By Elise-Marie Steenkamp
The Packhouse Action Group (PAG) has created a cross-industry workgroup, to investigate plastic implications with the view of developing an Industry strategy towards reduced plastic use.
This proactive step is in line with other international initiatives to reduce the use of plastics through the value chain.
The use of plastics creates a paradoxical problem for the fresh produce industry worldwide as plastics improve shelf life and food safety, thereby reducing food waste. At the same time, the industry acknowledges the pollution problem it creates and is continuously looking for alternatives.
The problem, however, is complex and won’t be easily solved. It is not a new problem either. For the past twenty years, retailers have endeavoured to remove, replace, reduce and recycle plastics. Some retailers even have coupon systems to encourage consumers to recycle plastics.
The industry has indicated that they are committed to change, but changes have to be practical. Fruit is alive and dynamic. It reacts with packaging. Alternatives have to be financially viable for everyone.
One of the alternatives that commerce has looked at is packing material made from organic material. Corn flour, by-products of sugar cane and other food waste are used to make packaging. Unfortunately, more often than not, the cost of these alternatives and impact on the environment make it non-viable as the downstream effects on the value chain have to be taken into account. Good ideas, it seems, often do not add up. Still, holistic thinking and a global green economy could remedy some of the negative impacts of plastic-use.
Plastic-free stores where people have to bring their own baskets and bags and buy fresh produce off the shelf are springing up right left and centre. This throw-back 1960’s trend will have some impact, but industry representatives do not see it as the silver bullet. Consumers want quality products and convenience. Plastics provide both.
As an industry what can we do?
It is simple to use less plastic – is the PAG’s stance. One way is by re-designing packaging material to use less plastic. There has been some success with specifically a new clamshell punnet design which uses 4 grams less plastic per punnet.
Plastic also has to become biodegradable and compostable. It has to be able to go into one of the seven recycling chains. And consumers have to be educated about these recycling chains. They must, for example, understand what the triangular arrow sign and the numbering system on plastic means. One way of educating consumers is to explain the recycling chains as artwork on the packaging.
Another packaging recommendation for the industry is not to use too much filler such as calcium, as that upsets the recycling chain. Other possibilities are:
- Use only clamshell punnets, rather than an open plastic punnet with heat seal flow-wrap on top, as the latter cannot be recycled.
- Use netting in packagings, such as net fruit bags, or netting on one side of a bag.
It is clear that to solve the plastic problem the whole value chain comes into play. It is not just retailers, consumers, industries or governments. And educating everyone is going to be vital.
The PAG hopes that the task team will help to ensure that plastics are reduced, reused or as a last resort end up in a recycling chain. The solution has to be cost-effective and make financial sense—taking the environmental impact into account.
Plastics by numbers and what it means:
The ASTM International Resin Identification Coding System is a set of symbols that appear on plastic products to identify the plastic resin out of which products are made. It was developed in 1988 by the Society of the Plastics Industry (now the Plastics Industry Association) in the United States but has been administered by ASTM International, an international standards organisation since 2008. Download Plastics SA’s handy infographic: Facts about plastic with the resin identification code here: http://www.plasticsinfo.co.za/recycling/
Digesting the plastic problem
Plastics have infiltrated our lives. Toothpaste, shoes, clothes, lotions, potions, bedding, cars, medicine, food, yes food too, all contain some derivative of plastics. Once hailed as the solution to everything, the revolutionary material has become the biggest contaminator on earth, threatening our waterways, soils, atmosphere and human health. This is a problem our planet cannot digest.
Plastic pollution is everywhere, from the highest mountain peaks to the deepest ocean trenches and has become the number one environmental topic worldwide.
But let’s take a step back in time. In 1907, the invention of Bakelite—a synthetic resin—changed the world of commerce forever. Strong and pliable and derived mainly from oil, plastics can be moulded, cast, spun or applied as a coating, thereby opening up endless possibilities for the manufacturing world. However, plastics were specifically developed to defeat natural decay. They, therefore, tend to persist in natural environments—the main reason why they have become a problem. Within the span of a century, the Messiah of materials turned into the biggest villain. How did this happen?
Easily, writes Charles Moore in an essay on plastic pollution. Due to significant processing difficulties, plastics have a low recovery rate. That is, it is difficult to reuse or recycle them. Effective recycling rates vary dramatically from country to country, in any case, with only northern European countries achieving rates in excess of 50 percent. This means that, under the best of circumstances, at least half of the plastics produced end up being disposed of improperly—i.e. as pollution. (Source: https://www.britannica.com/science/plastic-pollution)
Some of the new environmentally-friendly packaging products that are currently being assessed.
Pictures: Carmé Naudé