IS THE REMOVAL OF PLASTIC PACKAGING REALISTIC?

Recent weeks have seen the plastic packaging debate heat up as the public continues to question the use of excessive plastic packaging on fruits and vegetables. A recent poll revealed that 67 percent of New Zealanders believed that plastic packaging in the fruit and vegetable aisle should be banned. But is there a reason supermarkets are continuing to package certain fresh produce and if removed will New Zealand’s food waste soar?

Currently, the average Kiwi family throws away about three shopping trolleys of edible food each year. This amounts to a whopping $872 million.

Plastic packaging was initially used to protect produce but as consumers have begun demanding more and more convenient options the use of plastic packaging has increased tenfold. So why do supermarkets and manufactures package fresh produce:

Extended Shelf Life

Plastic packaging is used to extend a products shelf life. For example, the use of plastic packaging on cucumber is essential for extended shelf life. Cucumber holds a large amount of moisture so only has a shelf life of about three days when not covered. With plastic wrap, the cucumber can last up to 14 days.

Hygiene

Produce is touched by an army of hands before it is sold to the consumer. Plastic packaging works as a shield to protect it from any bacteria or germs.

Branding

Consumers are continuing to demand more transparency from suppliers, and plastic packaging allows for a better surface for the label to be applied. Plastic packaging also provides an opportunity for the branding of fresh produce.

Convenience  

Consumers are demanding easier ways to consume their daily intake which is why supermarkets have begun stocking pre-cut fruit and plastic wrapped corn with the husk removed.

Countdown notes that consumer needs influence the packaging of produce. “Customer demand plays a key role when deciding what we stock on our shelves. Most of our produce is available in both loose and packaged form, giving customers the ability to choose items that best meet their needs. An elderly customer, for example, may like to buy chopped pumpkin because they can’t cut it themselves. A single person may only need half a pumpkin – these are wrapped to keep them fresh. Alternatively, a family of five may buy and consume an entire pumpkin easily,” said Kiri Hannifin, general manager corporate affairs and sustainability.

While some packaging is essential for keeping food fresh, there have been cases where plastic packaging isn’t necessarily crucial. For example, a bunch of bananas may not need to be covered in plastic.

Jenny Marshall from WasteMINZ said that there are two types of plastics being used in the produce section of the supermarket. “Some packaging is purely promotional so that the items can be branded or designed to encourage people to buy larger quantities and provide no extended life for the product. A good example of this would be oranges sold in plastic string bags or bags of sweetcorn. The second type of plastic packaging we see is where the packaging has been designed to lengthen the shelf life of a product or protect the item when transported. Good examples of these are berries sold in plastic containers which would otherwise get squashed in transit.”

The matter of the overuse of plastic cannot be solved by simply removing it from produce. WasteMinz believes that only a portion of plastic packaging should be removed from supermarkets and instead more thought should go into how it can be made truly recyclable or reusable. “We would encourage the reduction and removal of plastic packaging which only serves an aesthetic purpose. While packaging that lengthens shelf life should be kept as food waste has a greater environmental impact than packaging waste and if New Zealand wants to make a meaningful attempt to reduce climate change emissions food waste reduction is a key area.”

Hannifin from Countdown agrees stating that the removal of plastic is only part of the solution. “Ultimately, plastic provides complete packaging solutions that few (if any) alternatives can. Telegraph cucumbers, for example, have a very sensitive skin. The plastic wrap they are in is light and helps to protect them in transit, so they arrive on our shelves in good condition and don’t become food waste.”

Suppliers, supermarkets and manufacturers need to look towards innovation as the answer. What can be done to packaging to make it more recyclable or even compostable? Can cardboard be used as an alternative? Last year saw major producer, Turners and Growers repackage its cherry tomatoes into cardboard punnets.

Foodstuffs has been exploring compostable packaging derived from bio-based feedstock, a plastic sourced from food production or forestry waste. “Challenges remain for rigid bio-based plastics as commercial compositing collection is not widely available yet. Because of this, we’re focused on exploring certified home compostable options for our customers,” explained Kelly McClean, sustainable packaging project manager, Foodstuffs NZ.

“There are healthy recycling markets for plastics 1 PET and plastics 2 HDPE so switching away from plastics 3-7 and moving to those plastics for packaging is a sensible step to take,” added Marshall.

Flight Plastics CEO Keith Smith, has noticed change towards a greater understanding and adoption of circularity in the market. “There is now a clear and growing awareness around the market that a circular economy can only exist in New Zealand if we’re re-using and recycling plastics extracted from our own waste stream.”

Countdown is committed to advancing New Zealand’s circular economy with the introductions of its sustainably sourced hard plastic packaging. “We now use sustainably sourced hard plastic packaging for our in-store bakery products, including croissants and muffins. This packaging is made from recycled plastic sourced from New Zealand’s own waste stream and is also able to be recycled at the end of its life.”

“NZ RPET is always the preferred plastic option since it’s recyclable and supports circular economy initiatives by creating demand for recycling. Monumental change for the greater good of the environment takes time, participation and leadership from the government, suppliers, consumers and retailers,” added Kelly McClean from Foodstuffs NZ.