Reasons for turning to sustainable packaging are many.

Some produce companies have an innate desire to do whatever they can to protect the environment, others see touting green packaging as a marketing advantage, and many suppliers turn to environmentally friendly materials at the request of their retail or foodservice customers.

Whatever the reasons, green packaging quickly is becoming the norm and seems especially appropriate for an industry that pushes fresh, natural products.

In the five years that Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer for the Produce Marketing Association, has been serving as a judge for the organization’s Impact Awards for innovative packaging, he said he’s seen an influx of sustainable packaging.

One thing he noticed about this year’s Impact Award entries is that many companies seem to be switching from rigid, clamshell containers to bags made from recyclable plastic.

Grower-shippers typically can pack more bags in a box than they can clamshell containers, so they get more units per pallet and reduce their carbon footprint by using less fuel for transportation.

Miami-based Rock Garden Herbs is one company that has switched to pouches as a sustainable alternative to clamshells, said Thi Squire, head of product development.

The company put out its first pouches four years ago but constantly is changing and upgrading them.

The firm switched to pouches because of “a commitment to sustainable and resolving packaging issues,” she said.


Packaged vs. bulk

Whitaker said he also is seeing more products like lemons and brussels sprouts that used to be sold in bulk now being sold in packages.

The package protects the product, extends shelf life, reduces shrink and provides the supplier with space to deliver a message about how to use the product, how the product was grown and how it is packaged in an environmentally friendly manner, he said.

Companies that offer sustainable packaging are eager to tell the world how environmentally conscious they are by publicizing their efforts on product labels.

“That billboard space on the package is becoming extremely important,” Whitaker said.

While consumers may be confused by terms like “compostable,” “biodegradable” or “lower carbon footprint,” they like the basic idea of using less, said Roman Forowycz, chief marketing officer for Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based Clear Lam Packaging.

“A message such as ‘less plastic’ scores high with consumers,” he said. “It’s simple to understand and does a lot to lower our impact on the environment.”

Whitaker did not see many entries that used “novel” materials this year, like fiber containers made with coconut palms or plastics from milk protein or corn starch.

And Forowycz has noticed more efforts to reduce the use of plastics.

New peel-reseal films allow for the elimination of rigid lids and shrink bands that are common with fresh-cut produce, he said.

“We are also seeing rigid packaging being made with recycled water and soda bottles,” he said.


Second life for bottles

Worldwide Plastics Co., San Antonio makes 70% of its fruit and vegetable thermoform flat trays and clamshell containers from recyclable bottles, said president Vincent Mery.

The company has doubled its size since it was established 25 years ago and continues to grow, he said.

“Everybody’s trying to go green,” he said.

The process isn’t practical for all applications, he said, but the packaging is used by many packers and repackers, and Mery said he uses it whenever he can.

Mery is not sure consumers are as concerned about the package a product comes in as grower-shippers or retailers are who can tout their sustainability efforts.

“There is a demographic that has disposable income and would factor environmental sustainability into their equation — people (who) will pay a premium for a product that they feel are more environmentally sustainable,” Whitaker said.

But that group is a “very defined demographic,” he said, “probably not nearly a majority.”

The cost difference between traditional and sustainable packaging varies, depending on the type of pack, said Julia Inestroza, marketing director for Gourmet Trading Co., Los Angeles.

“I do think that certain consumers are looking for and willing to pay a bit more for sustainable packaging,” she said. “I think that eventually there will be more of a push to mainstream sustainable packaging as the price difference narrows.”

Packaging is just one aspect of being an environmentally friendly company, Whitaker said, along with practices like conserving water, reducing waste and saving energy.