Edibles: The rapidly changing face of packaging

Consumers want less packaging but growers must still ensure products look appealing, says Jack Shamash.

SPS packaging: latest range has clearer plastic and fits more economically inside a standard crate. Image: Sharp Interpack
SPS packaging: latest range has clearer plastic and fits more economically inside a standard crate. Image: Sharp Interpack

On the Asda website there are dozens of comments sent in by consumers suggesting ways of reducing packaging, decreasing landfill and encouraging recycling. Whether we like it or not, the environment is a major concern for shoppers and this is having to be reflected in the packaging used by growers.

To meet the demands of the environmentally-conscious shopper, there is pressure in the industry to dramatically reduce packaging. And it is having to do so without making the products appear cheap or uninviting.

British Carrot Growers Association chairman Martin Evans explains: "The main concern is to reduce packaging. This is beneficial for everyone. But we have got to be careful about product appearance.

"For example, we still sell baby Chantenay carrots in punnets. It would be possible to sell them in plastic bags, but they wouldn't look like a premium product. If you reduce the packaging, the produce can look fairly anonymous."

He points out that products such as pizzas and yoghurts are still sold in elaborate packaging and fresh produce has to compete with this. "People make a lot of snap decisions at the supermarket. We've got to make sure that we're not underselling ourselves, otherwise people will ignore the fruit and veg and head for the aisles with the biscuits and dairy products," he warns.

The challenge of creating packaging, that looks good but is not an environmental disaster is something that growers cannot ignore.

Most of the large retailers have pledged to use recyclable packaging in all their offerings. Growers are having to adapt to this situation. The biggest impact has been on the products that require the most packaging. As a result, growers of berries and tomatoes have had to change their methods of working.

Richard Harnden is technical director of Berry Gardens, Britain's largest supplier of fresh berries with a turnover of £170 million. He explains: "There are always challenges. We are now having to use recyclable containers. The retailers are moving over to using film rather than plastic lids on the punnets. Some of them are more advanced in this process than others. This means that our production lines are being complicated by the different demands of the various stores."

There is also the problem of buying in the new machinery to heat-seal the film lids onto the containers. Machines of this type are available from a wide variety of companies including Proseal and Ishida. According to Harnden, they can cost anything between £80,000 and £140,000 depending on capacity and specification. For growers, the change to film lids has meant a major capital investment.

Sharp Interpack is one of the largest producers of plastic containers for fresh produce. This year the firm has launched its SPS range of products. This is seen as an improvement on the previous SPE range because the plastic is clearer and more punnets (18 rather than 16) can be fitted into a standard crate. The SPS range is made with between 50 and 80 per cent of recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate), mainly derived from old drinks bottles.

The punnets can be supplied in a wide variety of sizes. In Britain the most popular size is the old imperial 454g (one pound) pack, which is usually used for strawberries.

The industry is still innovating. For example, Sharp Interpack has introduced robots that can glue absorbent pads into the bottoms of the punnets to absorb any "bleed" from the berries.

Until recently there were rising sales of segmented containers, which have separate compartments for different types of berry. However, as sales of the more expensive berries such as raspberries and blackberries have tailed off, the demand for these punnets has fallen. They now represent only one per cent of Sharp Interpack's sales.

But the most significant change is the widespread introduction of heat sealing. "This is making a huge environmental difference," says Sharp Interpack sales director Mark Tollman. "The weight of our standard punnet is 18.5g. The lid is 8g. You can reduce the use of plastic by 30 per cent just by using a film."

There are other advantages of using a film seal. It is more hygienic and reduces pilfering. It is also cheaper for the grower in the long term. However, there are some disadvantages. Once the lid is opened, it cannot be resealed. Also, the opened punnets take up more room in the fridge because nothing can be stacked on top of them.

Moreover, film lids don't have the visual appeal of a plastic lid. Tollman points out: "A lidded product looks more like a premium item." And the film often gives a poor impression of the produce. Tim Mudge, who represents a variety of growers groups, explains: "Film lids can look confusing. They'll carry all sorts of information, from price codes to quality assurance marks. They don't always make a good impression."

But latest developments are making the film lids more acceptable. In the past, the film had to be punched with holes so that the berries could breath. This was not only a costly process but also made the lids ugly.

Sharp Interpack has introduced a range called SPS Air, with holes in the base of the pack. This ensures better airflow and means that an unpunched film can be used. An unpunched film can accommodate more attractive images and printing can be done across the entire lid.

There have been other technical developments. Greenvale is now packing its Lady Balfour organic potatoes in a special packs made of modified atmosphere packaging. This is a perforated biodegradable material. By adjusting the number and size of perforations, the material can reduce the "greening" of potatoes.

In tests, Greenvale found that the material reduces greening complaints by 50 per cent and also helps to extend the product's shelf-life.

As for tomatoes, they are still mainly being flow-wrapped, although some retailers - most notably Sainsbury's - have dispensed with the traditional plastic tray on which the tomatoes usually sit.

Other sectors of the horticulture industry are also working on new types of plastics. English Apples and Pears chief executive Adrian Barlow says new materials are being developed to replace the traditional polythene bags. "It's too early to give any details yet," he adds.

One interesting development has been the rise of more conspicuously environmentally friendly packaging. Last year, for example, Angus Soft Fruits, launched its "Good Natured" fruit range. This year, it followed this up with further ranges of "Good Natured" salad and vegetables.

The products are put in a cardboard (pulp) tray and covered in a sleeve made of recycled card. The products are visible through a special window made of cellulose from corn starch.

Sales manager Jill Witheyman explains that the packaging has given sales a major boost. "We receive just as much praise for the packs as we do for the product," she reports. She points out that this packaging is not significantly more expensive than the traditional flow-wrapped packets.

Packhouses are also introducing more scientific ways of packing their containers. Machinery made by Marco is currently being used by major berry firms such as Hall Hunter, Winterwood Farms and Keelings. It uses a computerised weighing system linked to a conveyor belt to prevent any excess fruit being put into the individual containers.

Marco estimates that before the introduction of its system one major firm was putting an average of 470g of fruit into each 460g punnet. This might not seem a lot of waste, but for a firm that sells 85,000 punnets a week the savings could be £4,000 per week.

There is also a move to replace the wooden crates in which produce such as loose potatoes are traditionally exported. Goplasticpallets.com is marketing a range of very large plastic crates. In addition to being very sturdy, these avoid some of the problems of taking wooden crates through customs, where inspectors are very concerned about the presence of pests within the wood itself.

Packaging policies

All the major retailers now have well publicised policies on packaging. These policies are widely available, promoted on websites and in store.

Tesco has set itself a target of reducing packaging weight by 15 per cent by 2010. It is committed to using the lightest packaging from the most sustainable sources.

Sainsbury's boasts that it has reduced plastic packaging of tomatoes by 230 tonnes a year. It points out that by replacing plastic lids on strawberries with sealed film, the firm is saving 333 tonnes of plastic every year.

Morrisons, Waitrose and Asda are committed to reducing packaging to the "absolute minimum".

Marks & Spencer (M&S) is committed to "Plan A" - all packaging should be recyclable or compostable by 2012. It has issued a "packaging charter", which promises that all packaging should be made from recycled plastics or from bio-plastics.

The charter also pledges to reduce the weight of packaging by 25 per cent between 2008 and 2012. M&S claims that its policies saved 1,402 tonnes of plastic last year.

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