Produce industry sees sustainability as future of packaging

Produce industry sees sustainability as future of packaging

Produce suppliers are taking hard looks at packaging in terms of costs, materials and environmental concerns.

“It’s pretty obvious that everybody is on a track to reduce plastic and increase recyclability,” said Andy Tudor, vice president of business development with Selah, Wash.-based Rainier Fruit Co. 

“Probably, the ultimate goal is packaging that’s backyard compostable. It’s a process and coming in steps, but we’re working very hard, doing a lot of research, on how we can get there.”

“Recycle” and “reuse” are central to packaging at Watsonville, Calif.-based Monterey Mushrooms Inc., said Bruce Knobeloch, vice president of sales and marketing.

“For us, sustainability in packaging is focused on ‘what can be recycled’ rather than ‘what is actually being accepted at recycling centers,’” he said.

Produce growers and shippers know generally what the priorities are where packaging is concerned. How to pursue those goals sometimes varies, they say.

“We are currently fielding research on this very topic and will have more details later this summer on full results,” Cindy Jewell, vice president of marketing with Watsonville-based California Giant Berry Farms, said about packing trends. 

“However, early indicators are that consumers want to see the product and have minimal coverage on the clamshell of their berries so they can see more of the berries inside.”

Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers LLC has similar discussions, said Brianna Shales, communications manager.

“We’re seeing a big focus to find alternatives to plastic packaging,” she said. 

Apples and pears are still dominated by bulk displays, which go in corrugated packages, but for the small percentage of items that are packaged, the entire industry is looking at plastics and how to come up with alternatives that work for retailers, maintain high quality products and are friendly to consumers, Shales said.

“It’s a journey but an important one,” she said. 

Top seal is another package that Stemilt expects to grow as a clamshell alternative, Shales said.

“We’ve done more and more top seal cherries this summer and expect that to continue,” she said. 

“It reduces plastic use over a traditional clamshell by 30% or more, depending on pack size.”

Packaging manufacturers say they are aware of the evolving landscape for their products, and they’re responding.

Grower-shippers, processors and retailers all are pushing for packaging that is sustainable, that facilitates snacking and employs new technologies that improve food safety and traceability, said Roman Forowycz, vice president of integrated solutions with Hartsville, S.C.- based Sonoco Products, at the company’s Elk Grove Village, Ill., branch.

“Consumers are definitely looking for healthier snacking alternatives,” he said.

Sustainability is a huge issue for packaging, said Jackie Irvine, marketing manager with Toronto-based Plexpack Corp.

“Finding sustainable solutions is a huge concern for the produce industry right now, as an increasing number of countries make the move to ban single-use plastics,” Irvine said. 

“The advantage for the produce industry is that there is not often a need for barrier bags and so their options in sustainable materials are only expanding.”

McAllen, Texas-based Fox Packaging is having similar conversations with clients, said Craig Fox, executive vice president.

“Conversations regarding sustainability have been at the forefront in fresh produce packaging,” he said. 

“Understanding avenues for plastic reduction, recyclability, and biodegradable and/or compostable flexible packaging materials have significantly dominated inquires and transitions.”

Bans on plastic bags have been a boon to Canby, Ore.-based Package Containers, a pulp-oriented packaging manufacturer, said Dave DeMots, CEO.

“We are seeing more interest in paper bags in part driven by poly bans across the country and in Canada,” he said. 
Customers also want timely delivery on packaging, DeMots said.

“Our ability to have a high-quality printed bag out of our manufacturing plant in three weeks is a compelling story,” he said. 

“There is not a business who is winning by being slow, so the ability to turn quickly is a real value add.”

Jeff Watkin, graphic and marketing manager with Collinsville, Ill.-based packaging manufacturer Sev-Rend, says sustainability is the key driver in packaging these days.

“Sustainability is the biggest trend this year,” he said. 

“Consumers expect consumer product companies to take more and more responsibility for ensuring packaging is more sustainable. Given the (current) infrastructure is most advanced for recycling, packaging suppliers are working on innovative techniques to reduce the use of or eliminate entirely multi-polymer packaging construction.”

Conversion to pouches continues to be a major trend, as well, Watkin said. 

“More and more product categories such as tomatoes, peppers and others are converting from other packaging to pouches, especially recyclable, mono-polymer construction,” he said.

Convenience plays a role in the packaging business, as well, said Julie Davis, director of public affairs and communications for Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific.

“Consumers continue to value convenience, driving a growing demand for fresh produce that is healthy and ready-to-cook,” she said. 

“Consumers also want to see sustainable packaging that does not compromise quality or freshness. 

“This is especially important as online grocery shopping continues to grow in popularity.”

As food safety concerns continue to be at the forefront of the produce industry, the corrugated packaging industry has worked to ensure that it provides clean packaging to growers/shippers and packers, said Rachel Kenyon, vice president of the Itaska, Ill.-based Fibre Box Association.

She said the association has conducted multiple evaluations of the microbial cleanliness of corrugated containers from its member companies across the U.S. since 2014. 

“The latest annual test, conducted in 2018 at a customer facility, showed 100% of the corrugated containers sampled had acceptable levels of enterobacteriaceae and thermotolerant coliforms,’ Kenyon said. 

“The study confirmed the continued due diligence on the part of individual manufacturers and the corrugated industry to provide clean containers to their customers.”