I have spent countless hours over many years speaking to customers about sustainable flexible packaging. Customers have constantly asked about the viability of compostables and post-consumer recycled resin, wondering if any other options existed, hoping, it seems, for a miracle solution to have been developed by now.
While being asked about sustainable options became common, almost as frequently, customers asked, "How much does it cost?" This question was often followed by the statement, "I can't afford to pay any more for my packaging than I am now."
In recent years, I commissioned two polls within the sector I serve — retail flexible packaging for the produce industry — and the results have been consistent. Both polls found that packers would be willing to pay up to 10 percent more for a sustainable package. However, this hasn't materialized. Instead, I've heard the same chorus: No cost increase.
Their explanation? Packers continually express thoughts that the grocers won't foot or split the bill for a more expensive but sustainable package.
I can't dispute this. Almost every presentation by a grocer or a consumer product company like Procter & Gamble that I've attended at conferences confirms this fact. They want sustainability, but they want it for free.
So, as an industry, we've found ourselves cornered. We have limited sustainable options, and none of them are free. Meanwhile, we face growing regulatory pressure to reduce plastic packaging, including outright bans to curb greenhouse gas emissions and cut waste going into landfills.
I know we have strong arguments to support the use of flexible packaging. My products extend the shelf life of produce, thereby curbing food waste, a major contributor to global warming due to the methane it produces. But these arguments seem to go nowhere. Regulators, and to some degree consumers, want solutions now.
For many years I've lived in this predicament, as most of you have. Everyone wants sustainable packaging, but no one wants to pay for it. As a result, packaging is under the threat of extinction. For instance, Canada has proposed regulations that would drastically reduce produce packaging, marking the first assault on all food packaging.
Out of frustration with the slow pace of changes, a few months ago, I made a decision. I went to one of my largest customers and proposed something novel. I offered to create a romaine heart flexible package incorporating 30 percent post-consumer recycled resin.
And I'd do it for free.
Yes, you read that right — for free. Someone had to take the leap, and I decided Emerald Packaging should be the one. The price difference of plastic made with 30 percent PCR wouldn't be detrimental to me in this instance. However, I knew that even with no additional cost, some customers might be hesitant due to the slightly greater haze of plastic film made with PCR.
Fortunately, I had a customer, D'Arrigo of California, wise enough to see the marketing opportunity PCR presented and smart enough to recognize how PCR aligned with their other sustainable initiatives, including recycling, water conservation and renewable power.
We also partnered with a new PCR supplier, Circulus Holdings, which has a factory about 90 minutes from ours. We assisted in proving out their material over the course of a year and waited until their Food and Drug Administration "No Objection" letter arrived, qualifying it for food-contact packaging.
D'Arrigo has made a commitment to roll out PCR across its entire product line, approximately 1.5 million pounds of film a year. This isn't just a one-off for show; it's a genuine commitment. And it has already inspired other produce companies to follow suit.
Why give PCR away? I realized I couldn't put a price tag on staying in business. I'm tired of being seen as the adversary by regulators and consumers. Now, we can honestly say we've made strides in the circular economy. We're contributing to forging a solution.
I accept there's a cost to meeting the demands of consumers, regulators and activists. I hope that eventually, every company in the supply chain will understand this as well — and that our customers and grocers will come to recognize that the burden must be shared.
If we want plastics to survive, then it will come with a cost. Nothing, especially sustainability, comes free of charge.
Our romaine heart bag isn't the end game for circular plastics. It's only a start, considering we're only reusing the plastic once. I know we need a more robust nationwide recycling system, including a collection, before we can make a significant impact. But that's a story for another day.
Nevertheless, converting the D'Arrigo romaine heart product line is a beginning. We have to start somewhere, or we'll face extinction sooner than we think.