As MEPs and EU member states consider outlawing plastic packaging for fruit and veg, industry leaders fear such a move could do enormous damage, as is already predicted in Canada

Plans to introduce a ban on plastic packaging used for almost all of the fresh fruit and vegetables sold in Europe are likely to be discriminatory and damaging for the industry, the environment, and for consumers, leading figures from across the industry have told Fruitnet.

The ban, part of the EU’s proposed new Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR), is closer to becoming EU law after the European Parliament and Council completed a process known as a trilogue to decide the regulation’s final wording on Monday 4 March.

The Commission’s original PPWR proposal included a complete ban on all packaging for unprocessed fruits and vegetables, regardless of material used. But the Parliament later removed that ban, citing a lack of investigation into its potential impact.

However, European Council member states then voted on a new version of PPWR that retained the ban only for plastic packaging on fruit and vegetables sold below 1.5kg.

“The Council is moving more towards a French-style option, where they maintain rules on fruit and vegetables but limit the scope only to plastic packaging, and remove the restriction that might be there on other kinds of packaging,” explains Philippe Binard, general delegate of Freshfel Europe.

Martin Engelmann, director general of the German Plastic Packaging Association, IK, believes the whole proposal has been drawn up without proper scientific research.

“The Commission failed to assess what the results, what the impact of such a ban will be,” he comments. “They just said, ‘We don’t need packaging, it’s superfluous. Consumers can take out the fruits and vegetables on their own, and put it in their own basket.’ They did not perform an impact assessment and that creates a lot of tension, because now legislators are beginning to understand that packaging actually has a role to play in protecting fruits and vegetables.”

Legal dispute

For Binard, the risk of creating multi-tier markets where certain products are at a commercial disadvantage is extremely high. “What we want to avoid, basically, is the discrimination that was included in the proposal for fruits and vegetables, because there were no specific rules for any other food product in the proposal of the commission,” he points out.

For many in the industry, it has gradually dawned on them that PPWR might have more to do with the perceived environmental impact of plastic packaging than a proper understanding of all the environmental and commercial factors at play.

According to Binard, fruit and veg accounts for only around 1.5 per cent of all food packaging in the EU, while about 50 per cent of all fresh produce in the market is sold loose. This, he says, means the ban will have a very small effect overall.

In the meantime, a ban that affects just one segment of the food business is also open to legal dispute, he argues. “The next discussion will be, which product needs an exemption,” he predicts. “And then we’ll enter a completely silly discussion where we will see big discrimination in favour of other foods. And there may also be discrimination inside the fruit or vegetable category. We want to avoid that.”

Massimiliano Del Core, president of Italian interprofessional organisation Ortofrutta Italia, says the entire fresh produce industry in Italy is extremely unhappy about the way PPWR has evolved.

“This is not just because of all the business implications, but also because of the shelf-life of the product, and the fact we need to export our product in 7-10 days from the moment of harvesting,” he explains. “We also have to bring value to the consumer by communicating, promoting, and informating them about the product,” he adds.

As Binard suggests, question marks have already been raised over the legality of such a ban. Engelmann agrees, and points out that any legal text agreed by MEPs and member state governments must comply with EU law and the principle of equal treatment.

“We don’t see a reason to ban packaging for fruits and vegetables, specifically not plastic packaging for fruits and vegetables,” he comments. “There is no impact assessment. If [Parliament and Council] come to an agreement, there will be legal cases challenging that proposal for sure.”

Canadian parallel

Across the Atlantic, Canada has sought to introduce similar rules to minimise the use of packaging in its own food supply chains.

The country’s government has apparently proposed new regulations that would first ban non-compostable plastic PLU stickers, and then require that 95 per cent of all fresh produce be sold in bulk, or plastic-free packaging, by 2028.

“In our view, that’s basically a plastic ban,” says Daniel Duguay, a specialist in packaging and sustainability at the Canadian Produce Marketing Association.

“Produce packaging is integral to the sustainability of the produce supply chain. That goes without saying. But we have to deliver that message to people outside of this industry. Because there’s a sense that packaging not necessary.”

In the absence of a government-funded impact assessment, the CPMA has conducted its own. Its findings are likely to raise the temperature of the debate in Europe.

According to Duguay, Canada’s proposed ban could increase the cost of food by 34 per cent, reduce its availability by more than half, and completely wipe out value-added products like bagged salads and fresh-cut fruit.

The study also predicts that food loss and waste would rise by more than 50 per cent, food safety risks would increase, and greenhouse gas emissions would rise by around half.

“We have a significant population which is remote and rural,” Duguay observes. “They will basically not be able to get product. Every other difficulty in terms of cost and availability will just compound the problem.”

That reduction in fresh produce consumption will have a negative knock-on effect in terms of consumer health, he notes. “We’ve actually determined the indirect healthcare costs, because of the reduced consumption of fresh produce, because of cost increases and losses in availability, could exceed a billion dollars a year in Canada.

Back in Europe, approximately 22 per cent of food is already wasted before it reaches consumers, says Luc Vanoirbeek, president of the fruit and vegetable working group at European farming body Copa Cogeca. And after it is sold, he says, 52 per cent goes to waste.

“If we now change this legislation, it will be even higher,” he predicts. “In terms of CO2 production, food waste is already the third country in the world after the US and China. So everything we can do to avoid food waste is progress and improvement. That’s why we have to reconsider this legislation.”

Photo: Francesco Marzovillo, Dreamstime