Worldwide, citizens have been complaining about the excessive use of plastic wrapping for fruit, vegetables and other products for years. Paola Gosio, an EU Policy Analyst at the Brussels-based research and consulting company White Research, decided to do something about it.
Along with her classmates during her European Studies master's programme in 2019, she submitted a petition to the European Parliament asking for a revision of Directive 94/62/EC on packaging and packaging waste. It asked for a ban on fruit and vegetables from being sold in plastic and a reduction in packaging and its related waste.
French and Spanish bans
Banning the sale of fruit and vegetables in plastics is exactly what the French government has decided to do. About 30 types of produce, including leeks, aubergines, apples, bananas and oranges, must be sold without plastic packaging from 1 January, 2022. This measure is expected to prevent more than one billion plastic packaging items yearly.
Spain is the second country in the European Union that will ban the sale of any fruits or vegetables in plastic wrapping weighing under 1.5 kilogrammes in supermarkets from 2023 onwards. The country generates 1.6 million tonnes of waste from plastic packaging every year and recycles less than half.
Instead of plastic, retailers and consumers in France and Spain are being encouraged to use cardboard packaging or reusable bags and containers.
Retailers and consumers are being encouraged to use cardboard packaging. Image: UPM
A wake-up call
Packaging is used to protect products and to ensure we have safe, hygienic products, says Janne Varvemaa, Director of Products & Technology at UPM Specialty Papers. “Packaging is often necessary, although in some cases too much or the wrong type has been used over the past few decades.”
“Everybody wants to get rid of unnecessary plastics,” Varvemaa continues. “However, plastic is an excellent and versatile material for its functional properties. The problem is that products are sometimes overpacked or used packaging material is not properly collected and recycled. There are also opportunities to replace fossil-based materials with renewable alternatives.”
This, he thinks, opens up opportunities for fibre-based packaging, thereby supporting a circular economy. “Historically brand owners have aimed to maximise the convenience of packaging, but now they are increasingly looking for ways to improve sustainability,” he emphasises.
This year, the European Parliament invited Gosio and her former classmates to present their petition about banning plastic wrapping for fruits and vegetables. “Many Commissioners and members of parliament share the same concerns,” she says. “The fact that they left our petition open is a good sign: they’ll probably discuss the topic further.”
She thinks the French and Spanish bans are good news, adding: “It’s a good start, but to stop plastic pollution and to reach a circular economy, this must be tackled on a European level, so a change in the European Directive on packaging and packaging waste is necessary.”
Plastic makes sense in some types of packaging, especially during transportation. Image:UPM
Change in behaviour
According to many nutrition companies and plastic packaging manufacturers, plastic wrapping reduces food waste.
“This is an argument you often hear,” Gosio reacts, “but if you go to a farmers’ market, you see that no wrapping is used, especially in the case of fruits and vegetables that have a strong protective peel, like apples and oranges. In other cases, paper or cardboard can be an option.”
She suggests that it’s perhaps time to also change our behaviour. “Instead of shopping once a week and expecting the plastic to keep the groceries fresh, you could walk or cycle to buy fruit and vegetables without any packaging every couple of days, for example.”
According to Varvemaa, the use of plastic makes sense in some types of packaging but agrees that it’s time to make changes in the way we consume and behave. There are other aspects to consider, ranging from the economic to environmental effects, but the answers are never black and white, he notes.
“Legislation is well intentioned but does not always lead to the best outcome. We must get a holistic view of what impact bans, environmental taxes or extended producer responsibility fees have for packaging. Bans are often easy and visible solutions, but they are not necessarily the most environmentally sound approach. We need to evaluate the situation holistically, considering, for example, the impact on food waste and supply chains,” he adds.
Recyclability and reducing overpackaging are the focus areas in packaging design and fibre-based packaging fits nicely into this area, Varvemaa explains. “We can also consider reusable packaging, or even go without in some cases. Paper and board packaging - such as those provided by UPM Specialty Papers - are often the first choices that companies start looking at as an alternative to plastics,” he concludes.
Main image: UPM