The Plastics Conundrum
Canadian fresh-produce industry insiders weigh in on plastics reduction and substitution in our Produce Packaging 2022 forum
When Homer Simpson once hilariously toasted alcohol as “The cause of and solution to all of life’s problem,” the beloved cartoon character could well have said the same thing about plastic.
As a game-changing material that completely revolutionized consumer and commercial packaging with enhanced product protection and preservation, plastic packaging may well have been too successful for its own good—today contending with fierce public backlash and regulatory pushback for its allegedly oversized carbon footprint and other grave environmental failings.
And while plastic packaging producers heave made notable strides in recent years to make their plastic packaging products more recyclable, compostable, thinner and lighter, such progress has largely been dismissed as failed response to addressing plastic marine and landfill pollution with the required urgency and effectiveness.
With growing numbers of consumers in the Western World generally viewing plastic packaging unfavorably or with outright disdain, food producers across many different sectors are increasingly challenged to start taking drastic steps to reduce or eliminate their use of plastic packaging—especially the single-use flexible packaging that typically ends up in landfills or worse.
The thorny issue is an especially sensitive subject for Ron Lemaire, president of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA) and one of five panelists taking part in the Canadian Packaging magazine’s recent Produce Packaging 2022 virtual forum focusing on the future of plastic packaging the fresh produce industry’s value chain.
“The CPMA continues to recognize the need to address unnecessary and problematic plastics,” says Lemaire, whose Ottawa-based industry group is the leading voice for Canada’s $13-billion fresh produce sector, with its 850-plus members accounting for over 90 per cent of all fruits and vegetables sold in Canada.
“While the packaging of fresh produce is an easily observable use of plastic, the volume of plastic used by the fresh produce industry overall represents just 5.1 per cent of plastic packaging and two per cent of all plastic entering the Canadian economy each year,” Lemaire states, pointing out that not all plastics used by the industry are created equal.
“People should recognize that PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is the most commonly used plastic packaging material in the fresh produce industry,” Lemaire says.
“The PET is also the most widely recycled polymer,” he adds, “and PET packaging can be manufactured from 100 per cent recycled material.”
Moreover, there have been many detailed LCA (Life-Cycle Assessment) studies published in recent years showing that many types of plastic packaging have a smaller overall carbon footprint than competing materials when accounting for production, transportation, storage and all other stages of the packages’ service life and disposal.
“The carbon discussion is perhaps the most interesting aspect,” says Lemaire. “More needs to be done to look at the carbon footprint of all packaging before we make decisions that would lead to unintended consequences for our industry, environment, and potentially ‘greenwash’ our best intentions.”
According to Lemaire, rash regulatory moves designed to curb the use of plastic packaging would greatly undermine an industry that not only has struggled mightily at various stages through the COVID-19 lockdowns, but is now being hampered by rising inflation in the food sector and its across its supplier base.
As Lemaire cautions, “Substantial increases in costs and delays along the supply chain have the potential to threaten our food security and the long-term economic viability of the North American fresh produce sector, while the high perishability of fresh fruits and vegetables further complicates supply chain challenges for our sector.
“Compounding supply chain disruptions will impact the price of fresh produce,” he states. “The industry cannot fully bear these costs, and they will ultimately be passed onto consumers—mainly affecting those who can least afford it.
Dan Branson, director of new product and business development at Kingsville, Ont.-based greenhouse operator Mucci Farms, says his company has been trying its best to hold its prices in line despite the rising inflation, but there is a limit to what in can do about the final sale prices for its products at retail level.
“The food inflation is a very troubling development,” Branson states. “We have absorbed a lot of rising costs throughout our supply chain in last two years, while trying to maintain our employment levels and to introduce more sustainable packaging.
“Prior to the pandemic, transporting a truckload of fresh produce from California to our facilities used to cost $5,000,” Branson notes, “while today it’s costing us from $12,000 to $14,000 per truckload.
“We try to absorb these costs the best we can without passing them on to consumers, he says, “but it makes it very hard for us to operate a profitable business.”
Says Branson: “The costs of rising inflation is not just a consumer concern: it is something that’s hurting all of us in the fresh produce business.”
Despite those financial pains, Mucci Farms has been pushing forward with proactive company-wide efforts to reduce its use pf plastics—notably by replacing a good portion of its traditional plastic clamshell packaging with top-sealing technology that uses recyclable thin PET film to seal the containers.
According to Branson, the switch has enabled plastics reduction for the converted packaging from 20 to 40 per cent, depending on the product.
Despite that, Branson says that plastic packaging remains a necessary resource for produce vendors to maximize product shelf-life and avoid product waste.
“We really need to change the narrative that all plastics are bad,” Branson states.
“Plastic packaging solves a lot of problems in terms of food safety and shelf-life concerns,” he states, “and it should not be abandoned.
“Moreover, the produce industry accounts for a very small percentage of all the packaging collected for landfill disposal in Canada,” Branson asserts.
Nevertheless, Branson says the industry can still reduce its plastic packaging footprint by accelerating its switch from EPS (expanded polystyrene) foam trays to the more recyclable options like paperboard and molded-fiber containers; include more PCR (post-consumer recycled) content for its existing plastic containers; and move aways from multilayer laminates to monolayer film structures.
Above all, Branson says the Canadian industry needs a more cohesive strategy for plastic reduction across all of its stakeholder groups—from packaging suppliers to waste disposal operators.
