The sustainability of plastic fruit and vegetable packaging – a literature review

The sustainability of plastic fruit and vegetable packaging – a literature review

The United Nations definition of sustainability refers to a development that “meets the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs”. Sustainability is frequently presented as falling under three pillars:

  • Economic – supporting economic growth without a negative impact on environmental, social and cultural facets of the community
  • Social – managing the impacts of organisations on populations and their quality of life
  • Environmental – interacting with the planet responsibly to conserve natural resources and avoid putting future generations needs in jeopardy

Each pillar may not have equal weight and organisations may focus more heavily on one aspect, depending on their interests.

There has been a growing focus on sustainability because of the environmental impact of packaging. One fifth of global packaging is used for fruit and vegetables. Fifty percent of packaged fruit and vegetables are thrown away each year, making them the highest contributor in global waste. Eight million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans every year. By 2050 there will be more plastic by weight in the oceans than fish, harming ocean life and working its way back up the food chain, causing adverse health effects on populations. Plastic packaging for fruit and vegetables uses vast amounts of fossil fuels, power and water to produce, contributing significantly to carbon dioxide emissions and depletion of available water resources. There is limited literature on the environmental damage from plastic packaging in landfill. More is understood on the effects of plastic pollution in marine environments. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are the highest contributor of marine plastic pollution and noticed a direct increase in plastics from high-income countries, since China banned imports of plastic waste in 2018, which has exposed populations to health issues and impacted on tourism.

Influences on packaging

  • Consumers 

In the United Kingdom, 250,000 tonnes of packaged food were thrown away in 2014 costing the economy £1billion. Unopened vegetables and salads were the largest proportion of the wastage at almost 20%, of which 23% was packaged potatoes. Single-person households waste 34% more than other households because packaged fruit and vegetables often come in larger quantities, a loss worth almost £80 million. Loose fruit and vegetables could help reduce this waste and reduce packaging. A survey based on packaged leeks, indicates how people can make their choices.

Making choices based on labels is important to consumers but they have been increasingly looking for more sustainable packaging options. However, this intention does not always translate into action. Research is needed into the power of peer pressure or social influence. Whilst Greenpeace suggest customers need to be willing to change their habits, the public are often used as scapegoats for the environmental impacts of waste.

There are differences across countries, with the French most likely to choose produce from sight or feel whereas Germans and Americans are far more likely to choose things based on the overall presentation. YouGov surveys in the United Kingdom found 86% of consumers were concerned about the sustainability of their packaging and customers of premium supermarkets were the highest proportion. The surveys also found that people are willing to pay more for sustainable alternatives. However, a subsequent report by the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) states that only about 50% of the audience were concerned about sustainability of packaging, and that concern comes from those most conscious of the issue, so further engagement is necessary.

Shoppers are changing habits due to coronavirus. Dutch organic specialist OTC Organics said plastic packaging is not such a concern to consumers worried about coronavirus contamination but there is a trend towards wanting more regionally grown produce and going to local greengrocers to avoid crowds. Consumer perception is that food packaging reduces the risk of contamination and there is a growth in online shopping. Coronavirus has led to a rise in bulk buying and hoarding but that there has also been an opening in the market for direct channels, such as farmers markets and ‘veg boxes’, which appears to reduce demands on packaging.

  • The retailers and supply chain

 Supermarkets distribute up to 90% of fruit and vegetables in Europe. Packaging and labels allow for brand recognition and gains consumers trust. Packaging minimises external factors like moisture loss and protect produce like soft fruit from excessive handling. It also allows retailers and the supply chain to provide information such as country of origin, fair trade status and organic produce. Pre-packaged fruit and vegetables can give disabled people better access to fresh produce. Pre-packaged produce is easier for shelf replenishment in stores and retailers use pre-packed options to inspire shoppers and promote their convenience. However, the wrong amount in packaging can trigger overconsumption.

In 2019 Morrisons trialled loose fruit and vegetables in stores, alongside packaged produce, resulting in an increase of loose sales by 40% The same report noted that Waitrose also trialled loose produce and initially there was more waste but as they got used to changes and could more accurately forecast, the waste reduced considerably. Although there now appears to be a greater availability of unpackaged produce, some supermarkets charge up to 50% more for loose fruit and vegetables. Co-op Food was the worst offender charging 51% more for loose peppers than packaged. However, there is no consistency, with other loose produce attracting a lower price than their packaged equivalent within the same supermarket.

In the UK approximately 1.2 billion plastic bags were produced annually by supermarkets for loose selection of fruit and vegetables. There is a perception that using these bags also improves the shelf life of produce in refrigerators but research shows refrigerating loose produce can improve lifespan by 7-14 days alone without the need for bags. Individual produce types require tailored packaging adaptations to efficiently maintain their shelf life. The rise in demand for online deliveries has increased the level of fresh produce that is being packaged.

There are not adequate enough recycling facilities and that the services have not caught up with the amount of waste that industries are producing and forcing on consumers. All plastic is technically recyclable but cost factors inhibit recycling. For example, black trays are used by stores to enhance the visual impression of products, but they cannot be detected by recycling sorting machines. Some items may never make it through recycling processes due to the material, size and contamination and are exported to low-income nations and simply making all packaging recyclable is not the solution.

