Articles

Time to Grow Up: Realizing a New Vision for Sustainable Produce & Packaging

By Mike Terry
Posted In : produce packaging, sustainable produce packaging, tray sealing and forming, Sustainability in Packaging, vertical farming, Sustainability, tray seal, produce
Tray Sealed Salad

Produce has stayed the same since man put seed to soil. Farmers carved out a swath of land, planted crops, watered, and watched things grow. It is a time-honored tradition almost as old as the land itself.

Today, that tradition is killing the planet.

Modern farmers must reconcile an exploding global population and the irrevocable effects of climate change on the growing process. As a result, new evolutions to ageless challenges, such as food sourcing, uneven distribution, harmful food waste, and supply chain disruptions, make growers’ need for more land, resources, and synthetic assistance inevitable.

Domestically, individual farms are expanding across hundreds of hectares to meet modern demand, employing over 1 billion pounds of synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, and fertilizers annually. Oceans of water feed miles of produce crops only to see 33% wasted before they hit consumer tables. Yet, they still contribute to more than 8% of the greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

However, it’s not only the planet that suffers.

Under current food production methods, most of our produce must travel more than 1.7 million miles every year from growing centers on the West Coast of the U.S. to other markets. Across those miles, billions of dollars’ worth of that produce also withers and dies due to inadequate produce packaging, damage and product loss, and lengthy supply chain delays. Fresh produce struggles hard to reach urban centers and the people who live there, spreading malnutrition, creating food deserts, and contributing more than 7% of global carbon dioxide emissions from transport vehicles.

A SOLIDIFIED SHIFT TOWARDS SUSTAINABILE PRODUCE

Yet, traditional farming and food distribution’s inefficiencies have produced an unintentional effect that may be the answer to the issues they have largely created. These obstacles have incited a rallying cry for real change among eco-conscious consumers and solidified a new sustainability movement to heal the damage done by a flagging food system.

Shoppers, especially younger Millennials and the GenZ population, are demanding less waste from field to table and beyond, transforming “sustainable produce” from a hopeful buzzword in niche circles to a prerequisite for American growers.

This change in consumer behavior is part of a larger fundamental shift; changing the way we feed people produce from a scaled mass commodity industry to a more personalized value-added global marketplace. Now, consumers want to know their produce has a minimal impact on the environment, from how it is grown to how it is consumed and packaged. They’re learning about their role in the circular produce economy, from farming practices to recycling produce packaging, and the deciphering the best ways they can participate, hands-on.

Perceptive retailers are responding by committing to promises and investments toward sustainable practices and materials. But one subsection of growers is going further and doing more in the moment. In answer to growing challenges, this collective is stepping up to deliver what is being touted as “The Next Big Thing” in agriculture and the “final frontier of produce.”

They are vertical farming, and they’re turning food production upside down.

WHAT IS VERTICAL FARMING?

Vertical farming allows producers to grow fresh produce vertically in Controlled Environment Farms (CEF) (think warehouses in the hearts of urban centers) rather than in expansive horizontal rows on traditional outdoor land. The precise internal growing conditions utilize a fraction of the planting and cultivation space and conserve more natural resources while still providing the best yields per square foot (e.g., 6.6 pounds of lettuce per sq.ft. vs. traditional farming’s 4).

SUSTAINABLE GROWTH IS ALWAYS IN-SEASON

Can growing up instead of out and conserving natural resources truly rival thousands of years of traditional farming practices? Does direction make vertical farming “the final frontier” in agriculture?

Not wholly, no.

Upward Farms-MicrogreensWhat makes vertical farming so revolutionary – aside from its unrivaled efficiency and practicality – is its innate ability to negate some of the most significant obstacles faced by produce growth and food production. Vertical farming’s precise growing methods and protocols make major challenges such as climate change, supply chains, and transport non-factors, leaving only reliable, available, widely distributed produce and distinct production advantages in its wake:

Ideal Growing Environment

Light, water conditions, humidity, and heat are strictly controlled. As a result, growing conditions become uniform on a potentially global scale. This uniformity erases the dangers of harmful pesticides, mysterious ripening agents, and individual growth quality standards that vary from region to region and country to country.

Higher Quality Produce

Vertical farming supplies retailers and consumers with unquestioned trace and trackability for all their produce and produce packaging. This means stricter adherence to growing practices in better-controlled environments, as well as drastically reduced foodborne illnesses, contamination, food waste, and spoilage.

Improved Sustainability

Indoor farming facilities – like the 250,000 sq.ft. facility planned by Upward Farms for 2023, the largest in the world  – are capable of conserving more than 100 million gallons of water annually and hundreds of acres of farmland. Vertical farming can also feed more than 100 million Americans within a single day of distribution, eliminating the need for grown produce to travel almost 2 million miles of roadway from West Coast fields.

Location Flexibility

Because vertical farming can begin anywhere, it yields year-round crops in any geography and climate. Desert, mountains, cities, forests – vertical farms can be installed indoors to produce affordable, local, certified organic produce and supply needy populations in a fraction of the time.

Additionally, vertical farming barely relies on soil. Instead, farmers have their choice of various effective growing techniques, including hydroponics, aeroponics, or the incredible closed eco-system and microbiome of aquaponics for microgreens. 

