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21 June 2022

Fruit and vegetable distribution: Sustainability is gaining ground while awaiting new regulations.

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In recent years, the European Union has set a course and a timetable for the circular economy that our country is beginning to implement. Thus, it was expected that in the first half of 2022 the two major texts that will mark government policy on packaging and waste would be defined. The first is the Law on Waste and Contaminated Land for a Circular Economy (approved last April); the second will be the Royal Decree on Packaging and Packaging Waste (imminent publication).

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This set of regulations forms the central element of the so-called Spanish Circular Economy Strategy (EEEC) "Spain Circular 2030", which will be completed with a last measure yet to be defined: a Strategic Project for Economic Recovery and Transformation (PERTE) for the "green industry" whose details are still unknown, but which is expected to see the light of day early next year. Regulations that are aimed at limiting single-use plastics and promote their replacement by recycled, compostable or reusable packaging and whose implementation is generating some uncertainty in the national distribution sector, according to sources consulted by Alimarket.

In the fruit and vegetable shelf, the "star" measure will be the promotion of bulk sales, which, according to the Royal Decree, will always be possible through reusable packaging, which will be complemented by a second measure also very ambitious: the obligation, one month after the entry into force of this text, for fresh fruit and vegetables to be presented to the customer without traditional plastic packaging, an imposition that does not apply to fruit and vegetables packaged in lots of 1.5 kg or more, as well as to varieties that present a risk of deterioration when sold in bulk. At the same time, the Waste Law establishes that establishments of more than 400 m² must allocate 20% of their sales area to products without primary packaging.

An avalanche of regulations which, on the other hand, will only accelerate a process that was already underway in the fruit and vegetable sections in response to an increasingly conscious consumer concerned about how his or her shopping basket impacts the environment. In fact, as Aldi Supermarkets explains in its 'Fresh Produce Observatory 2022', "sustainability is becoming a determining factor in the purchasing decision year after year". Not surprisingly, 56% of customers attach considerable or a great deal of importance to fresh produce packaging and almost seven out of ten (69%) highly value the fact that it is sustainable. On preferences, 59% of Spaniards say they always try to buy fresh produce in bulk to avoid using packaging.

Plastic, in the spotlight

The study also indicates that the measure most valued by Spaniards in terms of sustainability is the reduction of plastic in packaging (60%), followed using biodegradable (40%) and reusable packaging (39%). Faced with this scenario, the distribution sector is looking for ways to be "greener". Eroski sums up the situation by stating that it is working "intensely" to "reconcile sustainability with the sale of packaged products". And it should not be lost sight of the fact that "containers and packaging are necessary", in the words of El Corte Inglés, so the objective, according to the same source -in an opinion that can be extended to the rest of the operators- is to find "sustainable packaging". And, based on the data reflected by the observatory, it seems that operators are on the right track. Not surprisingly, the category where consumers perceive that more sustainability measures have been carried out is in fresh vegetables (34%), followed by fruit (19%) and fish and seafood (18%).

Broadly speaking, the measures taken to achieve a packaging with a minimal environmental footprint have been threefold: eliminating plastic that does not add value (for example, by reducing the grammage); incorporating as many recycled polymers as possible (especially rPET) or replacing it with other materials. In the fruit and vegetable sector, two categories of materials have gained great acceptance, those derived from cardboard and "bio" materials, including in the latter category known materials such as cellulose and wood and other new ones such as bamboo, PHA or PLA. On this path they have been helped, when the circumstances required it, by lacquers and plastic laminates to protect containers to be exposed to conditions (such as cold or humid environments) or containing foods that require extra protection (due to exudation or preservation). Even in very complex fields, such as net bags, we have seen several new developments. For example, Alcampo has mesh bags with more than 50% rPET suitable for food contact, which is also reusable. At the same time, compostable bags have made their mark and are present in large operators such as Mercadona (made from potato starch), Ahorramas, Aldi, Consum and Lidl. A second alternative are the paper ones, offered by Eroski (which complements them with compostable alternatives) or El Corte Inglés.

Also in vogue is the replacement of the traditional polystyrene trays of packaged fruit and vegetables with compostable ones (Alcampo offers organic seedless grapes 'Alcampo Producción Controlada' in a 400 g tub made from mixed wood pulp); cardboard (Eroski or Consum); or with rPET percentages that vary between 25% and 100%, such as El Corte Inglés' gazpacho or Aldi's salad bowls.