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The Cucumber Problem: Is Shrink Wrapping that Bad?

9th April 2018

Cucumber without wrapping

Major food and drink retailers, particularly supermarkets, are one after the other releasing statements of intent on reduction of plastic packaging. This was stimulated by public demand, but certainly encouraged by Iceland’s announcement of its intent to eliminate plastic packaging from its own-brand products by 2023.

The stimulus created by Iceland’s announcement is to be encouraged and has been acknowledged (if only tacitly) by other leading supermarkets. It would be easy to be cynical about Iceland’s announcement; their product range and particularly their range of fresh goods is smaller than other retailers, which makes the task simpler. But we shouldn’t be cynical; if it acts as a catalyst for change then it must be welcomed with open arms.

But is it realistic to remove plastic packaging completely from food and drink products? Research undertaken by the Co-op showed that the end-to-end shelf life of a cucumber (from picking to disposal by the consumer) when not wrapped in plastic was reduced by 30% when compared with one wrapped in plastic. This continues to be true when the cucumber is stored in the consumer’s fridge.

Elimination of plastic packaging needs to be balanced with two other critical needs. The first is the need to keep food safe, and the second is the continuing struggle that supermarkets have with food waste. The first of these is absolute; no compromise on food safety is acceptable. The second is less critical, but since so much progress has been made on reducing food waste by supermarkets in recent years, moving backwards will not be accepted.

Plastic packaging for cucumbers (and other similar sensitive foods) serves a singularly good service for us all. Would it matter if a few products escaped the plastic ban for the sake of greater priorities? Will Iceland need to make any compromise on their 2023 commitment?

Surely the answer lies in innovation; what natural, compostable, truly biodegradable material can be invented that achieves the same end? Many packaging suppliers are working hard in collaboration with their clients to invent new solutions based on materials such as bamboo, wood fibre and so on. Surely it’s not beyond the wit of man to invent a non-porous material other than from plastic?