Packaging cucumbers for a more sustainable food system
Extending the shelf-life of fresh produce through innovative packaging is one measure that can help towards reducing food waste. For example, a cucumber wrapped in packaging stays fresh for up to 14 days, while an unwrapped cucumber stays fresh for about 5 days.
According to the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, about one-third of all food produced on the planet is lost and not consumed by humans. The fresh fruits and vegetables category accounts for 44% of total global food losses. Furthermore, FAO reported that around half (45-55%) of all fruits and vegetables produced worldwide is lost or wasted along the supply chain. In medium- and high-income countries, most food waste happens at the retail and consumption stages of the supply chain.
Cucumbers have a reputation for freshness. They brighten the flavour of everything from salads to summer cocktails. However, cucumbers are highly perishable and suffer from moisture loss, shriveling, yellowing, peel damage, and decay. Discover with our infographic how specialized Amcor packaging can help to reduce food waste of fresh produce this cucumber season.
Extend shelf life and protect fresh texture, color and flavor
Designed with tailored permeability, Amcor P-Plus™ films provide optimal shelf life and freshness, delivering benefits to both your operations and fresh vegetable products. P-Plus™ films provide tailored permeability to meet your product’s optimal OTR (oxygen transmission rate), extending fruit and vegetables' in-store shelf life and helping them lasting longer at home.
We offer recycle ready versions of P-Plus using PP or PE, helping to reduce plastic waste and increase sustainability. Recyclability is dependent on collection and recycling streams existing in each country. For information on recyclability in your markets, our packaging experts can advise you.
Plastic wrapping of cucumbers: clever or careless?
In plastic packaged cucumbers: it might just be the no. 1 sustainability annoyance of Dutch consumers. Three quarters of all Dutchies share the opinion that this packaging is unnecessary. But why are there still cucumbers in plastic?
Key learning: Plastic packaging can prevent food waste and therefore doesn’t necessarily have a negative impact
Goal: Buy the cucumber you like best
Impact: Very low 🌍⚪️⚪️⚪️⚪️
The dislike of plastic packaging in the research of multiple products was most pronounced for cucumbers. We are obsessed with the cucumber in plastic. This is in itself a good sign: we want to decrease plastic use.
Before we dive into the cucumber case study, I want to share a positive surprise. There is a small silent revolution going on in our choices regarding sustainability. Two thirds (!) of all people find it important or very important that fruit and vegetables are packaged sustainably. And even a third is willing to pay more for a sustainably packaged fresh product.
This positive trend is not just visible on the consumer side: more and more environmentally friendly packaging materials are being developed and in the supermarket you find products where this is being applied more often.
So, why is there still (plastic) packaging?
For a cucumber it’s quite easy to reach the conclusion that plastic packaging is unnecessary. However, this isn’t always the case. There are 2 (more or less) good reasons to apply plastic packaging. Hopefully, we can ditch the first one soon…
Plastic packaging as label
Regulations require that normal and organic products can be distinguished from one another. Because how else do you know the difference between the two cucumbers in the supermarket? Unfortunately, plastic is a very easy way to label a product. So, often the organic one is packaged, since fewer units are being sold.
In stores where only organic products are being sold, the plastic packaging is not needed. They can’t become mixed-up. Luckily there are promising new ways to make the difference: lasering veggies. For example, Delhaize started applying this for many products.
Plastic prolongs shelf life
There is also another reason. Packaging is also applied to increase shelf life. The plastic acts as a barrier for oxygen, aromas, moisture and other foreign particles and protects against physical damage. Packaging the cucumber can increase the shelf like from 3 days to 13 to 17 days.
And that number of days is important as quality manager Van Soest says: “That really matters for waste. Every day increase of shelf life is for the supermarket fifteen percent less being written off.” The question is: how does the extra packaging weigh against the food waste?
Packaging vs food waste: the impact
Let’s start with the packaging. Each cucumber is packaged in plastic foil. The foil weighs 1.5 to 3 g and is mostly made of LDPE plastic. LDPE has an impact of 2 to 3 kg CO2e per kg, depending on the production process. If we take conservative numbers for both, we find that the plastic foil for one single cucumber has an impact of 0,009 kg CO2.
