Quality Insights

Plastic Packaging - Friend or Foe?

05 July 2018
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Plastic Packaging - Friend or Foe?

01 January 2017

We've been in touch with Pacsystem, one of Sweden's leading suppliers of packaging and packaging solutions to the fresh produce market, to find out more about the packaging dilemmas facing suppliers and retailers.

Packaging is currently one of the hottest topics in any industry using plastic, and fresh produce is certainly right in the middle of the debate. With consumers becoming increasingly aware of the negative effects plastic can have on the environment, retailers and suppliers are facing pressure to come up with alternative options in the very near future.

Without a way of being recycled beyond its initial use, packaging becomes rubbish and with many countries doing their best to minimise waste, manufacturers are looking for ways to make packaging recyclable or reusable where possible.

However, packaging serves a vital role in the fresh produce industry and without it many products would be unable to travel and reach stores in a useable condition. The protection packaging offers from damage, unhygienic handling and different storage conditions makes it invaluable to many products. Marketing, data collection, scanning, best before dates and product information would also all be difficult to convey to the customer without adequate packaging on products.

One of the most important functions of packaging for Pacsystem is its ability to protect the contents and maximise the shelf-life of food, and there's a very good reason why this is important.

This will contribute to reduce food waste caused by unnecessarily short shelf life, which is an important part of Pacsystem's work. It is very important to reduce food waste when the production of food, according to some estimates, accounts for roughly 30% of emissions worldwide. The food quite often has a greater environmental impact than the packaging material.

The effects of food waste is something to be considered in the packaging debate, and it can even impact the environment in a way that can be more detrimental than the packaging itself. Some packaging has the key role of stopping fresh produce drying out and extending the life of the product.

Among the most obvious examples of the latter (barrier against dehydration) is the cucumber. Easy to test yourself as well. Buy two cucumbers, take away the plastic around one of them and keep the shrink-film on the other, and then follow the development.

The cut iceberg salad would not survive for a long time in our natural atmosphere, as well as a lot of other cut salads and mixes. Bulk-handling in our natural atmosphere of these products has almost certainly increased the amount needed to be discarded in both stores and homes because of the shortened shelf-life.

Pacsystem believes that the food waste figure of 20-30% of food purchased must be reduced. This can be done, not just by using the right packaging but also by using the correct size packaging. Allowing people to buy the right amount of produce for their needs is likely to reduce waste and provide the customer with the exact amount they need, rather than buying more because it's cheap, but creating more food waste.

So how is it best to pack? What is the best for the environment?
Many different factors have to be examined in order to answer the above questions, and the answers are also dependent and are different for different content.

In Sweden, a forest country of rank, the fibre-based solutions (cardboard, paper, etc.) in many surveys proved to be more appreciated than solutions of plastic and other materials (other countries rank materials differently). These surveys do not show what is the best for the environment and different content, but show the different preferences. As in Sweden fibre-based solutions are preferred. Are these always more environmentally friendly and best for the content to pack in?

There are LCA-based studies that will show that renewable raw materials have a lower impact on the environment. However, there are so many other factors when considering the way fresh produce is produced, transported and stored. For example, there is currently no renewable raw material that can replace the plastic that maximises the life of a cucumber. Plastic also provides the optimising conditions for packaging cut salads, allowing the window which also gives the consumer a view of the contents.

An area that has been successful in cutting back on plastic use would be the transportation of produce. Plastic bags have been an obvious area to cut back on and many countries have banned or introduced a charge or tax on plastic bags now. As the purpose was purely to transport foods, with many bags then ending up in waste disposal, this has been an important measure in the fight against unnecessary plastic use. However, even this area is more complicated than many consumers realise.

Many are thinking about replacing the bags of plastic (which are most common) to paper bags as paper bags after all are, generally speaking, friendlier to the environment than fossil-based plastics. However, how much raw material is there in each bag? Where is the raw material sourced from? How has it been processed / manufactured? Has it been laminated and/or other additives used? For example, a thin plastic bag (fossil-based), processed in an energy efficient manner, nearby, could be more environmentally friendly than a thicker paperbag, manufactured entirely without recycled material, by a company without energy-efficient processes, etc. Moreover, if the fossil-based plastic is replaced by an equivalent of renewable raw materials, it becomes another possible option. There is no easy supreme answer.

So what's the message for retailers and suppliers in the fresh produce industry today?

Because something is difficult, it does not mean that we shouldn't try and take the first changing steps. There are no readily available and easy answers for the desired comparisons, but if you think in 'areas' you will hopefully and probably more often get it right than wrong.

Areas include renewable raw materials vs exhaustible resources, is it recyclable?, the amount of material used, and does it protect the contents and increase shelf-life?

At Innovative Fresh we monitor fresh produce every week to help retailers and suppliers give their consumer the best in fresh. For more information, or to see how we can help you contact us at info@innovativefresh.com.

If the food is produced, with its stress on the earth's resources, then it's not to be thrown... but rather enjoyed.

Source: Pacsystem, Helsingborg //pacsystem.se/

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