Clever new solutions – Berry Yearbook 2021 – Lee Cooper

Whilst the need for a reliable supply of affordable packaging has understandably been an important consideration during the coronavirus pandemic, sustainability has been a priority for the berry packaging sector...

As we remain mindful of the need to live more sustainably, packaging manufacturers have continued to see an interest in plastic-free packaging. Patrick Wheeler, sales manager for Evesham Specialist Packaging (ESP), notes that, despite the financial strain that the COVID-19 pandemic has put on businesses sales have been as expected in the UK and throughout Europe for its compostable, heat-sealable, sugarcane punnets (made from processed sugarcane fibre waste). Patrick says: “I can confirm that ESP have achieved our forecasted targets this year. The sugarcane is an established product for us and sells well.”

He adds that, interestingly, ESP is now seeing a move towards “open punnets” for berries. Sold as part of ESP’s pulp range, this packaging option is already being used extensively throughout the rest of Europe. Patrick notes: “More than 160 million of the open punnets have been used in Europe annually.” He adds that part of this range named Berigard, can be bespoke printed – an option that presents many benefits for the firm’s customers. “We have received lots of interest in both the range and the bespoke printing option,” he says.

Lee Cooper, Produce Packaging’s business development manager (South East and Scotland), reveals that the firm also saw a continued demand for both their Moulded Fibre and Thermoformed paper pulp ‘CKF – Earthcycle’ Top Seal punnets last year (2020).

“Although the pandemic slowed progress down with our work on compostable/recyclable punnets, this gained traction again during the latter part of 2020 as retailers started to look ahead to 2021 and beyond. We are currently undertaking numerous trials using this material and believe it will gather further momentum in 2021.”

Due to both ranges being produced using paper pulp they are both compostable and recyclable, giving a range of post-consumer, end-of-life, disposal options.”

Lee also reveals that, last year, farm shops pick-your-own home delivery schemes and organic growers certainly favoured compostable punnets over PET (polyethylene terephthalate [plastic]) punnets. These smaller operations have been much quicker to adopt these alternative materials. Lee adds: “Retail wise, we ran a number of successful launches across the berry sector in our CKF– Earthcycle punnets in 2020 and early signs are looking good for 2021.”

In a similar vein, last summer (2020) saw Asda launch what it claimed to be the first fully-recyclable blueberry punnet – whose film lid was recyclable like the punnet itself. This innovation noted the supermarket will enable 5.5 million film lids to be recycled with the punnet each year.

Meanwhile, BerryWorld – an international group of soft fruit and prepared fruit companies – announced (at the start of last year) a range of measures to make its packaging more recyclable and environmentally friendly. For its UK operations, the group set a target to introduce 100% recyclable packaging, including film and bubble pads by 2021 with a minimum of 80% rPET (recycled polyethylene terephthalate [plastic]) by 2025. At the time of its announcement BerryWorld UK’s punnets were 100% widely recyclable and contained 50-80% rPET content.

Lee notes that social, as well as environmental, responsibility is coming to the fore. Through one of its key suppliers in Italy, Produce Packaging now has access to Social Plastic Punnets, which sees people living in developing countries collect plastic litter and hand it in to recycling centres in exchange for goods. Lee says: “We view this as a very important initiative in the work to reduce plastic pollution in our global seas.”

Whilst environmental and social concerns have clearly remained a priority, the coronavirus pandemic has understandably created some other important considerations for the berry market. Lee explains that when the berry market’s supply chain began to experience disruptions last March (2020), the need for a guaranteed supply of punnets become high on the agenda. He recalls: “We saw a much higher percentage of plastic PET punnets put out onto farms and also into our own depots during March and April than we would normally do, with growers wanting assurance that they would have the packaging they needed once the UK season started. Thankfully, with our suppliers’ support, Produce Packaging didn’t experience any supply chain issues at all throughout the pandemic.”

Lee adds: “Affordability has always been high on our customers’ lists. The pandemic has put a huge amount of extra cost onto our growers. Sourcing labour, accommodating that labour in Covid-safe conditions, and having labour with the same productivity of previous seasons are just a few examples. Therefore, our customers need to know that they are getting a consistent supply of packaging of suitable quality to perform as they need it to, and that it’s also affordable for them.”

Packaging Automation, which designs and manufacturers tray sealing machines for the food sector notes that plastic-free packaging has its place. However, it observes that cost currently remains the overriding factor for the UK’s berry industry. That said, it has observed an increased production of plastic made out of 100% recycled material.

The Cheshire-based firm reminds the soft fruit industry that its Revolution range of tray sealing machines remains very popular. The firm’s Scott Roebuck notes that this energy-efficient range has been designed in consultation with packers. “We’ve made changeovers really quick and slick – making it easy to switch, for example, from a 200g blueberry punnet to a kilo strawberry punnet.” Furthermore, the firm’s seal technologist Simon Wilson adds that the Revolution machines can easily adjust to sealing pulp (rather than plastic) trays.

Scott adds that the firm’s MiWeigh is a useful performance management tool for packaging operations. “With a goal of maximising productivity, the MiWeigh hardware and software are used to monitor operator performance. This provides a real-time visual management tool to aid decision-making and improve pack consistency with a clear, quick return on investment.”

Lee reminds the industry that hygiene has always been a key priority. “Produce Packaging is fully BRC accredited and it’s our duty to ensure all of our packaging is supplied to our customers in a secure and safe manner.” Unquestionably, hygienic, cost-effective and efficient plastic punnets will continue to be a popular choice for the berry industry this year. But those who are seeking alternatives to plastic also have many good options available to them.

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