Australian supermarkets may be trying to reduce the amount of plastic on shelves, but there is more than meets the eye to “naked” vegetables.
Victorian horticultural producers have begun to push back against the huge amounts of polystyrene used to transport their fresh produce.
Third-generation vegetable grower Catherine Velisha said it was a moral obligation to become more environmentally sustainable, and she was looking for alternatives.
“We try to use less into supermarkets, and into wholesale markets by using more cardboard or reusable plastic products,” the Werribee South farmer said.
Broccoli is still transported in polystyrene, which is light, keeps produce refrigerated and stacks well, but there is an environmental cost to the operation.
Ms Velisha said it was important to focus on sustainability so, where possible, she had switched to cardboard and reusable plastic cartons.
“Obviously with the impacts of climate change, we’ve seen the bushfires and drought — as a business we just decided we need to be more conscious of our impact and our footprint as an industry,” she said.
“From a business sense, from an ethical sense and a moral sense, our team is very focused on us being sustainable.”
“In the past three years we’ve reduced our waste by about 90 per cent. This includes our green waste, polystyrene waste, plastics and even cardboards.”
The polystyrene problem
Professor of Composite Materials at Deakin University, Russell Varley, said although polystyrene could be reprocessed the practicality of the exercise left a lot to be desired.
“They’re extremely low density when they shred it down [and] because the density is so low, there’s nothing left — there’s just not enough to do anything useful with it,” he said.
Dr Varley said habit and economic decisions meant that businesses were likely to continue using the fossil-fuel based polymers, such as polystyrene.
“If the cost of oil goes up, companies will think of [reprocessing polystyrene] but while oil is cheap it’s so much easier to use virgin material,” he said.
Vice President of the Victorian Farmers Federation, Emma Germano, grows vegetables in South Gippsland and she agreed disposing of polystyrene was difficult.
Ms Germano said the cost of moving into environmentally-friendly transport packaging put extra pressure on smaller-scale farmers.
“You can get really caught between making decisions on how to best serve the environment,” she said.
“If you’re a bigger business then it makes it easier, you’ve probably got more funds and resources available to start trialling products.
“You possibly have a bit more sway with wholesalers and retailers about which packaging you want to use.”
Small business feeling the pinch
Natasha Shields, who runs Peninsula Organics vegetable farm near Mornington, said smaller producers had to fight harder to reduce plastic waste.
“We’re at kind of a double-edged sword at the moment, trying to find something compositable, still good for the environment and your produce while reducing food waste generally,” she said.
“Some of the big corporations, the supermarkets that we deal with, they’re not ready to accept the compostable plastic.”
Ms Shields said a limited capacity to buy in bulk and store excess packaging onsite presented the biggest challenges, and prices could be tripled when purchasing on a smaller scale.
“We feel horrible having to buy that plastic and covering everything in plastic when predominately our organic consumer doesn’t want plastic on their produce,” she said.
“There’s a lot of plastic that gets thrown out, when it lands on the supermarket floor.”
Ms Shields said a lot of the waste generated getting produce onto supermarket shelves was invisible to consumers.
“I don’t think they do realise how much plastic does circulate around behind the scenes,” she said.
“We pack it in a plastic bag, we put it into a crate, we wrap the crate in plastic, we put a plastic lid on top of the pallet, it goes into the supermarket and I’m sure they use more plastic.”
Calling on consumers
The industry is urging consumers to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to expectations of sustainability.
“Typically the consumer wants the cheapest price,” Ms Shields said.
“I know when we’ve put our prices up at the farm gate, people do complain.
“We have wage increases and packaging increases — if you put a sustainable or compostable bag on it is going to cost us another 20 cents rather than a 1 cent plastic bag.”
Ms Gemarno said consumers needed to take more responsibility for their roll-in waste reduction.
“So for example with corn, we put it on the shelf with its natural corn husk and all the fibres around which protects the corn inside.
“As soon as that husk starts to wilt or get a little bit brown-looking, it won’t sell anymore — even though it’s still [good quality] corn.”
Ms Germano said what supermarkets deemed acceptable, in terms of the appearance and size of the produce that they are willing to sell, shaped consumer expectations.
“These specifications are arbitrary, nature doesn’t know that a cauliflower according to Coles or Woolworths should be 10 to 15 centimetres in diameter,” she said.
Ms Germano said plastic and product wastage was a problem much larger than just the horticulture industry
“It’s certainly not just an issue for the fresh produce industry. This is the question around single use plastic bags and customers and consumers expectations,” she said.
“I think that there is a place for government regulation and there’s also a place for the community to talk about what their expectations are.
In a statement, Coles said it had introduced reusable plastic crates in their fresh food supply chain to replace cardboard, waxed cardboard and polystyrene boxes and it was working with suppliers using these crates for fruit and vegetables.
Woolworths is yet to comment.