Food waste is a little harder to calculate. We’d rather stay on the conservative side and base our analysis on an Austrian research among supermarkets.
Food waste among not-packaged cucumbers was 9.4% compared to 4.6% for packaged cucumbers. So, the packaging prevented half of the food waste! This means net extra savings of 0,043 kg CO2 per cucumber. Of course it does matter that food waste at home also has an impact, but that’s not taken into account here.
And now back to the big picture. We also add the impact of the cucumber itself (without packaging).
In the end both the impact of the packaging and the impact of the food waste are minor impacts compared to the impact of the cucumber itself!
Even though cucumbers in plastic is the no. 1 annoyance among (sustainable) consumers, there are advantages of this packaging. Luckily, it’s very little plastic and it’s recyclable.
In short, our hyperfocus on plastic packaging has often only a very marginal impact, hence the place in the Very low impact category.
Above all, plastic is very visible, especially with a cucumber. What you don’t see is the impact of growing the food which is almost always bigger than the packaging. Therefore it can sometimes – like with the cucumber – make sense to add packaging to prevent food waste.
We say: choose whatever you feel comfortable with or what’s available. Bottom line: it doesn’t matter much from an emissions perspective. If you get that cucumber without plastic, eat it quickly because it will stay fresh a little shorter than the ones in plastic. And if you get it with plastic, make sure the plastic goes neatly with the recycled plastic.
CUCUMBER PACKAGING, CUCUMIS SATIVUS / CUCURBITACEAE
Cucumber is found in the market in bulk, in cardboard boxes or in trays. Pickled gherkins are usually sold in plastic containers or glass jars with their seasoning.
In Spain, cucumbers are usually displayed in corrugate cardboard packages. The size of the boxes range between 295-600 mm long and 300-400mm wide, with a height that may reach 15.5cm. The capacity of these boxes is usually 4-8kg. Direct retractiling is also used, in plastic and mesh bags, as well as trays covered with stretchable plastic.
In the case of pickled gherkins, they are packed in glass or plastic containers.
THE PROS AND CONS OF PACKAGING CUCUMBERS
More and more consumers value sustainability and for some, this includes doing without packaging in general. To meet this demand, the supermarket chains Aldi, Penny, Edeka and Rewe began selling cucumbers that have not been packed in protective foil in Germany in October 2019. The Rewe Group alone aims to save up to 160,000 kilograms of shrink film per year by implementing this measure, as cucumbers are among the most popular vegetables in Germany, with an average consumption per capita of 6.5 kilograms per year.
WITHOUT PACKAGING, CUCUMBERS ARE SENSITIVE
However, this vegetable, which consists of 97 percent water, is sensitive; the thin, recyclable polyethylene foil protects cucumbers against dehydration and damage during transport (www.interpack.de/Perfectly_imperfect) . This mainly becomes an issue outside the German season, after the end of September. To still be able to meet the demand for cucumbers, the vegetables are largely imported from Spain. However, transport and handling can take four to five days. Without the protective packaging, which can extend the cucumber’s shelf-life, a lot of cucumbers shrivel or turn yellow during this time and are then thrown away. Besides the financial loss, this alarms critics battling food waste and loss.
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WASTING FOOD VERSUS AVOIDING PLASTIC
This pits the resources used to create the shrink film, which is usually made out of polyethylene, against the unnecessary consumption of energy, water and agricultural land use, including the CO2 emissions that arise during transport, that is caused by cucumbers that are then not consumed.
SAVE FOOD is just one of the initiatives committed to countering such forms of food waste. The initiative was founded by FAO, UN Environment and Messe Düsseldorf, who have joined forces with representatives in politics, business, NGOs and research institutions to advance solutions that counter food waste and loss.
CUCUMBERS IN RETAIL
German supermarket chains are taking their own, individual measures. SAVE FOOD member Lidl Germany offers cucumbers with and without packaging; the majority is wrapped in shrink film.
