January 24, 2024

Plastic Packaging Update

Many of you in the industry have paid attention to retailer calls, reflective of consumer trends, to change plastic packaging in the produce aisle. It’s no surprise that you have heard that packaging needs to use less plastic and that the plastic used should have more recycled content and be recyclable. What should come as a surprise is the plastic proposal that the Environmental Ministry in Canada has put forward during the late summer. In the proposal, the Canadian government would like to see plastic effectively banned from use in the produce aisle. The proposal states that produce in Canada should be sold in bulk, or in non-plastic packaging, and that 75 percent of produce should be sold that way by 2026 and 95 percent by 2028.

Canada is the United States’ largest produce partner, and we sell half of all our exports to our northern neighbor, so when we saw that proposal, we moved aggressively. Your Western Growers team quickly began to survey our members to understand the potential impact that the proposal might have on them. We also engaged packaging companies and packaging experts to understand packaging alternatives. What we learned shocked us: the proposal would effectively mean whole categories of produce would stop being shipped to Canada. Berries need a clamshell to be transported thousands of miles from California to Toronto. Cherries and grapes need plastic packaging. Baby carrots can’t be shipped. And well, bagged salads without a bag just don’t work. We also learned that non-plastic alternatives, namely fiber, literally do not exist to replace plastic. Thus, hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars of produce sales, are potentially at stake if this proposal goes forward without amendment.

After filing comments opposing the proposal with the Canadian government, one of the first phone calls we made was to the Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA). Their growers would obviously be impacted by this proposal too, so they were fired up. CPMA knows the terrain, they know Ottawa, and so for the last six months, we have been working hand and hand to fight this proposal.

Since filing those comments opposing the proposal, we have been extremely assertive in our approach. We have spoken with the environmental and agricultural ministries in Ottawa about the proposal, as well as the Canadian embassy in Washington, and laid out our concerns. We have also sought help from American government agriculture, food safety and trade experts and asked for their help to open up bilateral talks with the Canadians to make changes to the proposal. Finally, at the end of November, we participated in a meeting with the Prime Minister of Canada and raised this issue directly.

We hope that these efforts have moved the Canadian environmental ministry to be more thoughtful around plastics, and we intend to keep pushing in early 2024 until a more reasonable packaging proposal can be found. However, make no mistake—whether this proposal is amended or not, the issue of plastics is something that everyone in our industry will need to face. Consumer trends point to growing interest in removing excessive plastic from the food supply chain. We know a significant portion of retailers respond to consumer trends, so we should expect to see more interest in reducing plastic packaging and making that packaging more sustainable. We hope that retailer proposals will be more reasonable and practical than what the Canadian environmental ministry proposed in the summer of2023, but this is not an issue that will go away and thus Western Growers will be working on it.