Can you remember the days when apples, oranges and potatoes were sold loose at the supermarket? Perhaps even with a bit of soil still clinging to them – proof that they were once grown in the ground. You could take your time choosing the best looking bananas that would be perfectly ripe in a couple of days.
The level of packaging on fruit and vegetables in the supermarkets these days seems insane. Is a bag around a bunch of bananas really necessary, or clingfilm around a cucumber? When did packaged fruit and vegetables become the norm for supermarkets, and who’s bright idea was it?
While it is still possible to select some fresh produce yourself, this is not true of all fruit and veg varieties. It’s more likely that you’ll see multiple varieties of tomatoes packaged up in trays with plastic coverings rather than being able to smell and choose your own.
Why Is Fruit and Vegetable Packaging Used?
Not all packaging is equal, and there are many instances where there’s a very valid reason for manufacturers and retailers to package their goods.
Protection and Hygiene
Packaging protects the contents from external sources of heat, moisture, odours and in some cases light. A thin layer of plastic also protects against the multiple hands and vehicles that produce passes through and ensures that no nasty bacteria or germs infect the produce.
A lot of produce has a very short shelf life. Cucumber is a particularly fragile and without the plastic wrap they’re often found in, they would lose a huge amount of moisture and only last for three days on the shelf. With the plastic wrap their shelf life is extended to 14 days – who knew!
Less Spoilage and Waste
Produce that is packaged up is less susceptible to handling damage that often occurs with loose fruit and vegetables thus leading to less waste. Grapes and berries are a particularly good example. Without being packaged into a punnet loose grapes and berries can easily escape from the shelf and go to waste or squashed to a pulp: good for my wine; less good for my afternoon snack.
The transparency and origin of our food is becoming more and more important. Packaging often provides a better surface area for labels to be applied. The labels can then provide more information about where the produce has been sourced from and the company involved in their production. This is particularly relevant for organic or sustainably sourced produce.
Packaging also allows labels to be to attached to the produce. This helps with stock rotation and being able to discount products when they are nearing the end of life.
How To Reduce The Packaging You Buy
Sometimes there is just no valid reason for packaging. A single orange packaged in plastic simply so that a label can be added to the item seems quite ridiculous. As consumers who vote with our wallets, we should apply common sense at all times and make informed choices.
Buy Less Smaller Convenient Sized Portions
Modern society is increasingly being designed for convenience. Sliced fruit and pre-cut vegetables packaged in plastic bags or plastic cups are popping up on shelves everywhere. It’s convenient, but is it really saving shoppers that much time and effort? If you have the time and the facilities, it’s much better to buy whole fruit and slice/prepare it yourself at work or home.
Planning meals in advance and doing a weekly grocery shop will also help. It should avoid the need to buy convenience produce and thus reduce the total required packaging.
Buy Recyclable Packaging
Much of the packaging used for fruit and vegetable produce is recyclable and will have the green triangle on the label. The same applies to the plastic punnets for berries and cardboard moulds for tomatoes and avocados. Prioritise buying produce in recycled or recyclable packaging over plastics and those that can’t be recycled.
Don’t forget to put the packaging in the recycle bin when you’re at home, else all your good work will have been in vain.
Reuse Packaging Or Buy Loose Products
Where possible, buy loose products that don’t have any packing. For these types of products it’s also possible to reuse the plastic and paper bags to hold the produce. In some cases you may even be able to bring bags with you. This is generally favoured at farmers’ markets to help the stall holders keep their costs down.
I’ll admit, I’m very adverse to packaging on fruit and vegetables. I will happily take the extra time to pick single pieces of fruit and vegetables from the baskets at the supermarket. I don’t even mind when the cashiers give me the evil eye as they try to round up all the apples dancing on the conveyor belt.
However, I’ve perhaps been a little too hasty in my judgment. It seems that there are some valid reasons for using packaging. That doesn’t apply to putting 20 single grapes in a cup though, that’s just madness.
Even with these valid reasons for fruit and vegetable packaging we don’t have to agree with it or like it. Thankfully, we have the power to find ways to buy products that have less packaging than others while still being able to enjoy the fabulous food that the packaging is designed to protect.