Real has developed a new transport solution and prevents the vegetables from drying out in their boxes by covering them with paper; initial tests have proved successful.
Aldi and Edeka are planning to adapt transport and storage processes within the supply chain, involving all stakeholders. Aldi, for example, has already conducted regional tests with suppliers to keep transport routes short and forgo temporary storage.
Rewe and Penny aim to prevent premature cucumber spoilage by returning to shrink-wrapping a low percentage of the affected foods – around five percent; however, using the thin shrink film to protect against premature spoilage will be the exception.
This is consistent with Rewe Group efforts to only package few, specific items of all in-house brands sold by Rewe and discount store-subsidiary Penny in plastic and to ensure they are recyclable by the end of 2025. By as early as the end of 2020, the group aims to use certified raw materials exclusively in its paper packaging; more than 1,400 articles have already been adapted accordingly. According to company statements, annual plastic savings amount to around 8,200 tonnes.
CUCUMBER SHRINK FILM
Cucumber shrink film for protection and longer shelf life of your cucumbers.
Features of our cucumber shrink profile
The cucumber shrink film that we make has the following features:
High transparent film for the packaging of cucumbers
High gloss film for perfect presentation
Outstandingly processable on high speed machines
Low energy consumption through thinner thickness
Perfect seal and shrink properties
Easy to tear
Versions of our cucumber shrink film
The cucumber shrink film that we make is available in the following versions:
Flat film with micro perforation
Long roll lengths possible in order to save roll changing costs
Flexo printing up to 8 colours
Application options van our cucumber shrink film
The cucumber shrink film that we make is suitable for the following application options:
For the shrink packaging of cucumbers
Instead of plastic wrapping around a cucumber, just use a protective spray
START-UPS - Today's Start-up of the Day is all about a young Italian company that offers environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic packaging.
That plastic packaging is bad for the environment is obvious by now. But what can you replace it with? The Italian Innovation Utility Vehicle (IUV) has the solution: Edible and biodegradable packaging made from waste products from the food industry. Founder Cosimo Maria Palopoli talks to us about this new technology.
How does it work?
“We have two types of technologies for packaging on offer. The first is a spray that is intended for solid, fresh produce. The food is coated with the spray, so to speak. This spray is made from waste products from the food industry that have been roasted, such as grains or fruit and vegetable peel. You could coat apples or cucumbers with it. Using more layers, you could also use it to package drinks, like a kind of bottle. The other way involves a thin layer of film intended for dry food with a long shelf life or for non-food packaging like cosmetics. This packaging is flexible, much like plastic.”
Also interesting: This start-up removes plastic from water – sustainably
There are already start-ups that have come up with alternatives to plastic packaging. What makes you so different?
Most start-ups focus on one branch of food and make packaging for that. In other words, they work vertically. We work horizontally. We offer packaging for every kind of food and non-food product. The coating and the layer of film are suitable for a wide variety of products. What’s more, not many start-ups bring a new type of material to the market. They often work with existing materials such as glass and cardboard. Our packaging is completely new. It is in fact a new kind of polymer that, unlike plastic, respects nature.”
Plastic is cheap. How do you compete where costs are concerned?
“At the moment, our packaging is more expensive than plastic. We hope that the costs will come down as it becomes more widely used. The costs are complex because they are dependent on several different factors. What product you use, how much coating or packaging you need, how many companies will use it? But a rough estimate would be €10 to €15 per 250 milliliters for the spray and €4 per kilo for the film coating. Moreover, in the future, single-use plastic will be driven back further by European legislation. We then want to be able to offer companies a good alternative.”
What are some of the obstacles you are facing?
“We were about to make a huge leap as a company in 2020. We had been negotiating with a partner for some time for an investment. As a result of the pandemic, the partner lost interest and started to focus on packaging that was badly needed during the crisis. We have now found a new investment partner, Tozzi Green, an Italian company active in renewable energy all over the world. Furthermore, we are working on crowdfunding to be able to offer our packaging in our own country and also outside of Italy. We expect to enter the market in the second half of 2022.”
