Is there a way to break the plastic stranglehold on fresh produce?

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NEW YORK - If it seems like plastic surrounds nearly every cucumber, apple and pepper in the produce aisle, it does.

What began with cellophane in the 1930s picked up speed with the rise of plastic clamshells in the 1980s and bagged salads in the 1990s. Online grocery shopping turbocharged it.

But now the race is on for what people who grow and sell fruits and vegetables are calling a moon shot: breaking plastic’s stranglehold on produce.

In a March survey among produce professionals on LinkedIn, the shift to biodegradable material was voted the top trend. “It’s big,” said Mr Soren Bjorn, CEO of Driscoll’s, the world’s biggest grower of berries, which has switched to paper containers in many European markets.

Spain has a plastic tax. France has severely limited plastic-wrapped produce and the European Union is about to add its own restrictions. Canada is trying to hammer out a plan that could eliminate plastic packaging of produce by 95 per cent by 2028. In the United States, 11 states have already restricted plastic packaging. As part of a sweeping anti-waste plan, the Biden administration is calling for new ways to package food that uses climate-friendly, antimicrobial material designed to reduce reliance on plastic.

So we agree that eliminating plastic is the answer?

Reducing the use of plastic is an obvious way to push back against a changing climate. Plastic is created from fossil fuels, the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases. It chokes the oceans and seeps into the food chain. Estimates vary, but about 40 per cent of plastic waste comes from packaging.

Yet plastic has so far been the most effective tool to fight another environmental threat: food waste.

Selling produce is like holding a melting ice cube and asking how much someone will pay for it. Time is of the essence, and plastic works well to slow the decay of vegetables and fruit. That means less produce is tossed into the garbage, where it creates almost 60 per cent of landfill methane emissions, according to a 2023 report by the Environmental Protection Agency.

A Swiss study in 2021 showed that each rotting cucumber thrown away has the equivalent environmental impact of 93 plastic cucumber wrappers.

Food is the most common material in landfills. The average American family of four spends US$1,500 (S$2,028) each year on food that ends up uneaten. Of that, fruits and vegetables make up nearly half of all household food ...

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