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?
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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.
How dealing with plastic packaging fits into the bigger picture of eating sustainably, you’ll find out in the chapter Packaging of the Fork Ranger book (page 120).
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.