BOSTON — Susan Battista cautioned retailers and produce companies Aug. 22 that significantly reducing the use of plastic is something they will need to do in the near future.

Battista, a partner in market research and branding agency Visual Dialogue, presented at the New England Produce Council show about what marketers and merchandisers should know about how millennials shop for produce. She urged the development of alternative types of packaging, particularly for clamshells, a staple in the berry category.

Clamshells gained popularity in the industry because of the way they protect delicate fruits and allows shoppers to inspect the product from all angles. Companies have explored alternatives, but so far nothing has delivered as well on consumer expectations — visibility, quality, shelf life — at a similar price point.

Battista recommended companies continue trying to find other options. Plastic straw bans by cities and large foodservice operators have been prevalent this year.

“This is at the tipping point,” Battista said. “This thing’s going to take off.”

The day after Battista spoke at NEPC, Kroger announced that it plans to phase out plastic bags by 2025.

 

Paper or plastic?

Seattle-based banner QFC will be the first Kroger banner to make the change, and that move is expected to be complete in 2019.

“As part of our Zero Hunger Zero Waste commitment, we are phasing out use-once, throw-it-away plastic bags and transitioning to reusable bags in our stores by 2025,” Kroger chairman and CEO Rodney McMullen said in a news release. “It’s a bold move that will better protect our planet for future generations.”

New York governor Andrew Cuomo introduced a bill in April that would ban all single-use plastic bags at any point of sale in the state, but Wegmans sustainability manager Jason Wadsworth cautioned that simply banning one type of bag may not produce the desired effect and could have unintended consequences.

“A plastic bag ban that doesn’t also address single-use paper bags will likely lead to an increase in the use of paper bags, which is not what’s best for the environment,” Wadsworth said in an April news release. “We know from experience that it’s possible to reduce the use of single-use plastic bags by educating customers about reusable bags and reminding them to bring plastic bags back to our store for recycling. This, coupled with the use of plastic bags made from recycled plastic will have a much greater impact in the long run ...”

Wadsworth asserted that paper bags must also be addressed because they are even worse for the environment.

“Paper bags are heavier and take up more space; it takes seven tractor trailers to transport the same number of paper bags as plastic bags carried by one tractor trailer,” Wadsworth said in the release. “It also takes about 90% more resources and energy to make and recycle paper compared to plastic. Due to the chemicals used in the manufacturing process, paper is also very harmful to our waterways. And while paper bags are biodegradable, they won’t actually biodegrade if they end up in a landfill because of a lack of oxygen.”

 

Takeaway

Companies have already been exploring alternatives, but in the present climate it may be prudent to accelerate those efforts. Expectations on retailers normally trickle down to their suppliers, so if nothing else it makes sense to have conversations about this topic if those are not already happening.

In the presentation by Battista about millennials, one of the students in the audience reiterated her interest in understanding more about the supply chain.

“Transparency” was her main request.

Along with exploring other packaging options, more consumer education is key. For retailers, in certain markets it might make sense to have a sign by the berries that says, “Why this packaging?” with a quick description of why the company feels this packaging is the best way right now to meet the needs of shoppers. It could then include a link to a website where shoppers can learn more about the company’s sustainability programs.

 

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