In 2018 WRAP instigated the UK Plastics Pact. The pact, although voluntary, hopes to ensure United Kingdom recycling is consistent by 2025. It aims to stimulate innovations to reduce plastic packaging, strengthen the recycling system, promote more personal responsibility for waste, and ensure plastic packaging can be used for as long as possible then effectively recycled into new products – a ‘circular economy’. The retailer Iceland pledged to end plastic packaging in their stores by 2023, after campaigns to put pressure on suppliers to end single-use plastic and the government’s plan to scrap all ‘avoidable’ plastics by 2042. The UK landfill tax of 1996, although a slow start, over time caused a large shift in organisations, reducing the amount of waste going to landfill. In 2018, the Prime Minister announced a tax on plastic packaging with recycled content of less than 30%, due to come into effect in 2022. The National Farmers Union responded stating they did not want to compromise safety and quality but recognised the importance of the issue, but the British Plastics Federation argued that going plastic free would have a bigger environmental impact to the supply chain and that the issue lay with litter outside the home. A European Union directive aims to reduce single use plastics in fruit and vegetable imports and will pass on the responsibility and cost to producers, but European Union packaging regulations require extensive labelling information.

One third of food is lost in the supply chain due to inefficiency, out-grading (being removed from the chain due to aesthetics and quality) and over-production due to market uncertainties. India is the second largest fruit and vegetable producer and 40-50% of the annual produce perishes due to the high cost of packaging and lack of temperature-controlled vehicles. Shorter supply chains should be advocated but plastic is necessary until alternatives are used or a circular economy implemented.

  • Innovations for packaging
  • Biopolymers

Starch based biopolymer films are the most commonly researched biodegradable and compostable alternatives to plastic film. Some break down in a little as 4-6 weeks but research on the effects that biopolymers may have on the environment are not yet fully understood. Despite the developments with biopolymer film, uptake from the industry is slow due to lack of resources to adapt . Peter Nyssen are packing bulbs in potato starch film so it would appear this could be of consideration for onions and similar produce. However, they have had to revert to plastic due to stiff competition for starch-based resources by other sectors. Greenpeace state that increasing the use of biopolymers would also lead to growing more crops to make packaging instead of feeding people. Mango kernels are wasted in production and provide an underused form of starch which could alleviate these issues.

In Australia, scientists have developed a biodegradable packaging material from banana waste. Although unclear on the sustainability of the raw material, a supermarket chain has developed a fully compostable shrink wrap made of plant based resin. Although rapidly developing, the use of biopolymers is relatively still in its infancy.

  • Edible solutions and natural coatings

Coating produce is not new: in ancient China for example, people used wax to coat fruit. In 2017 research was carried out on pork gelatine and shellac coatings on bananas but this would not be popular with vegetarians or vegans, while other consumers remained uncomfortable with the idea of edible coatings. Several global start-up companies are creating edible packaging products, but as of yet these have not been taken to a wider market. These coatings can be eaten or be disposed and biodegrade in 4-6 weeks, but some consumers may have hygiene concerns over eating the potentially exposed packaging. Moisture and heat could pose an issue for this innovation potentially rendering it non-viable for fruit and vegetables. A non-edible innovation is being rolled out by Nature’s Pride, a major European fruit and vegetable supplier. The plant based spray on peel improves shelf life of avocados.

  • Supply chain packaging innovations

Producers are prolonging the freshness of produce and improving the speed of processing using packaging innovations. Active packaging is being developed which can extend shelf life by releasing  substances into or absorbing them from fresh produce. Primaflor produce ‘living lettuce’ in a ‘micro-orchard’ box to allow for watering. Living Salads UK uses a plastic alternative. Koivistoisen Mansikkapaikka the largest Finnish strawberry farm, has developed a modular corrugated packaging system with handles from responsibly sourced wood fibres to contain punnets, but does not confirm the sustainability of any of the packaging after use.


It is essential that fruit and vegetable packaging becomes more sustainable for social, economic and environmental reasons but it is down to policy makers, producers, retailers and consumers to make the change.

Consumers need more information and need to be educated away from unsustainable packaged purchases and there is potential for them to be influenced to change their habits. It is unclear if the responsibility falls on supermarkets to streamline to more sustainable products or if consumers need to force a change. One could argue that as the end users who throw it away, consumers are the most responsible but if they are not given alternatives it cannot all lie at the consumers’ door. It is clear that the issue needs to reach less aware people but there is a gap in the literature as to how, especially using social influencing. More research is necessary if the trend for more local and direct channels during the pandemic can continue, and at scale.

There is a need for greater research into developing more economically, socially and environmentally sustainable supply chains. The literature suggests reducing waste due to out-grading and supermarkets would need to convert consumers to less visibly perfect produce. More legislation for information on labels could affect packaging requirements. Packaging innovation may make the supply chain more efficient and improve sustainability but if packaging remains not recyclable, end users may have the responsibility of environmentally sustainable disposal.

More robust recycling solutions must be initiated, and anything sold as recyclable must be fully recyclable in a circular economy. The literature suggests a national overall standard has to be achieved.

Edible coatings are generating interest and there could be more we can learn from historical applications. Biopolymers are an emerging consideration and making them from waste resources would be the most obvious solution. However, they need further research and development to become more commercially viable and accepted by consumers. Crucially, the environmental impacts need more research, as rolling out a product that turns out to be detrimental would create another issue to solve.