Fruits & Vegetables: packaging and regulations

December 21, 2023

"The best packaging is, of course, the packaging that doesn't exist". However, However,in the world of fresh fruit and vegetables, where we live daily with the ideas of simple, natural and sustainable food, it is often difficult to apply this rule. 

While proposals, recommendations and decrees concerning plastic packaging for fruit and vegetables and the reduction of packaging waste continue to generate a lot of ink, there are currently no European regulations harmonizing practices across the EU. The Commission is said to be working on this. It mayeven be considering adoption of the French approach, using the country as a benchmark.

France, which has been criticized for its overzealousness, adopted the AGEC law (anti-waste for a circular economy), which was enforced by a highly controversial decree. Initially published at the end of 2021, only to be withdrawn at the end of 2022 and revised last May, the decree bans honeycombed plastics lining bulk cartons, as well as the plastic packaging for many unprocessed fresh fruits and vegetables sold in batches of less than 1.5 kg. To date, 29 categories are exempt from this ban, as they are too prone to spoilage if sold in bulk or without adequate protection. But by 2026, all fruit and vegetables will be covered. Considering cross-border trade, this legislation concerns more than just French producers and marketers.

Packaging, at the crossroads between protection and sustainability, finds itself at the heart of a debate which, as you may have guessed, concerns all our customers and is of particular interest to us! We've tried to shed some light on the subject.

The main functions of packaging

Fresh fruit and vegetables can be sold loose or packaged per unit of consumption. What does packaging do?

1. It protects: like a physical barrier, it prevents the product from being damaged or coming into contact with dirt, and slows down the transmission of microorganisms.

2. It preserves: by preventing unnecessary handling, it optimizes a product's shelf-life during transport, storage and marketing.

3. It informs: origin, recipes, tips... a communication tool designed to attract, inform and boost sales.

With these three points in mind, there's no doubt that packaging helps to reduce food waste. Enhancing its benefits and exploiting its recyclability would seem more appropriate than questioning its usefulness - which would have a gigantic impact on the entire supply chain. The raw materials used to manufacture packaging adapted to the characteristics of each product category are diverse. They can be of plant origin, such as paper, cardboard, pulp, cellulose... or synthetic, such as many types of plastic. Obviously, the environmental costs - production, transport, recycling - vary enormously from one to another, depending on manufacturing methods, etc.

Paper and plastic as opposites?

At times, it may seem as if there are two opposing camps: while paper is considered costly and energy-intensive to produce and transport, plastic is singled out as a major contributor to environmental pollution, particularly in the oceans, even though it is theoretically always recyclable. And yet, each of them can provide the sector with appropriate solutions, depending on the product, the final destination and the sales methods...

Under legislative and social pressure, we are currently witnessing a sharp reduction in the production and use of plastics, in favor of so-called natural materials. This requires major investment on the part of packaging manufacturers, leading to supply disruptions and rising prices.

Here again, the debate rages on. What if, in pursuing the noble objective of protecting the environment, forcing the use of paper, cardboard and wood ultimately causes more waste and drives up costs and prices inordinately?

What are the alternatives?

Let's end on a positive note! To avoid long transport distances and the deterioration of fresh and therefore fragile products, local and seasonal consumption, possibly in bulk, is a logical solution, but far from always feasible.

On the other hand, constraints and difficulties often lead to the emergence and acceleration of innovative solutions. Research and development into a variety of solutions is either under study or underway, including "intelligent" recycled-recyclable packaging, films or coatings applied directly to the product to extend its shelf-life, laser "tattoos", returnable or reusable packaging at home... varieties selected for their longevity and resistance in sales channels, or treatments (atmospheric, physical, biological...) aimed at prolonging product freshness.

While the sector's institutions absolutely have their say, consumers also have a key role to play in the transition that is taking place: by adopting new products, accepting a higher price, adapting their practices... or not!

Unfortunately, at Consentio we don't have the answer to this issue, which concerns us all. However, we help you to buy and sell your products in a time-saving and transparent way, so that your fresh fruit and vegetables, whether packaged or not, have the best possible chance of reaching a well-informed consumer.

Read it or stream it fresh produce industry insights every week.

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