Vertical farming systems are becoming so pervasive that ultimately entire growing and production operations will also bypass the challenges of disrupted supply chains, food and supply shortages, and overall price inflation caused by regional and global conflicts.

FOSTERING FRESHNESS AND QUALITY FIRST IN PRODUCE & PRODUCE PACKAGING

Despite the green tide of positivity towards sustainable produce, even the most ardent eco-warriors know high-quality and freshness must come first for produce – even before minimized environmental impact.

Thermoform Mushroom PackagingThe need for this new blend of sustainability and traditional product preservation offers incredible opportunities for innovation at every stage of production from growing to produce packaging. Vertical farmers recognize this combination and continue to seize on opportunities to optimize sustainability in growth and production AND take tangible steps to minimize plastics in their produce packaging without sacrificing safety or quality.

The results?

Retail giants, such as Walmart, Whole Foods, Stop & Shop, and others, invest heavily in vertical farming to the tune of billions of dollars to grow the freshest, highest quality produce. They are joining vertical farming to make minimal carbon footprint and unrivaled quality an essential focus.

SUSTAINABLE PRODUCE PACKAGING OPTIONS

This collaboration between eco-conscious consumers, vertical farmers, and altruistic retailers begs the question:

“What produce packaging choices are available to accommodate such a sustainable movement yet maintain product quality, optimized marketing, and unquestioned preservation?”

In decades past, under traditional standards, Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) plastic clamshell produce packaging would have been be the only answer.

Now though, the solution requires something more innovative and unconventional. It requires an approach that utilizes modern technology to improve upon trusted packaging methods to make them more sustainable and scalable while minimizing the impact on the planet, consumer health and spending, and overall perception.

It’s a tall order for any produce packaging application. Yet, sustainable alternatives are out there.

Lettuce in Vertical Bag PackagingOne option is single-use PET pouches made on vertical form fill seal (VFFS) machinery. The PET clamshell is another. Both are made from recyclable materials, adept at preserving freshness, lowering oxygen’s effects, and extending produce shelf life.

Additionally, VFFS bags reduce plastics, and material and production costs, down to almost nothing – even more so than clamshell packaging. So, why not simply use the VFFS to optimize sustainability, plastic reduction, and cost?

Vertical farmers and eco-friendly retailers know a better way: TRAY SEALING.

THE CHOICE IS CLEAR FOR SUSTAINABLE PRODUCE PACKAGING

Unlike single-use VFFS plastic bags or PET clamshell produce packaging, tray sealing achieves an almost perfect balance between packaging efficiency, preservation, and sustainable produce quality:

Tray Sealed SaladProtection

Transparent plastic trays, created on tray sealing equipment, provide exceptional protection against product deformation and damage during distribution and handling. The rigidity of the containers guarantee delivery to the consumer as intended. VFFS pouches boast no such capabilities.

Preservation & Accessibility

Tray sealing incorporates unique user-friendly features to better preserve product and improve accessibility. Packaging design aspects such as easy peel and reseal films, reclosable lidding, and microperforations for better respiration optimize produce freshness and shelf life while helping to minimize waste.

Plastic Packaging Reduction

Switching from PET clamshell produce packaging to tray sealing can reduce plastics by up to 15% overall from the onset. With that kind of reduction, combined with the established national infrastructure for recycling PET, tray seal produce packaging can be integral to improving sustainability with minimal effort.

Flexibility & Future Innovation

Once you’re implementing tray sealing equipment, the possibilities for flexible package formats and future innovations are nearly limitless. Large formats, small, deep, shallow – one tray sealing system facilitates a broad array of formatting and application options with minimal tooling or obstructive equipment changeover. As a result, this flexibility allows for the integration of the greenest produce packaging materials in development, including:

Many vertical farmers are already experimenting with paperboard punnets for berries and cherry tomatoes. Other producers are utilizing paper and pressboard for meats and cheeses. These innovations are something modern sustainable retailers and consumers look for first when building rapport with a brand.

Price Premium

The superior protection allotted by tray sealing allows for a higher retail price point. Because tray sealing is more sustainable than clamshells and better at guaranteeing the quality customers want than single-use VFFS bags, eco-conscious retailers and their customers take little issue with paying a higher price.

Additionally, preformed trays offer customized, 360-degree marketing opportunities and transparent windows for comparable product viewing. This customization helps brands to stand out on store shelves, creating better revenue prospects.

SHAPING A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE FOR PRODUCE & PRODUCE PACKAGING

Experts estimate that vertical farming will become a $20 billion market worldwide by 2026. As this market sector and the sustainable produce movement continue to gain momentum, farmers, retail giants, and customers must abandon preconceived notions to dictate a new standard to grow. Only through continued innovation and sweeping change will reduced plastics, optimized freshness, and minimized food waste go from pipe dream to the future of global produce.

If you’re ready to discover how to optimize your produce packaging operations and take full advantage of leading-edge tray seal technology, talk to the experts at Harpak-ULMA Packaging.

We can provide the insight and customized packaging solutions necessary to ensure you’re doing your part to create a more sustainable future and put a permanent, positive change to produce for the benefit of all.

Want personalized advice from a packaging expert?

Producers come to us to solve their unique packaging challenges. Tell us about your project and get expert advice today.