A lesson in packaging myths: Is shrink-wrap on a cucumber really mindless waste?
However you do the maths, packaging is bad news for the planet, and as Christmas consumption reaches a peak, those mountains, planes and bins only look dirtier.
But packaging is not necessarily evil, as veterans of the industry point out in a new book. In Why Shrink-wrap a Cucumber? The Complete Guide to Environmental Packaging, Stephen Aldridge and Laurel Miller unpack various myths to show how, done well, packaging can please the planet as much as it can producers, retailers and consumers.
"People have an awful lot of preconceptions about packaging," Aldridge says. "Everyone also wants do the right thing, environmentally, but sometimes that's not for the best."
Aldridge accepts that there are too many egregious cases of over-packaging as manufacturers compete to "shelf-shout" the loudest. "In the Sixties toys came in a box with a picture on the front," he says.
"Now you get massive Easter egg-style boxes with huge vacuum-formed domes and unnecessary layers of cardboard. There's no excuse for it."
But the designer and consultant, who has advised dozens of top brands, adds: "An environmental view should always be at the core of a design project rather than a box to tick."
While the more we strive to use less packaging, Aldridge says, its greenness or otherwise isn't always as clear as polyethylene...
…that's the plastic used to sheath the book's titular cucumbers. The miles of plastic used in the process might seem unnecessary, and have been the subject of well-meaning anti-packaging campaigns (if an apple or a potato can go naked, why not a cucumber?).
But research shows that a wrapped cucumber lasts more than three times as long as an unwrapped one. It will also lose just 1.5 per cent of its weight through evaporation after 14 days, compared with 3.5 per cent in just three days for an exposed cucumber.
A longer life, Aldridge writes, means less frequent deliveries, with all their consequent energy costs, and, crucially, less waste. Globally, we throw out as much as 50 per cent of food, often when it perishes. It typically goes to landfill and gives off methane, a greenhouse gas.
"The cucumber example is significant because it demonstrates that how consumers perceive materials is important in environmental retailing," Aldridge writes.
"Some materials, such as glass, hardly seem to register on their environmental radar, while others, particularly plastics, are never off it."
Few items of packaging are seen as synonymous with environmental destruction as much as the plastic carrier bag but their replacement with cotton or heavier plastic bags isn't necessarily great for the planet.
"A recent Environment Agency study found that a cotton bag would have to be reused approximately 130 times before it became as environmentally efficient as a single-use bag," Aldridge writes. "If the 'single-use' bag were reused just three times as a shopping bag the cotton bag would have to be reused 393 times to achieve the same carbon footprint."
Of course, he adds, that doesn't take into account the effects of bags that end up in waterways, for example, but the superiority of "bags for life" very much depends on their genuinely prolonged use.
A slimline tonic
Remember those all those Blue Peter recycling campaigns when magnet sales presumably soared as children checked their drinks cans for steel? Pretty much all cans are now made of aluminium but they remain a symbol of litter and waste. Technology, however, means that much of the packaging we use is far greener than it might appear.
"Remember the scene in Jaws when Quint crushes his beer can with one hand?" Aldridge asks. Back then, a typical can weighed 60g and took a macho man to crush. "Now it weighs 14g, with a wall thickness thinner than a human hair. Anyone can be a Quint today."
Research reveals similar secret slimming in other common packages, from yoghurt pots to plastic bottles.
Less is more
Inevitably, many of the improvements in packaging have come not because corporations are noble but in response to demand from consumers and the realisation that less can be more.
"Barely five years ago mobile phones would have come in very high quality large gift boxes with hidden compartments, pull-out flaps and drawers," Aldridge writes.
"The simplicity of the iPhone packaging was an antidote to this approach while Amazon's restrained and beautifully detailed Kindle carton has shown that it is perfectly possible to produce clearly environmentally friendly packaging in a creative way.
"By comparison the iPhone pack now looks almost over-the-top."
Plastic isn't so fantastic when it's consuming gallons of oil and giving nothing back while it festers in landfills for 500 years. But bioplastics, which could be the solution to these ills, have a long way to go before becoming a truly green solution. "Bioplastics grown from crops remove land from food production," Aldridge says.
