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Produce packaging has been a hot topic the last few years, when it comes to both consumer concerns over sustainability and better brand marketing opportunities.

While food safety is always a top concern, it has taken on a new sense of urgency in the age of COVID. Online grocery shopping created a big demand for safely packaged produce over the last year, leaving many consumers conflicted about sustainability. Post pandemic, I suspect we are all going to want the best of both worlds.

Truth be told, I have always had a love/hate relationship when it comes to produce packaging.

I am intensely concerned about plastic use and waste. I separate and wash all my recycling and would personally prefer to buy all my produce bulk and loose. But as a horticulturist I know that shelf life of fresh produce can be significantly reduced with packaging (cutting down big time on food waste). And, as a marketer I know produce growers need to differentiate their products and engage with customers in ways that enrich their produce experience.

What is the answer? Produce packaging that is sustainable and safe but can withstand the supply and shipping needs of grocery delivery services and deliver meaningful brand communications. Not too much to ask, right?

Produce on demand

The reality is many of us now want our fresh produce dropped on our doorstep, but we expect it to be fresh, clean, and intact. Beyond traditional food safety concerns, now potential viral spread has put an even bigger spotlight on all sorts of food containers, be they from the grocery store or takeout from a local restaurant. We are talking about airtight covers and seals.

Additionally, many of us are no longer interacting with POP or signage inside the grocery store, so packaging will have to do all the marketing work including communicating your sustainability messaging.

2020 plastic pivot

Recyclable, biodegradable, and zero-waste packaging was where many manufacturers were heading in 2020. Edible packaging was also on the horizon, but I wonder with our new virus and safety concerns if that is no longer a viable option?

The entire sustainable package movement appeared to make a hard pivot back to plastic when packaging supply could not keep up with pandemic demand, not only at the fresh produce grocery level, but also with restaurants. It looked to me like most businesses simply put sustainability on the back burner just to keep up with demand and the pandemic pressures on the marketplace.

It was not just suppliers that abandoned sustainable practices; recycling overall at the consumer level also plummeted. According to Tetra Pak, only 9% of all plastics globally are recycled, and 32% of plastics are never collected for recycling at all. I wonder how much those percentages dropped during 2020? The mountain of plastic grocery and takeout containers we find ourselves surrounded by post-pandemic is undeniably unacceptable.

Back to safety

Ultimately, consumers do not want plastic containers for our produce. That said, the huge societal shift over the last year in how we purchase food and produce may spur just the kind of packaging changes we have needed for a long time.

While the CDC tried to assuage us all that our chances of catching COVID, or other viruses, from packaging surfaces is low, The Journal of Hospital Infection found the virus can survive between two hours and nine days depending on the surface material. While our chances of catching COVID from packaging are significantly lower than if we come into direct contact with someone who is infected, it is still a possibility and one that may continue to concern consumers.

Interestingly, porous packaging material such as cardboard is less conducive to virus survival than non-porous surfaces such as plastic. As such, some packaging manufacturers are combining sustainability with safety by using plant and paper-based containers and lids made of porous balsa wood and compostable leak proof cardboard. It looks like there may be some excellent crossover opportunities for the produce industry from the restaurant grab-and-go takeout packaging evolution away from plastic.

Package for home chefs

Another pandemic trend we cannot ignore is the rise in home cooking during lockdown. The National Restaurant Association reports that nearly 17% of U.S. restaurants have closed either long-term or permanently because of the pandemic. Americans are eating more meals at home and learning how to be better cooks. Consumers who are doing their own cooking – some for the first time in their lives - need to know how to use your produce.

Engaging and encouraging produce customers with recipe ideas and other helpful preparation and produce storage tips is key. This type of content marketing on your packaging is also a great way to get your end customer to engage with your brand online.

Whether you are a big or small grower, chances are packaging is one of your biggest challenges. I suspect 2021 is going to be “the year of packaging” across all food related industries, and consumers will expect new safe and sustainable options.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies.