Report Synopsis

Alternatives to Plastic Packaging on Fresh Produce. Options for Vegetable Growers

Natasha Shields

This report is based on a study conducted into the issues facing fresh food producers in Australia, and the requirements to use plastic packaging to maintain produce freshness and ensure food safety and hygiene standards, as well as meet retailer and consumer expectations. The research focused on finding alternatives to traditional plastic packaging for fresh food producers available in the global market, with a focus on sustainability, affordability whilst ensuring food safety and being environmentally friendly.

The aim was to investigate and share knowledge and practices from ‘farm to fridge’ that are occurring around the world. This report has focused on applying these potential solutions to the Australian context to assist producers, retailers, consumers, the rest of the fresh produce supply chain and the packaging and recycling sector. It provides an overview of the main issues facing producers of fresh foods, the retail sector’s expectations, and the successes of innovators with technological solutions aiming to provide alternatives to current plastic packaging.

Specifically, this research aims to achieve the following objectives:

  • To find alternatives to plastic packaging for fresh produce
  • Find packaging options to keep produce fresher for longer
  • Seek economically viable alternatives to plastic packaging on fresh produce
  • Search for compostable/biodegradable packaging for use on fresh produce
  • Better understand the “War on Waste”, including better environmental alternatives

The issue of plastic packaging in the horticulture industry in Australia is examined through understanding consumer perceptions, retail sector demands, different needs of wholesalers and issue around food safety. The implications of the current COVID-19 global pandemic and the need for increased hygiene standards are examined, and it is concluded that the “war on waste” will have to wait, as consumers demand protection from handling and contamination of their fresh food in supermarkets and other settings.

The necessity for solutions to the current plastic packaging demands are examined in relation to the benefits of a circular economy over the predominant linear structure with regard to packaging and goods. Plastic alternatives such as bioplastics are discussed, as well as the issues around ‘compostability’ including home and industrial composting.  Recycling facilities and the issues surrounding consumer comprehension of the processes are also discussed in relation to requirements for labelling and verification.

Examples of new technologies as alternatives to traditional plastic packaging are examined. Australian producers, retailers and consumers should be able to find a comfortable solution to the current impasse in single-use plastics and waste management. However, there is no one simple solution and current targets set by the Australian Government to create 100% recycled packaging by 2025 will require many strategies with the lifecycle of ‘farm to fridge’.

The issues and challenges surrounding plastic packaging on fresh produce are ongoing. This report provides a better understanding of the ‘war on waste’ in Australia. There are alternatives being used in the global market and most of these are economically viable options to keep produce fresher for longer. Nonetheless, consumer perceptions, retailer demands, different needs of wholesalers, and issues around food safety – particularly during the current COVID-19 global pandemic and the need for increased hygiene standards – have all indicated that alternatives to traditional plastic packaging are needed. While these alternatives may enable a more ‘circular economy’ in relation to produce and packaging, ultimately the results will depend on consumer awareness and understanding, and the requirement for labelling and national and international standards to ensure a competitive and level market. 

During and after COVID-19, it is likely that some form of packaging will be required by certain retailers on all fresh produce. However, it is the consumer who determines which products they purchase, and then what happens to the packaging once it is no longer required. While consumer demand is the driver for change, national and international standards are needed to ensure the alternatives complete ‘the loop’ for a fully recyclable economy that minimises waste.  While there appears to be some alternatives there is no ONE simple solution – no ‘magic bullet’. In most cases it seems each country, state, or municipality has its own problems, and is trying its own solutions. 

Any solution needs to include some plastic packaging for fresh produce which is recyclable.  However, the reliance on recycling is limited until further infrastructure is built. Nonetheless, this report contributes to a better understanding of the ‘war on waste’, because each stakeholder from ‘farm to fridge’, must consider changing their practices, and nothing can be achieved by any one person, or one producer, or simply by changing any one step in the process.

 

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