"The EU has already moved to limit biofuels from crops. They are also tough to compost. Normal local authority composting is often not adequate to break down the bioplastic within a realistic timescale, but anything looking like packaging is very unlikely to be collected for composting anyway."
He adds there are promising signs as the industry develops conventional, recyclable plastics than can be grown from crops and more sustainable traditional plastics.
CUCUMBER SHRINK FILM
Rhino Plastics offers the worlds best cucumber shrink film, imported from Oerlemans Plastics in Holland. Cucumber shrink film is used for protection and longer shelf life of your cucumbers.
Technically advanced shrink film:
A highly effective shrink film robust enough to withstand the high speeds of modern packaging machines, with perfect seal and shrink properties
Manufactured to the Global Standard for Packaging and Packaging Materials: Issue 5 of food-grade
The product is micro-perforated for enhanced protection and shelf life
Greater roll length –more product per roll
Long roll lengths saves roll changing time and cost
High transparency and gloss
Exceptional transparency and gloss for perfect presentation of product
Better for the environment
Being thinner, energy consumption during packaging is less. Additionally, less film is used. The film is 100% recyclable
ISO 26000 compliant
Manufacturer conforms to ISO 26000 developed to help organizations effectively assess and address social responsibilities relevant to their companies, workers, natural environments and communities
Flexo-printing up to 8 colours for customised branding
CUCUMBER SHRINK FILM
Cucumber Shrink Film
CUCUMBER SHRINK FILM – GREEN
Width: 450mm / 480mm / 500mm / 520mm
Thickness: 15 micron
CUCUMBER SHRINK FILM – CLEAR
Width: 450mm / 480mm / 500mm / 520mm
Thickness: 15 micron
THE USEFULNESS OF CUCUMBER SHRINK FOIL
Cucumber shrink foil is immensely useful, not only for the cucumber’s shelf life but also in view of hygiene on the shelves where people tend to grab products and return them. A non-packed cucumber rapidly loses 3.5% of its weight in the first three days after harvesting. A packed cucumber slows down this aging process: it loses only 1.5% of its weight in two weeks! This makes an enormous difference. Shrink foil has even more advantages in addition to a longer shelf life. For example, the burden on the environment caused by the packaging is considerably lower than the environmental burden caused by the cultivation and transport of the cucumber. When a cucumber is discarded, the energy that was used (and therefore the environmental burden) is lost.
Most cucumber packaging is produced from a polyethylene recyclable fossil-based raw material. Nowadays, there are many innovations in reusable cucumber packaging, for example, we are able to produce bio-based and biodegradable cucumber shrink foil. But… which variety is the correct choice?
Bio-based – recyclable cucumber foil
When we produce bio-based cucumber shrink foil, we use at least 80% bio-based raw materials, which are 4-star certified and originate from plant material such as sugar canes. The packaging has the same features as the usual fossil-based cucumber shrink foil and is extremely suitable for recycling. Because the raw material is plant material, CO2 is extracted from the air. The production of this packaging causes far less CO2 emission than the extraction from the air by the sugar canes during the growth process. The result is that this bio-based foil has a negative CO2 footprint and it is perfectly suitable for recycling after use.
Biodegradable – compostable cucumber foil
When we produce bio-degradable cucumber shrink foil, we use the raw material polylactic acid (PLA), which ensures that the foil is 100% degradable in a compost heap or in an industrial compostable process (OK HOME compostable). The CO2 emission of the raw material production of bio-degradable cucumber shrink foil is higher than the bio-based and fossil-based recyclable raw materials. Furthermore, the compostable raw material cannot be recycled; you can use it only once. However, the packaging will compost or decompose for 100%.
What is the correct choice?
The correct choice depends on the use of the foil during the waste phase.
Choose a biodegradable variety, if this provides an advantage in the entire chain. If the cucumber waste is discarded together with the packaging, then select a biodegradable packaging.
If you can discard the cucumber waste and the packaging separately, then opt for a bio-based recyclable variety. After all, the packaging can be recycled.