The practice of wrapping produce in single-use plastic isn't just adding pollution; it may be leading to food loss as well.

Alex Smolokoff, Editorial coordinator

February 28, 2022

3 Min Read
plastic packaging produce waste.jpg

In an effort to protect fruits, vegetables and other produce from spoilage, many grocers choose to protect them in single-use plastic wrapping or packaging. However, a recent report from the sustainability charity Wrap indicates this practice may cause more harm than good in the form of not only pollution from the plastic packaging itself, but additional food loss through waste.

The group’s 18-month study investigated sales of apples, bananas, potatoes, broccoli and cucumber both with plastic packaging, including “Best before” dates, and loose without the dates. What they found was, along with the added pollution that comes from single-use plastic packaging—which the group estimates is upwards of 10,000 tons of plastic in the UK alone—the sale of fresh produce wrapped in plastic and including a “Best before” date actually increased food loss.

Plastic wrap “doesn’t necessarily prolong the life of uncut fresh produce,” said WRAP EO Marcus Gover. “It can in fact increase food waste in this case.”

In its study, Wrap notes that in the UK, nearly $3 billion worth of produce is thrown away annually because it has either gone moldy or its date label has expired. The group noted the plastic wrapping on produce in-store made “little or no difference” in shelf life, but did force consumers to often purchase more of a product than they needed, leading to waste. Additionally, the presence of a “Best before” date often leads to the disposal of produce before it is necessary; according to WRAP, 1 in 10 people throw food away if it has passed its label date, even if their judgment says the food is still good. Not only would the elimination of plastic packaging from produce save more than 10,000 tons of plastic, the group found, but more than 100,000 tons of food annually.

“For apples, potatoes and bananas, enabling people to buy the right amount is the most impactful way in which selling loose will help to reduce food waste, the report reads. “While most supermarkets sell some of these items loose already, the research shows a compelling case that this should be significantly increased, not just across these three products, but a wider range of fresh fruit and vegetables. While the study focused on five commonly wasted items, there are many more products that are currently sometimes sold loose where the research could also be applied.”

Food & Beverage Insider insights

Switching to a more sustainable method of packaging (or not packaging) food is obviously an important step in protecting the environment from the harms of polluting plastic, as well as limiting time- and money-wasting food loss. If that isn’t convincing enough, however, plenty of research indicates it’s also good business.

Recent proprietary research from Cargill, released as part of its most recent FATitudes survey, noted “55% of consumers indicate they’re more likely to purchase a packaged food item if it includes a sustainability claim, a four-point jump since the company last fielded this research in 2019.

Other research indicates sustainability messaging can impact consumer purchasing decisions, while a recent Retail Insight survey revealed more than two-thirds of shoppers have tried to be more sustainable over the last 12 months, including 88% of 25-to-34-year-olds. That same survey noted more than half (52%) of Millennials would be willing to pay more for their weekly grocery shopping if doing so helped the environment. Of note, another finding from that survey showed 70% of consumers believe retailers already use “excessive and/or unnecessary” packaging, with the same percentage showing concern about food waste.

About the Author(s)

Alex Smolokoff

Editorial coordinator, Informa

After a career in sportswriting, Alex Smolokoff was on the editorial team at Informa Markets from December 2018 through spring of 2022, working on Food & Beverage Insider. In his free time, he enjoys watching his hometown Boston sports teams.   

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