano, president of Spezzano Consulting Service,
“When it comes to packaging, there’s really been an increase in packaging both for conventional and organic,” he said. “You look at the value-added product is either in bags or in clamshells and many of the organic salads are in clamshells,” he said.
Most clamshells cost more and typically are less recyclable than a bag.
Spezzano said clamshells have been a good way to introduce new fruit and vegetable products, from grapes to bite-sized tomatoes.
Grape options used to be bulk red, black and green seedless displays. Now pouch bags and clamshells offer advantages of less handling and more marketing space.
“So you see that happening throughout the different commodities,” Spezzano said. “And the obvious reasons are, number one, it’s 100% guaranteed it is going to get rung up right at the front end,” he said.
In addition, he said marketers have a lot of space to do marketing on clamshells and pouch bags. The packages are easier to introduce at retail than bulk items.
The challenge for packaging companies is to come up with more recyclable material and communicating that with consumers.
“Now, lot of will say, well, we use in corn product in clamshells, and it is better than it used to be,” he said. “It used to be take a hundred years to degrade and now it takes 50 years — that’s still not good enough.”
The idea that clamshells should be abandoned isn’t sensible, Spezzano said.
“A lot of marketers will put (produce) in clamshells because it’s got a better presentation, it’s a rigid packaging so you can stack it better,” he said.
Clamshells have allowed the berry category to boom, he said. Rather than single-layer pulp containers covered with cellophane, retailers can stack berries four or five layers deep because of rigid packaging. Marketing efforts also increased with the use of clamshells, he said.
The rigid packages also protect berries and reduce labor needed to cull displays, Spezzano said.
“Berries used to be the most labor-intensive item in the produce department with strawberries and now it’s not because (of packaging),” he said. “I don’t see the industry changing from, you know, having rigid packaging and go to bags to go to bulk — I don’t see that.”
Spezzano said packaging companies and retailers need to redouble their efforts to make packaging more sustainable and recyclable or face new regulations from municipalities.
Shin of Cal Poly said that some consumers like clamshells because of visual transparency, high oxygen barrier, or physical strength.
“Depending on the produce shelf life requirement and price, we may consider cellulose or biodegradable plastic based containers,” he said. “However, they currently have performance limitations or (are) expensive.”