Sept 05, 2017

Sustainability and Packaging: The sustainability quandary

As we trawl the planet for emerging technologies around sustainable packaging solutions, we often find ourselves questioning what is happening and where things are headed for sustainability in relation to the packaging of produce. This is not a debate we take lightly, but we continuously find ourselves questioning various angles on the topic. I would personally like to suggest it sits in the same category as carbon emissions e.g. we know that burning fuel to propel ourselves to work in the morning adds negatively to our environment, but we are not all piling onto buses and trains because of it. In fact, I would argue that the majority of people using public transport do so because it is easier or cheaper than commuting and parking a car all day, not because of the reduction in emissions.

Similarly, while consumers tell us in repeated surveys that they want less packaging or more environmentally friendly forms of packaging, they vote with their wallets, not their mouths. In New Zealand, sustainable packaging is still as niche as organics and while other nations put us to shame in this regard, in the main they are mandated to provide sustainable packaging which is forcing the change – it is not driven by a collective desire to do better.

No one will argue that it is a bad idea, however down under we are left sitting on the fence. If you decide to be a first mover in your category you will add cost to your product and an increase in price will affect sales – it’s a scary proposition for many, especially those that have to move volume.

In our industry we are currently faced with this discussion taking several forms:

Going Nude

De-packaging is a discussion gathering momentum and is a genuine option in many produce spaces. However, it introduces complexity around barcodes, variety identification, shelf life extension, food safety, logistics amongst other issues all create a barrier to this movement. The humble fruit label or Elastitags are one way to solve the problem in some cases, however they are not the answer for all products. It is not practical to put an adhesive label on lettuce for example, and unwrapped lettuce changes a customer perception of food safety and handling. A genuine option for many areas, but does not help keep your iceberg fresh and clean.

Baby Steps

Probably the most popular option being taken up is using rPET plastics. Often containing up to 80% recycled material and with a sensible price point this is a practical solution for products that need to be contained. Selling raspberries in dump bins will never work and so there is no real alternative than to put them in a punnet or tray. Shifting to rPET based trays will tick a couple of boxes for your sustainability conscience and if you are so inclined you can give up some of your label real-estate to tell your customer about it so they know your packaging is not all bad.

Screaming Sustainability

Fibre and cardboard trays are gathering popularity and the prices continue to drop as consumption increases. While the package screams sustainability, some customers struggle with the loss of visibility of their proud product. With a fibre tray you still need to cap it with a plastic lid or film which needs some consideration also. Another angle on this is compostable plastics. Growing in popularity, this option provides full clarity for product visibility but the material is made from plant based renewable sources. One catch here is that rigid compostable packaging is only compostable in an industrial environment and not all centres in New Zealand cater for this.

So where does that leave us?

A quick summary table of pro’s and con’s might look like this:



Industry Challenge

Going nude

Easily identified as de-packaged.

Not practical for all produce types.

Consider options for your durable produce.

Label and tag technology is advancing all the time and you can fit a lot of information on a small space.


An easy transition that may not require any change to pack line or type.

Quite cost effective.

If you want your customer to know you are doing your bit, you will need to sacrifice some of your real estate to tell them
the story.

Is still from non-renewable sources.

If you want to take a step in the right direction but
the time is not right for
step change, then this is the option for you.


Screams sustainability reducing the need to loose real estate to tell your customer that you are doing your bit.

Generally home compostable breaking down in under 90 days.

Lost visibility of product.

Still requires plastic lidding but this can be rPET or compostable
and even if you don’t, the plastic component is massively reduced.

Can increase costs.

If you want to dip a toe in, circle off a portion of your volume to trial with your retailers.

Add the necessary premium to cover the cost and see if the product still shifts. Our experience is that it does, at a surprising rate.

Compostable plastics

Guilt free plastic with excellent clarity.

Minimal pack line or type change.

Higher cost.

If you want your customer to know it is compostable you will lose some real estate.

This challenge is not directed at the user of the packaging, but our local government sector – embrace this emerging product and facilitate curb side collection and industrial composting facilities.

You will have noticed that although we are big advocates of sustainable packaging solutions, even we are forced to keep a foot in both camps. The challenge is asking ourselves who’s responsibility is it to make the change?

  • Am I guilty of selling products that are not considered ‘sustainable’? Yes.
  • Are you guilty of preferring to use these packaging types? Yes.
  • Are our end consumers guilty of preferring the price point, appearance, convenience or other attributes of these packaging types? Yes.
  • Are our local governments guilty of not appropriately facilitating the change to sustainable packaging types? Yes.

Who’s mission is this and who is responsible for making change if change is to come? Yours, mine or ours, or theirs?

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