Since the E. coli out break that was linked to spinach one year ago this month, food safety has been the top priority for most grower-shippers. Consumers want assurance that their food supply is safe. But there has been another growing demand among the general population—the green movement. From aging baby boomers to Generation Xers, consumers are looking for products made using environmentally safe practices and packed in earth-friendly cartons.

“America’s demand for environmentally friendly products is creating a frenzy, and this is nowhere more visible than in the packaging industry,” says Chris MacGrory, markets/products manager of reusable plastic containers and radio frequency identification packaging and material handling for IPL Products Ltd., Worcester, Mass., a subsidiary of IPL Inc., Saint-Damien, Quebec.

The movement towards earth-friendly or sustainable packaging in the United States had its origin in late 2003, when a group of about two dozen representatives in the packaging industry got together at the University of Virginia. What resulted from that meeting was the formation of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.

“The SPC started with nine members and has grown to around 150 members in different parts of the supply chain, reflecting company involvement,” says Erin Malec, director of external relations for Charlottesville, Va.-based GreenBlue, the nonprofit design institute that oversees the coalition.

She adds that the concept of sustainable packaging really came to the forefront within the past couple of years when Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark., announced its sustainable packaging initiative, thus motivating the industry. Other industry observers agree that there has been a huge snowball effect from Wal-Mart to regional suppliers.


Why should growers care?

While in the past the greatest interest in environmentally friendly products has come from “green” consumers, an increasing level of concern is being voiced across the board. “Today, everyday consumers are reading about the environment, and a bigger audience is getting the movement going,” says David Stanton, brand manager for NatureWorks LLC, Minneapolis, Minn.

Stanton also says growers should be focused on environmental issues and sustainable packaging in order to track and validate environmentally friendly farming practices. When brand owners and retailers make claims regarding reduced greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel conservation, for example, they need help from the farmer in documenting such claims by tracing the products’ history back to the farm, he says. Also, the high cost of crude oil continues to reinforce the growing need for renewable-resource-based alternatives.


What are some packaging options?

Just because the push for environmentally friendly packaging is relatively new to the agriculture industry, that doesn’t mean growers don’t have a number of options from which to choose.

“There are many solutions for environmentally friendly packaging with lots of applications, and each has its own attributes. Grower needs — strength, clarity, expense, where and how the product is being shipped, etc. — will determine the best fit,” Stanton says.

Malec agrees, saying that growers should look at the entire life cycle of a product, from source to transportation, before assessing all the possible avenues.

Environmentally friendly innovations have included making packaging out of such renewable resources as wood fiber, corn or potatoes; reducing or replacing petroleum-based polymers; and increasing recycled content in materials.

“Sourcing of [paper-based] materials is also an important part of the equation, to ensure use of virgin fiber that comes from well managed forests,” says Jason Metnick, director of market access and product labeling for the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, Arlington, Va.

One option is earth-friendly containerboard. Growers can opt for wax-free corrugated paper that is fully recyclable, such as that offered by Memphis, Tenn.-based International Paper Co., says Emily Davis, manager of sustainability for the company’s packaging group. This product gives retailers a 90 percent recycling rate, she says, so growers would have a more competitive package to offer.

“We also minimize the use of produce packaging because the product is interlocking and stable. It allows the maximum volume of produce to be transported. Such packaging can also be used at the retail level, so no secondary packaging is needed,” Davis says. She adds that the packaging reduces produce spoilage and shrink because it cushions the product. It also is reusable for local farmers markets.

Davis says International Paper plans to continue to analyze the end of a package’s life cycle with constant evaluation of how to improve reusability and composting options, including improvements on innovative coatings and the current potential to burn containerboard as fuel stock. “Our goal will be zero waste in corrugated products and to provide completely renewable, recyclable and compostable material,” she says.

Another innovation in earth-friendly grower packaging is a corn-based resin called polyactic acid, also known as PLA. Dextrose, the base feedstock, is used in a fermentation process in which sugar is converted to lactic acid. The lactic acid is then used to create a polymer, which is later converted to a variety of packaging and fiber applications. PLA packaging already is used by several growers and retailers, including Wal-Mart, which uses it to package cut fruit, herbs, strawberries, and brussel sprouts, according to Wal-Mart’s sustainability fact sheet on its Web site.

Another PLA application has been recognized in the Florida citrus juice sector. Winter Haven-based Blue Lake Citrus Products LLC, which markets the Noble Juice brand, has been using PLA for its bottling needs for about a year. The company says it was a challenge at first to reach consumers, but more recently it has gotten a positive response from retailers.

