April 12, 2024

Why is there so much plastic food packaging?

If it seems like almost every cucumber, apple and pepper in the produce aisle is surrounded by plastic, that is the case.

What started with cellophane in the 1930s gained momentum with the rise of plastic clamshells in the 1980s and bagged salads in the 1990s. Online grocery shopping has given it a boost.

But now the race is on for what people who grow and sell fruits and vegetables call a moonshot: breaking plastic’s stranglehold on produce.

In a March survey of manufacturing professionals on LinkedIn, the shift to biodegradable materials was named the top trend. “It’s big,” said Soren Bjorn, CEO of Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry grower, which has switched to paper containers in many European markets.

Spain has a plastic tax. France has severely restricted plastic-wrapped products and the European Union is about to impose its own restrictions. Canada is trying to develop a plan that could eliminate plastic packaging from agricultural products by 95 percent by 2028. In the United States, eleven states have already restricted plastic packaging. As part of a sweeping anti-waste plan, the Biden administration is calling for new ways to package food that use climate-friendly, antimicrobial materials designed to reduce reliance on plastic.

Reducing the use of plastic is an obvious way to resist a changing climate. Plastic is made from fossil fuels, which are the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. It is choking the oceans and seeping into the food chain. Estimates vary, but about 40 percent of plastic waste comes from packaging.

Yet plastic has been the most effective tool to date to combat another environmental threat: food waste.

Wirecutter shares tips to keep your produce fresh for weeks.

Selling products is like holding a melting ice cube and asking how much someone will pay for it. Time is of the essence, and plastic works well to slow the deterioration of fruits and vegetables. That means fewer products are thrown into the trash, where it produces nearly 60 percent of methane emissions in landfills, according to a 2023 report from the Environmental Protection Agency.

A 2021 Swiss study found that each discarded rotting cucumber has the same impact on the environment as 93 plastic cucumber packaging.

Food is the most common material in landfills. The average American family of four spends $1,500 annually on food that goes uneaten. Of these, fruits and vegetables make up almost half of all household food waste, according to research by Michigan State University. And it’s not just wasted food that contributes to climate change. The agriculture and transportation that is wasted to produce food that is thrown away also impacts the climate.

Preventing food waste and reducing the use of plastic are not mutually exclusive. Both are high on the agenda of the Biden administration, which in December released a draft national strategy to halve the country’s food losses by 2030.

Consumers increasingly report that it is important to them to use less plastic and packaging, but their shopping behavior tells a different story. According to the International Fresh Produce Association, U.S. consumers bought $4.3 billion worth of bagged salad last year. Marketing experiments and independent research both show that price, quality and convenience make food choices more important than environmental concerns.

Grocers also have to make difficult decisions. Shoppers have complained about having to buy products that are already wrapped in plastic and priced. It is easier for the store not to sell by weight because the employees do not have to weigh each item. But it often forces shoppers to buy more than they need.

The battle appears to be between the never-plastic crowd and shoppers who prefer the convenience of fresh salads delivered to their doors.

“The conversation about packaging is being held hostage by one side or the other,” said Max Teplitski, chief science officer at the International Fresh Produce Association. He heads the Alliance for Sustainable Packaging for Foods, a collection of industry trade groups formed in January.

The group’s priority is to ensure that any changes to packaging keep the food safe and maintain its quality.

Here are a few new ideas heading into the product department:

Pockets of trees. An Austrian company is using beech trees to make biodegradable cellulose mesh bags to store products. Other companies offer similar nets that disintegrate within a few weeks.

Film of peels. Orange peels, shrimp shells and other natural waste are processed into film that can be used as cellophane or made into bags. An edible coating made from vegetable fatty acids is sprayed on cucumbers, avocados and other produce sold in many major supermarkets. They work in a manner similar to the wax coating commonly used on citrus fruits and apples.

Cardboard clamshells. Plastic clamshells are a $9.1 billion business in the United States, and the number of growers using them is staggering. Replacing them will be a huge challenge, especially for the more fragile fruits and vegetables. Many designers try it. Driscoll’s has been working to develop paper containers for use in the United States and Canada. Meanwhile, the company is using more recycled plastic in its clamshells in the United States.

Ice cream that feels like gelatin. Luxin Wang and other scientists at the University of California, Davis, have invented reusable jelly ice cream. It is lighter than ice and does not melt. It could eliminate the need for plastic ice packs, which cannot be recycled. After about a dozen uses, the jelly ice can be thrown in the garden or in the garbage can, where it will dissolve.

Boxes with atmosphere. Broccoli is usually shipped in wax-covered boxes filled with ice. The soggy boxes cannot be recycled. Iceless shipping containers for broccoli use a mix of gases that help preserve the vegetable instead of cooling it with ice, which is heavy to ship and can transfer pathogens as it melts. Other durable, lighter shipping boxes are designed to remove ethylene, a plant hormone that promotes ripening.

Containers of plants. Rice paddy straw left after harvesting, grasses, sugar cane stalks and even food waste are all turned into bins and boxes that are biodegradable or can be composted.

Hardly. Even if every grower and grocer started using packaging that could be recycled or composted, America’s infrastructure for turning it into anything other than waste is flawed at best. Less than 10 percent of all plastic is recycled, a figure that is even lower for product packaging, says Eva Almenar, a professor at Michigan State University’s School of Packaging. Only a small portion of packaging labeled compostable remains out of landfill.

Only 3 percent of wasted food ends up in industrial composting centers. Several states do not have commercial operations that can compost food waste.

“We don’t have the right technology, and we don’t have the containment systems,” said Dr. Almenar.

Even if the infrastructure were in place, people’s habits are not. “Consumers have no idea what green, compostable or recyclable means,” she says.

In practical terms, no one has yet come up with an affordable plastic alternative that can be recycled or composted and that also keeps fruits and vegetables safe and fresh. Plastic allows packagers to adjust the mixture of gases in a package in such a way that the shelf life and quality of fresh products are extended.

“The problem you get is that as you eliminate plastic and move to fiber, the shelf life decreases very quickly,” says Scott Crawford, vice president of merchandising for Baldor Specialty Foods and a veteran of both Whole Foods Market and Fresh Direct. “The question is which side of the balloon are you trying to squeeze?”

The ideal solution, he said, would be to return to the pre-plastic days, when grocers stacked produce by hand and no one demanded that seasonal fruits like blueberries be available year-round.

“I don’t think we’ll see that again,” he said.

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