We don’t want packaging but the reality is that we need it. This is the key observation from PMA A-NZ’s packaging focused events this year. Packaging reduces food waste by keeping our produce fresher for longer and helps maintain that assumed function of fresh produce – that it’s safe to eat. However there is a bigger question that we need to ask ourselves about the impact our decisions have on the supply chain and our responsibility within it.
The power of social media and the internet means that environmental and social movements are gaining exponential momentum and consumers are making conscious choices that reflect these values. Right now there is a majority of consumers that simply don’t mind how their produce is packaged however a growing portion of consumers are voting with their wallets and changing buying habits based on packaging. However even with packaging at the forefront of conversation in fresh produce, we need to remember that only 4-5% of the packaging in supermarkets is in this category. A clear challenge we are seeing is balancing the voice of the people with the necessity of packaging for convenience, food quality and safety and their understanding of why.
From my observation of this topic over the past 12 months, the strongest theme is that industry needs to work together to achieve meaningful change. A key challenge for this notion is that current regulatory frameworks are voluntary, meaning individuals and businesses need to choose to engage. This presents the biggest risk, which is non-uptake across the board and passing the buck to someone else. However choosing to opt-out from the conversation on packaging in produce is choosing to put your business at odds with current consumer trends. We touched on these trends earlier in the year, in the PMA A-NZ, Fresh Produce Industry: State of Industry Report.
So where do you start? When I look across agriculture in Australia and New Zealand, the fresh produce industry is leading the way by actively engaging in discussions about packaging. The consensus is that we are responsible for the packaging we are putting our produce in. Based on this, it’s our responsibility to design and produce packaging solutions that adhere to the principles of a circular economy. This goes beyond the linear ‘cradle to grave’ but facilitates a closed loop ‘cradle to cradle’. As we do this, we also need to be mindful of the capacity of our current waste management (MERF) infrastructure. A number of commercially sustainable packaging solutions cannot be processed correctly, using current infrastructure.
The grey space in the middle (and potentially the biggest opportunity) is consumer education. Is there a role for the fresh produce industry to educate the consumer on different types of packaging, why they are required and how to dispose of them correctly? More broadly, is it our job as consumers to sort our waste at kerbside? There’s a growing interest in food provenance, but do consumers want or need know where packaging comes from and goes to?
The conversation of packaging in fresh produce will continue to evolve and I hope that as we gain better insights to the issue at hand we will find greater the opportunities for action. Maybe the first step in the journey of sustainability is targeting the elimination of unnecessary and problematic single use plastics.
There’s only one way to find out – keep up to date with the fresh produce and packaging conversation by linking in with us at PMA A-NZ.