“Consumers can readily identify with our efforts to preserve the earth by using vegetable-based rather than petroleum-based products,” says Allison Stone, marketing manager. She adds that the high price of fossil fuels makes vegetable-based alternatives such as PLA increasingly more viable when it comes to managing the cost of bottling its Florida-grown orange, grapefruit, and tangerine juice.

A new line of natural plastics under the Mirel brand is another alternative that may become of increasing interest to growers. It is now being produced in a pilot facility by Lowell, Mass.-based Telles, a joint venture formed in 2006 between Metabolix Inc., Cambridge, Mass., and Archer Daniels Midland, Decatur, Ill. While the packaging currently is made by the microbial fermentation of corn sugar, sugars derived from other products, such as cane sugar, palm oil or coconut oil, may also be used, says Brian Igoe, vice president and chief brand officer.

“Our Clinton, Iowa-based plant is expected to be coming on line in late 2008. When up to capacity, we will be producing 110 millions pounds of Mirel annually and will be able to expand threefold. We are building with the idea of expansion because the response has been tremendous,” Igoe says.

He adds that future applications will include netting, films for agricultural mulch, and packaging.

All products will be 100 percent biodegradable and are expected to compete with petrochemical products in performance and cost, he says.

“While the price per pound of film or packaging might initially be more than petroleum-based products, it will make economic sense to the grower,” Igoe says. “In reality, once the costs involved in the end of life scenario of petroleum-based products, such as waste disposal and labor, are taken into consideration, there will actually be a cost savings for the grower.”

Manufacturers also have been reducing packaging costs and waste by providing reusable plastic containers to replace single-use containers for use in the fruit and vegetable sector. Reusable transport packaging — totes, boxes, bins and pallets — is designed for multiple trips and for many years of use. MacGrory says that IPL estimates current RPC use in the United States at about 30 million containers.

“These products enable growers not to have to source single use packaging for every package of produce,” MacGrory says.

Current designs are collapsible, stackable, nestable, and space-saving. RPCs provide growers the benefits of less product shrink, reduced time needed to pre-cool their produce, and the ability to mix pallets, he says, adding that they can save time and labor because vegetables can be harvested and placed directly into the containers.

Energy-efficient long-distance transport of produce is particularly challenging because of the refrigeration and large amounts of fuel required. In response, manufactures look for ways to improve reusable transport packaging and pallet pooling. MacGrory says that IPL’s next step will be to further reduce weight in its products, ensuring that every ounce of plastic used really needs to be there, while maintaining structural integrity, strength, and durability. The company also plans to continue to work with the Reusable Plastic Pallet and Container Coalition to find ways to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions, he says.


Will cost be an inhibitor?

While manufacturers of earth-friendly packaging continue to seek innovative products, they clearly recognize the importance of costs to growers. “Sustainability and economics need to merge together,” MacGrory says.

Mark Ritenour, associate professor of post-harvest technology at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Indian River Research and Education Center in Fort Pierce, also emphasizes the importance of a reasonable bottom-line cost for environmentally-friendly packaging.

“Grower-packers might be concerned about new products because of the perceived added burden of having to carry and manage hundreds of thousands of dollars of pre-printed cartons already in inventory,” he says. “Adding another design adds another complexity for growers. Cost savings must go hand in hand with retaining strength under high humidity conditions, allowing for cooling and heat exchange. But if these conditions could be satisfied, new products would stand a chance.”

Bill Horner, chief executive officer of Clarinda, Iowa-based Naturally Iowa, manufacturers PLA bottles for dairy and is exploring a joint venture with Florida citrus growers to bottle an organic juice. “I can honestly say that petroleum-based and PLA bottles are cost competitive,” he says.

The specific costs depend upon many things, he adds, including the volume produced, but for him it’s a “no-brainer” to produce corn-based rather than oil-based bottles because they are so competitive.

Stanton with NatureWorks says the cost of using PLA is competitive with that of petroleum-based products.

And as the price of oil increases, the gap between that of earth-friendly packaging and petroleum-based plastics will only continue to shrink. Mary Jo Leber, analyst for Tolland, Conn.-based Nerac, Inc., a research and advisory firm says, “The run-up in crude oil prices has narrowed the price differential between petroleum-based plastics and those produced from biodegradable materials. The economic viability of biodegradable plastics made from renewable sources is increasing, as production ramps up and unit costs decrease. Biomass becomes competitive for making chemicals when oil reaches $55 per barrel. By 2010, we could see biomass becoming competitive at $40-45 per barrel for oil.”