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202006 Fresh Quarterly Issue 9 15 Drawing The Line On Plastic Use
Issue NineJune 2020

Drawing the line on plastic use

A new project to reduce plastic in pome-fruit packaging. By Grethe Bestbier.

As the pressure on producers and pack houses to use environmentally friendly practices increases, a group of researchers is asking how we can reduce the use of plastic in pome-fruit packaging, and will it influence fruit quality? A new project examines the role of plastic liners and pallet shrouds in finding the balance between saving resources and preserving quality.

The greatest advantage of plastic packaging is its ability to minimise water loss, thereby maintaining post-harvest quality and extending shelf life.

“Water loss can lead to shrivel in pears or lenticel problems in apples, for example. These defects appear post-harvest or post-storage, and can be avoided by plastic packaging.” explains Daniël Viljoen, fruit physiologist at ExperiCo.

“This advantage was achieved through repeated optimisation of appropriate packaging materials for handling pome and stone fruit in order to maximise the value addition for the industry,” says Anél Botes, post-harvest researcher at the Agricultural Research Council.

Plastic also simplifies logistics from harvest to sale, protects against cold and mechanical damage, and provides a practical way to handle fruit. However, plastic is not necessary in all cases and in many ways plastic packaging has become a victim of its own global success.

“The success of plastic packaging over the last five decades in the fruit industry cannot be overstated. However, to maintain these successes, a more sustainable use of plastic packaging is needed to minimise post-harvest losses,” says Dr Oluwafemi Caleb, research team manager at the Agricultural Research Council.

Liners and plastic shrouds

There are various options for reducing plastic packaging such as using paper as a substitute or coating the fruit with a wax layer. There are also the possibilities of making plastic packaging thinner or even of removing it altogether. This is what the researchers decided to investigate, focussing on plastic liners and shrouds.

The ExperiCo team will conduct a trial comparing the impact of liners of different thicknesses on Forelle pears. The Agricultural Research Council team will study the effect of liners and pallet shrouds on Royal Gala apples.

Both trials will also evaluate the impact of removing plastic altogether and hope to answer the fundamental question of which packaging could provide optimum conditions for maintaining quality of pome fruit during storage.

At the end of the day, explains Viljoen, it is about reducing the mass of plastic used. “At the moment, the industry’s vision is simply to reduce the amount of plastic used. I think that going absolutely plastic-free will require some alternatives, so that will probably have to be a follow-up project.”

Joining forces to reach a shared goal

Although 2019 saw increased emphasis on plastic reduction, this is not a new industry goal. “We always want to be a step ahead, or at least on par, with the rest of the world. In a few years’ time, we don’t want to realise that the international markets to which we export are so progressed that we are lacking,” says Viljoen. “Being prepared for challenges in the future is a good approach.”

While this project will provide answers regarding the best protocols for Forelle pears and Royal Gala apples, the results won’t be applicable to all pome fruit. Each cultivar will pose its own challenges and will need to be tested.

“Packaging is an entire area of research on its own,” says Heleen Tayler, fruit physiologist and plant pathologist at ExperiCo. “There is much to find out about it over different cultivars and storage protocols.”

The research project, set to be completed by early 2021, will be a step towards ensuring the South African pome-fruit industry’s place at the forefront of plastic reduction worldwide. To reach this goal, various role players such as ExperiCo and the Agricultural Research Council are joining forces. This cooperation, says Viljoen, is a vital and exciting part of the proposed project.

“The different institutions’ cooperation is important for industry. There is unity to solve the problem, which is great. Cooperation ensures progress.”

What are people saying about this research?

Henk Griessel | Tru-Cape

Research projects like this one challenges and questions the way we do things, says Griessel. It is important to ask whether plastic, developed in the late sixties, is still necessary today. “An increasing number of clients are shying away from the use of plastic for packaging. Therefore, we need to provide viable answers,” he says. However, to really benefit industry, these solutions must still be efficient in terms of cooling, packing, shipping, and costs. A major benefit of plastic, says Griessel, is limiting water loss. “With plastic, we can pack to almost arrival masses. Without plastic, we must pack heavier, which costs us money.”

Dawie Moelich | SATI

Optimising the application of fruit packaging, both from a quality maintenance and an environmental perspective, is extremely important to industry, says Moelich. “When dealing with plastics, irresponsible conduct can occur on both the fruit -supply side and the fruit-consumer side. From the supply side, it is the responsibility of industry to ensure that the usage of plastics towards the delivery of good quality fruit, are justified and efficient.”

Image supplied by Fruitways.

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