Consumers and retailers interested in saving the planet have been quite vocal recently about their desire to do away with single-use plastic.

While the produce industry is all in favor of implementing sustainable practices wherever possible, it seems many grower-shippers in California’s Salinas Valley are taking a very cautious approach to cutting back on packaging.

Diana McClean, senior director of marketing for Castroville, Calif.-based Ocean Mist Farms, said pressure to adopt eco-friendly packs can create a dilemma for produce suppliers that harvest and pack in the field.

Over the past year, Ocean Mist Farms has introduced two new retail-ready organic artichoke packages: A two-count corrugated clamshell container that is completely recyclable and printed with vegetable-based inks and a two-count handle bag made with HDPE — high-density polyethylene — the most commonly recycled plastic.

One looks like a typical plastic bag, while the other resembles a cardboard container that can be easily recycled.

Both have been well received by retailers, she said.

The company uses reusable plastic containers and introduces innovative packaging “where it makes sense,” McClean said.

Related content: Organic going strong among Salinas growers

“We’re constantly looking for alternatives from packaging suppliers, and more and more are becoming available,” she said.

There has been some pressure to eliminate packaging altogether, but packaging can play an important role in the food chain.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has made it clear that there is no evidence of transmission of COVID-19 through food or food packaging, McClean said.

“The packaging on fresh produce provides a barrier of protection to the product to eliminate any sort of contamination at the shelf,” she said.

And packaging often provides a controlled atmosphere to help preserve a product’s shelf life and provide a better eating experience for the consumer while eliminating waste from spoilage. “It is quite a quandary,” McClean said.

“We do understand that sustainability is an important message point, and we do identify any eco-friendly alternatives to our product packaging,” she said.

The company uses post-consumer material that has been through the waste stream once and is coming back to be repurposed into another form, she said — like cardboard that has been recycled.

Biodegradable packaging “is tough” because the material sits on the harvester in the field.

“We can’t have it start biodegrading on the harvester,” McClean said.

Related content: Salinas Valley grower-shippers cope with COVID-19

Sustainable packaging also is a topic of discussion at Coastline Family Farms, Salinas, Calif., said Tami Gutierrez, vice president of sales and marketing.

“It’s always in our conversations about innovation and what new things we can bring to our customer base to strengthen or support their sustainable practices,” she said.

But because of the COVID-19 situation, many of those plans have been put off for the time being.

“We do have some things that we’ve put on hold while we get through this volatile period,” she said.

Gonzalez, Calif.-based Misionero Vegetables LLC always is looking to innovative packaging options, said Nicole Zapata, marketing manager.

For example, the company has peel and reseal PET solutions for clamshells that eliminate 30% of plastic used for salads.

“Our packaging demonstrates progress on goals for weight and volume optimization for individual products,” she said.

Zapata said it’s not yet practical to eliminate all plastic from the produce department, especially for value-added products.

“We have a long way to go with biodegradable material before eliminating plastic is feasible,” she said.

“We’ve partnered with our suppliers and rPlanet Earth to make great strides in packaging optimization and using recyclable materials.” 

More Salinas Valley produce updates.