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Many products come in plastic. Is there a better solution?

If it seems like plastic surrounds almost every cucumber, apple, and pepper in the produce aisles, that’s actually the case.

What started with cellophane in the 1930s accelerated with the rise of plastic clamshells in the 1980s and bagged salads in the 1990s. Online grocery shopping gave 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 hold on produce.

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

Spain has a plastic tax. France has severely limited products packaged in plastic and the European Union is set to add its own restrictions. Canada is trying to develop a plan that could eliminate plastic packaging from products by 95 percent by 2028. In the United States, 11 states have already restricted plastic packaging. As part of a broader anti-waste plan, the Biden administration is calling for new ways to package food using climate-friendly, antimicrobial materials designed to reduce reliance on plastic.

Reducing the use of plastic is an obvious way to combat climate change. Plastic is created from fossil fuels, which contribute the most to greenhouse gases. It is choking the oceans and seeping into the food chain. Estimates vary, but around 40% of plastic waste comes from packaging.

However, plastic has so far proven to be the most effective tool to combat another environmental threat: food waste.

Wirecutter shares tips for keeping 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 is effective in slowing the rotting of vegetables and fruits. That means fewer products are thrown into the trash, where they create nearly 60% of landfill methane emissions, according to a 2023 report from the Environmental Protection Agency.

A 2021 Swiss study showed that each thrown away rotten cucumber has the environmental impact equivalent to 93 plastic cucumber wrappers.

Food is the most common material in landfills. The average American family of four spends $1,500 each year on food that goes uneaten. Of that total, fruits and vegetables account for nearly half of all household food waste, according to a Michigan State University study. And it’s not just food waste that contributes to climate change. Wasting agriculture and transportation to produce food that is thrown away also impacts the climate.

Preventing food waste and reducing the use of plastic are not incompatible objectives. Both are high on the agenda of the Biden administration, which in December released a draft national strategy aimed at cutting the nation’s food losses in half by 2030.

Consumers increasingly say it’s important to them to use less plastic and packaging, but their shopping habits tell a different story. U.S. shoppers bought $4.3 billion worth of bagged salads last year, according to the International Fresh Produce Association. Marketing experiments and independent research both show that price, quality and convenience drive food choices more than environmental concerns.

Grocers must make difficult decisions, too. Shoppers complain about having to buy products that are already packaged in plastic and have a fixed price. Not selling by weight is easier on the store, whose employees don’t have to weigh each item. But this often forces buyers to buy more than they need.

Battle lines seem to be drawn between the never-use-plastic crowd and shoppers who prefer the ease of fresh salads delivered to their door.

“The packaging conversation is being held hostage to one side or the other,” said Max Teplitski, scientific director of the International Fresh Produce Association. He leads the Alliance for Sustainable Food Packaging, a collection of industry trade groups formed in January.

The group’s priority is to ensure that any changes to packaging will ensure food safety and preserve its quality.

Here are some new ideas for the produce aisle:

Tree bags. An Austrian company is using beech trees to make biodegradable cellulose mesh bags to hold produce. Other companies offer similar nets that break down within a few weeks.

Peel film. Orange peels, shrimp shells and other natural waste are made into films that can be used like cellophane or made into bags. An edible coating made from plant-based fatty acids is sprayed on cucumbers, avocados and other produce sold in many major grocery stores. They work in a similar way to the wax coating commonly used on citrus fruits and apples.

Cardboard shells. Plastic clamshells represent a $9.1 billion market in the United States and the number of producers using them is considerable. Their replacement will constitute a huge challenge, especially for the most fragile fruits and vegetables. Many designers try. Driscoll’s is working to develop paper containers for use in the United States and Canada. Meanwhile, the company is using more recycled plastic in its shells in the United States.

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

Boxes with atmosphere. Broccoli is usually shipped in boxes covered in wax and filled with ice. Soggy cardboard boxes cannot be recycled. Ice-free broccoli shipping containers use a blend of gases that help preserve the vegetable instead of cooling it with ice, which is cumbersome to ship and can transmit pathogens when it melts. Other durable, lighter shipping cartons are being designed to eliminate ethylene, a plant hormone that promotes ripening.

Plant containers. Leftover rice straw after harvests, grasses, sugarcane stalks and even food waste are all transformed into biodegradable or compostable trays and boxes.

Barely. Even if all producers and grocers started using packaging that could be recycled or composted, America’s infrastructure for turning it into something other than waste is spotty at best. Less than 10% of all plastic is recycled, an even lower figure for product packaging, said Eva Almenar, a professor at Michigan State University’s School of Packaging. Only a small fraction of packaging labeled compostable stays out of landfills.

Only 3 percent of wasted food ends up in industrial composting centers. Several states have no commercial operations to compost food waste.

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

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

In practice, no one has yet imagined an affordable plastic alternative that can be recycled or composted and also keeps fruits and vegetables safe and fresh. Plastic allows packagers to change the gas mixture inside a package in a way that extends the shelf life and quality of fresh produce.

“The pushback you have is that if you eliminate plastic and move to fiber, the shelf life runs out very quickly,” said Scott Crawford, vice president of merchandising for Baldor Specialty Foods and veteran of Whole Foods Market and from Fresh Direct. “The question is which side of the ball are you trying to squeeze?

The ideal solution, he says, would be to return to the days before plastic, when grocers stacked their produce by hand and no one required seasonal fruits like blueberries to be available year-round .

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

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