Getting produce off the farm and into the hands of consumers often involves packaging, storage and transport, as well as a race against time to keep product from spoiling. Once purchased, consumers often are up against the clock to eat produce before it spoils. Whether food waste or packaging waste, produce generates a lot of garbage. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Innovative product trends have made the standard plastic clamshell or corrugated cardboard box old-school holdouts, and technological advances have made even these old standbys “zero waste” friendly. With packaging that is not only recyclable or compostable, but also often made from biobased materials, and possibly processed without the need for fossil fuels or toxic chemicals, today’s produce can be packaged to prevent damage, with environmentally-friendly materials.

Produce pack options

Packers and distributors have been increasing produce’s shelf life via packaging for years, and new developments continue to hit the shelf, reducing wasted food and lost revenue. Typically, these products control the atmosphere surrounding the fruit and prolonging decay.

One such example is Maglio Companies ready-ripe watermelon pouch, which won the United Fresh Produce Innovation Award for fresh produce packaging in 2015 and 2016. Two different pouch versions keep freshly cut watermelon from spoiling for up to five or as long as 11 days longer than standard packaging. These packages are used exclusively for Maglio’s produce.

NatureFlex packaging, in films and stand-up pouches, is derived from dissolved wood pulp, from trees grown under Forest Stewardship Council oversight. Chemicals used in the process are recycled. Moisture barriers for varying performance are available to ensure produce stays fresh.

Emerald Packaging introduced the first compostable produce packaging, using polylactic acid (PLA) film. It also offers biodegradable plastic film for tray covering, and potato-starch based bags, recyclable corrugated cardboard boxes and compostable tableware.

Eosta, an organic and fair trade international produce distributor, has introduced several solutions for environmentally-friendly packaging. When plastic packaging is necessary, the company uses containers made from PLA plastic, derived from corn and entirely compostable in 12 weeks. It also offers cardboard carry trays made from renewable sugarcane.

TaterMade sustainable bags, by BiologiQ Inc., are made from eco starch resin (ESR) pellets, as well as polyethylene. The TaterMade bag is stronger than traditional plastic bags, so less film is needed for each bag. The film is derived from a combination of preconsumer potato waste and potato starch-based renewable material, which consists of up to 25 percent of the bag’s content.

Reducing food waste further by using plant residue to make produce containers, some packaging by Pure-Flavor is created using tomato plant fibers, and used to package their Cloud 9 tomatoes. Pure Flavor-Pure Hothouse Foods is a grower, shipper and marketer of greenhouse vegetables. The Cloud 9 tomato packaging is compostable and recyclable.

Naturipe Farms’ “Cultivate with Care” program has expanded with its organic, fully compostable, recyclable blueberry pulp fiber tray with resealable top. Made from renewable materials, it is one of the company’s environmentally responsible solutions to the standard chemically-derived plastic clamshell packaging, typically used for berries. For plastic packaging, the company uses recycled polyethylene terephthalate (RPET), made from recycled plastic water bottles.

NatureWorks’ Greenware On-The-Go Boxes are 100 percent compostable, made from plant-derived plastics. Its PLA plastic uses dextrose derived from field corn, which undergoes a fermentation process to create a lactic-acid based polymer that is used to make the containers, suitable for fresh-cut produce and designed to showcase and store product efficiently.

Each of these packaging examples works to create less waste within the fresh produce industry. Although they may not solve every problem associated with keeping produce fresh throughout its lifespan, and don’t all eliminate nonrenewable resources, they offer options for sustainable production in the produce food chain.

Edible films

The topic of edible films isn’t new. But getting them to the table hasn’t been a doable process, and they remain a hot topic internationally. These types of films are being developed from protein, lipids and polysaccharides. They can be used in fresh food applications, including produce and meat, as well as bakery or nutraceutical products, and provide a protective barrier, serving to reduce contamination and spoilage, and keep products fresh on the shelf

Ana Sanches-Silva, a researcher in the Food and Nutrition Department, National Institute of Health, in Lisbon, Portugal, is involved in developing such an edible film, derived from whey protein and essential oils. Although the product is not ready for commercial use, it is being tested for meat products, and would be appropriate for other products subject to microbial contamination and spoilage, such as fresh produce.

“It is important to reduce microbial contamination of foods, because this is one of the main causes of food deterioration and reduction of shelf life,” Silva said. “The possibility of using essential oils to substitute synthetic additives in foods is being studied, because some synthetic additives have demonstrated adverse effects for human health.”

Essential oils in the edible film are natural microbials, derived from a mixture of volatile compounds in certain species of plants, she said.

“More tests are required in order to improve some mechanical and barrier properties of the film packaging,” Silva said.

At a recent meeting of the American Chemical Society, Laetitia M. Bonnaillie, Ph.D., U.S. Department of Agriculture, shared updates on edible food packaging from dairy sources. Excess milk is stored as nonfat dried milk and is warehoused for potential future use.

“We wanted to utilize excess milk,” she said in a video released by the American Chemical Society. “The idea was to make a thin film with it, and to replace, potentially, plastic wrap. The No. 1 target is to keep it edible.”

The main protein in milk, casein, can form strong bonds, and has been used to make plastics. The casein product would add extra protein to food. If used in single-serve packages, the coating could be eaten as well. Adding natural antimicrobials would keep this coating safe to eat, while also enhancing protection of the food it is wrapping. If discarded, the product is fully biodegradable.

“They are an excellent oxygen barrier. So they can keep sensitive foods fresh longer. They are also a good grease barrier,” Bonnaillie said of edible films made from casein proteins.

Wrapping cheese sticks, making drink pouches, single-serve coffee packs, or directly spraying foods are all possibilities for this casein-derived edible food packaging. The coating will dissolve in hot water.

Although these types of film are under development in laboratories around the world, other naturally-derived products designed to keep food fresh have hit store shelves.

Natural shelf life retention

Deterring spoiled food doesn’t only happen by choosing the correct packaging. Preservative products based on biological preparations are hitting the market in record numbers, extending the shelf life of produce from farm to table.

Much food waste is consumer-generated, and food gone bad prior to consumption makes up a hefty portion of that. With FreshPaper by Fenugreen – a recyclable, compostable and biodegradable sheet designed to be added to produce drawers, containers or bags – everyone from direct-market farmers to store retailers and consumers can readily extend the life of produce. Infused with organic spices, FreshPaper naturally inhibits microbes and also decreases enzymatic activity leading to ripening.

Phresh Organics recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funding for development of Food Protectors. Phresh Organics’ Food Protectors are attractively designed robot or apple-shaped containers in which organic sachets contain a variety of edible powders. These powders are made from microencapsulated essential oils derived from clove, spearmint, thyme and other plants. They can control oxygen levels and eliminate microbes responsible for produce decay. Food Protectors are placed into a bowl, bag or drawer of produce. Search “Phresh Organics” on KickStarter’s website for more information.

Whereas all these innovations benefit the produce industry by providing a longer shelf life for food, they also reduce waste products, from food and packaging materials. By using renewable resources, such as bioplastics and regenerative feedstocks such as wood or crop waste, developing natural preservatives and incorporating environmentally friendly manufacturing, trends in produce packaging are helping keep food fresh, and to green the produce industry, naturally.