From Farm to Shelf: Balancing Food Protection and Sustainable Packaging

April 21, 2020

Packaging in the produce aisle has the important role of protecting food on its journey through the supply chain from harvest to the consumers’ table. Recent attention around ocean plastic pollution has brought a consumer hyperawareness to the amount and uses of food packaging, especially plastics. SPC explored finding a balanced approach to dealing with both food protection and sustainable packaging in an online panel as part of SPC Virtual Events, with Jeff Scott, COO of  Kwik Lok, Fabio Peyer, Director of Sustainability at Amcor, and John Laughead, Product Sustainability Manager at Ahold Delhaize USA. 

Rethinking Product Protection 

First and foremost, packaging is designed to protect products. Protection involves several considerations: 1) promoting food freshness,  2) preventing food waste, and, top of mind recently, 3) ensuring food safety. According to the FAO, around 30% of all food is thrown away across the globe. This amounts to 8% of our global greenhouse gas emissions. Food packaging counteracts this waste by protecting food products during transportation and preventing them from spoiling. 

With increased attention being given to sustainability, the requirements of packaging are changing. In addition to protecting the product for freshness, safety, and eliminating food waste, food packaging itself also needs to be more sustainable and sometimes this can also mean using less of it. The different jobs that packaging is hired to do are reflected in the surge of corporate sustainability goals. For example, Ahold Delhaize has a 2025 commitment to relieve hunger and reduce waste, encompassing both plastics and food waste reduction.

Do Shelf Life and Sustainable Packaging Factors Conflict? 

Is it possible to simultaneously reduce food waste and the amount of packaging we use? The answer, of course, is that it depends. Supply chains vary for different products with significant diversity on where products originate, the protection the package needs to provide, and the products’ final destination. 

Sometimes sustainable packaging and food protection go hand-in-hand. For example, reusable plastic containers used in produce distribution can replace waxed cardboard, while some products, like pineapples, don’t generally need packaging. John from Ahold Delhaize pointed out that there are new peel-top applications being used for certain products like cherry tomatoes and berries, which reduces plastic usage by 20-30% while also elongating shelf life of the produce. 

But occasionally, these two objectives can seem at odds with one another. Sometimes alternative forms of packaging that may be perceived by consumers to be more sustainable can actually have unintended consequences for food waste.  For example, people like to look inside a container of strawberries and look at the bottom to see if there is mold, so clear PET trays allow the consumer this experience. If they cannot see inside the packaging, will they have the same drive to buy the product or will more food go to waste?  

Plastic-Wrapped Produce

Another important component of food packaging is flexible packaging. The food industry constitutes a market share of more than 60% for flexible plastic packaging. Flexible packaging meets all the needs of packaging using as little material as possible. Fabio from Amcor highlighted, produce does not require much plastic in order to successfully extend shelf life.  For example, cherries have a very short season, but by packaging them in flexible packaging, their shelf life is extended by an additional two weeks. He argues that flexible packaging on produce is packaging well-spent if it extends the shelf life of the product and lessens food waste. The below graphic demonstrates how flexible packaging extends shelf life for various products.

At the same time, packaging may not always be required, depending on the supply chain logistics and supply and demand dynamics. Food protection requirements change when the source of food is local, with a shorter supply chain. Jeff from Quick Lok noted that in localized supply chains his company is able to use binding rather than wrapping packaging for produce such as spring onions and asparagus. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for all products and supply chains, the panelists agreed that avoiding food waste is paramount.

Packaging That is Fit for Purpose

So then, how can we get the most out of the materials we do use? Packaging needs to be fit for its purpose, i.e. freshness, safety, etc. There is a balance between smart use of packaging and using as little of it as possible. Admittedly, some packaging is utilized to promote brands and help sell products. In these instances, there are opportunities to reduce the amount of packaging without compromising its function. 

But how can we get more out of these materials after they served their purpose? There is a clear call to action surrounding the recovery of these materials. That’s where the design for recycling plays a big role. As Fabio pointed out, there are significant opportunities in the produce space to transition away from multi-material packaging and work towards using mono-material flexible or rigid packaging. Mono-material PE film is recyclable in the US through store drop-off programs and is also currently being piloted in select curbside programs.  Kwik Lok is exploring compostable solutions, recognizing the importance of considering all options in an evolving system.

It’s certainly true that the recovery system is dynamic.  We are currently observing this dynamism in what John coined the ‘new new’ with COVID-19. Current conversations are focused on worker and customer health and safety, where packaging plays another important role. In the long run, packaging needs to balance all the aforementioned interests, achieving both protection of the product and sustainability.