“We need a better infrastructure in Canada to support the recycling of a majority of waste generated in the sector,” he states, “while building public confidence and trust in our material selection.”
As Branson relates, the company makes extensive use of the Golden Design Rules material selection guide, developed by The Consumer Goods Forum industry group, to shape its plastic reduction strategies.
In addition, the company is keeping a close eye on the developments in Europe, where France has recently banned the use of single-use plastic wrapping for about 30 different varieties of fresh fruits and vegetable since the start of the year, with Spain promising to introduce similar measures next year.
“At the end of the day, it’s really up to the retail industry and different levels of government to take responsibility for what needs to be done to move the industry on a more sustainable path,” Branson says.
“There are many parts of the world, not just Canada, that do not have an infrastructure or strategy in place to address the plastic waste problem in an optimal way,” he says.
This void is a source of endless frustration for many Canadian plastic packaging suppliers like Canpaco Inc., headquartered in Vaughan, Ont.
As a major supplier of plastic shrinkwrap, stretchwrap and bagging materials, Canpaco has made large investments over the years to expand its product offering with more earth-friendly plastic materials—both by boosting their PCR content and with the launch of biodegradable plastic materials compatible with industrial composting processes.
However, the company often finds itself swimming against the tide because its more sustainable alternatives have not been sufficiently embraced and supported by the industry or its retail customers, according to Canpaco’s territory manager for business development Shaun Kargacin.
While Kargacin acknowledges that many earlier attempts by food manufacturers to use more sustainable packaging solutions ended in failure and were costly to implement, the industry has greatly improved the key performance attributes of its earth-friendly materials.
“I think the biggest hurdle is the fear among manufacturers of trying to do the same thing without success,” he sighs.
“There is the assumption that it will fail like it did previously.”
Not easily discouraged, Canpaco continues to bolster its sustainable packaging portfolio, recently launching the new Crystal Poly brand of PE food-wrapping film as a replacement for the traditional PVC food wrappers linked to the release of highly toxic dioxins into the environment.
“For years, retailers, packers and growers have been using PVC, and it works well for doing what they originally intended its use for,” Kargacin explains.
“However, it has proved to be hazardous to the environment, and the negative effects on human health, due to the plasticizers that have been linked to its usage,” he says.
“Major retailers are taking a stance towards removing this product from their shelves,” he notes, “and that’s where we come in.
“Our 100-percent recyclable film is designed with the environment, and people’s general safety, being the top priorities,” Kargacin asserts.
“There are no phthalates or plasticizers are used in its production, so it is safe for direct food contact.
“The film remains ductile in extreme low temperatures, so works great in blast freezers, it’s microwavable, and there’s no migratory properties for any type of potential food contamination,” Kargacin continues.
“Being made from low-density polyethylene, it’s also naturally tougher and more puncture-resistant,” says Kargacin, “which is another one of a long list of benefits.
“Depending on the product and the ways it is packed, we see many opportunities for it in PVC replacement for products like cucumbers, peppers, corn and mushrooms.”
For Jerry Dzikowski, director of category management for fresh grocery at the Ontario-based grocery chain Giant Tiger, the availability of such eco-friendlier packaging solutions needs to be complemented with an adequate infrastructure to support their recyclability or compostability.
Says Dzikowski: “Sustainability is key pillar in our organization, and we will continue to work with our partners to ensure we move towards our goals in the coming years, which is ultimately less packaging and more sustainable alternatives.
“Regardless of company or sector, we need to align and unify in our decision to change,” he sates.
“The industry is large enough where we can make a global impact to the environment,” he asserts, “if we ensure there is change is at the core of each organization to enable us to drive our costs down together.
“There is an urgent need for new technology and government mandates to drive sustainable change,” Dzikowski says, “but we also need funding mandates on companies to implement such initiatives.
“We need to fund local companies to invest in this technology to ensure that the added costs remain low enough for the produce value chain to absorb.”
Zack Jones, general manager for produce at leading western Canadian grocery chain SaveOn Foods, agrees that closer operation between all value chain partners in the produce sector is key to achieving greater circularity for plastic packaging.
“It is certainly a top-of-mind subject that we talk about quite a bit at SaveOn Foods,” Jones says.
“It is clear that most Canadian consumers want to see us reduce the consumption of plastics in general,” Jones states, “and we are continuing to have discussions with our packaging suppliers to see if there’s a better way to sell strawberries, blueberries and other perishables without plastic bags and clamshells, which is the first big thing that consumer sees right in the produce aisles.”
While Jones says that the company would like to sell more of its produce in paperboard and/corrugated packaging, he acknowledges that the industry would be in big trouble if all the plastic packaging used in the fresh produce value chain today was to vanish overnight.
“It is just too indispensable at the moment for some products and applications,” he agrees, “but reducing at least some parts of the plastic waste-stream could stimulate the technological innovation needed to address the issue on a large scale.
“The consumers of tomorrow, the next generation, will certainly be expecting their packaging to contain very little plastic or nor plastic at all,” he says,” “and the produce value chain has to address that reality today.
“I think that the retail industry certainly has a position of influence to play an important role,” he says states, “but it’s going to have to be collaborative across all parts of supply chain, as well as the government.
“The consumers are going to demand it,” he concludes, “and it is the industry’s responsibility to give them what they demand, while maintaining the product quality, freshness, shelf-life and convenience that Canadian consumers have grown to accept as a given.”