In the Trenches: Eliminating plastic could be risky

What would a world without packaging look like?

Every item in the produce department would be displayed in bulk form.

What if there were no poly bags available in which to place your bulk items? Shoppers would have to put all those items into their shopping cart loose.

What if shoppers wanted information about an item, its origin, nutritional value or recipe options? They would have to stop and take time to ask a clerk or search for it on their phone.

What if there were pricing errors on items purchased? Consumers would have to travel back to the store to get it resolved.

These are only a small portion of inconveniences that would occur if packaging were to be completely eliminated. This is far from friendly and convenient shopping for consumers.

First and foremost, it is certainly necessary that we all protect the environment with good sustainability practices. We are all quite aware of this conscientious obligation that is vital to human society.

On the other hand, this is the modern world and packaging is not all bad. In fact, plastic material has many benefits if used moderately and efficiently. Plastics for packaging purposes are being constantly improved. For example:

  • Bioplastics are made from materials such as corn.
  • Biodegradable options are developed to break down more rapidly.
  • Eco/recycled options are made from recycled material.

John Pandol, director of special projects for Pandol Bros. Inc, based in Delano, CA, said, “Plastic is strong, lightweight, transparent and aseptic. Plastic packaging contains, protects and preserves quality. I know of no material that performs as well in so many applications. Having said that, we’re always looking for something better and cheaper.”

Here are five benefits of plastic packaging for produce:

  • Extended shelf life — Favorable for consumers and stores. Loose peppers last four days. Plastic packed peppers could last 15 or more days.
  • Convenience — Speeds customer shopping. Less chore time.
  • Sanitation/Hygiene — Keeps product clean and protected.
  • Food Safety — Guards against contamination. Defends the invasion of microorganisms.
  • Merchandising Support — Less labor. Faster and easier to display and stackable.

Removing plastic from food packaging is unnecessary. In fact, this move would disrupt the entire system and become a huge setback to the successful growth of the produce industry. Furthermore, farmers, processors, packers, shippers, distributors, retailers, and especially consumers would be feeling the impact extensively.

A produce department with only bulk product on display literally has numerous disadvantages. It would be very labor-intense, trigger shrink, increase food waste, create cashier checkout errors, and hinder sales and profit margin.

One of the most serious factors that can get out of control is contamination of the produce items. Uncovered raw fruits and vegetables are always open to customers spreading germs.

We’ve all seen the customer who has a nasty cold and sneezes into their hand, then ravages through the leaf lettuce, tomatoes or apples. This is where plastic packaging comes into play in a positive way. Many produce items will always need to be packaged. It protects the produce from the spread of germs linked to those rummaging hands.

More than 50 percent of shoppers purchase their produce in packages. Consider the amount of salad mix, fresh-cut fruits and vegetables that consumers purchase. The enormous tonnage and extreme sales would be impossible without plastic packaging.

We should not rush into eliminating all plastic packaging without having some reasonable patience. Otherwise, it could have huge consequences on decreasing sales.

There are many efforts by manufacturers to develop friendlier plastic materials. We should allow them time to experiment with innovative packaging solutions that will comply with protecting the environment and support sustainability.

Ron Pelger is the owner of RonProCon, a produce industry advisory firm. He is also a produce industry merchandising director and a freelance writer. He can be contacted at 775-843-2394 or by e-mail at ronprocon@gmail.com.

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