Can grocers sell produce without plastic bags and boxes?

Photo: Marks & Spencer
Jan 22, 2019
Tom Ryan

Marks & Spencer is testing the sale of more than 90 lines of loose fruit and vegetables free of plastic packaging at a store in southwest London.

The range includes hard fruit and vegetables like potatoes and bananas. More perishable items, such as soft fruits and berries, will be sold in compostable baskets made from paper pulp.

M&S also removed “best before” date labels as part of the three-month trial.

Greengrocers, or individuals trained in handling fruits and vegetables, will be available to help customers pick and weigh their items and offer advice on how to best preserve produce and prevent food waste at home.

M&S also committed to launching additional lines of loose produce, replacing plastic produce bags with paper ones and phasing out plastic barcode stickers in favor of eco-friendly alternatives in an effort to save 580 tons (1.3 mm) of waste over two years.

“We know our customers want to play their part in cutting out plastic, while as a business our goal is to become zero-waste by 2025,” said Louise Nicholls, head of food sustainability at M&S., in a statement. “That’s why we’re working hard to reduce the amount of plastic packaging we use without compromising on food quality and contributing to waste.”

It’s not unusual for city laws that ban plastic bags to exclude bags used for items like fruit and vegetables as well as meat due to sanitary concerns. Last July, Morrisons, the U.K. grocer, announced it was bringing back brown paper bags for loose fruit and vegetables, although retail groups have been vexed about the added costs of shifting to paper.

James Murray, the editor-in-chief of BusinessGreen, also noted that waste experts have long warned that quickly switching away from plastic packaging “could inadvertently lead to increased levels of food waste and higher greenhouse gas emissions, unless appropriate alternative forms of packaging are found.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How would U.S. consumers respond to ending the use of plastic bags and removing “best before” dates in produce departments? Would having greengrocer experts on hand to educate shoppers on food preservation and waste be enough to allay the concerns of U.S. consumers?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"This is a great opportunity for someone to be innovative."
"It was the retail chains which put the produce into plastic in the first place to make it easier for their supply chain and store staff."
"The bag-less approach or biodegradable containers will initially be a point of differentiation and then move from a needed-to-win to a needed-to-play approach..."

Join the Discussion!

25 Comments on "Can grocers sell produce without plastic bags and boxes?"

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Mark Ryski

I think there is a general understanding that the need to reduce/eliminate plastic from the environment is critical. The good efforts made by Marks and Spencer and other retailers to reduce plastic should be appreciated for what they are – good efforts. If we’re going to drastically reduce or eliminate plastic from the environment in a meaningful way, it will take the collective effort of everyone and small efforts can contribute to the overall objective.

Neil Saunders

Most grocers already sell loose fruit and vegetables, albeit often with small plastic bags available for those who want to package them. I don’t see any real problem in using paper alternatives or no bags at all. Indeed, a lot of people already don’t bag items like bananas, oranges or lemons as it just seems wasteful. Items like mushrooms can easily be put in small paper bags.

As for best before dates, who really needs these on fresh fruits and vegetables? You can judge freshness and quality for yourself by touch and smell. Having in-store experts to explain what to look for will help.

Ian Percy

Well and succinctly said, Neil.

Joel Goldstein

As we become more eco-conscious and understanding about how our day-to-day activities affect the world around us I believe this to be a trend. It will resonate throughout the grocery sector in the next five to 10 years as Millennials become parents and start grocery shopping for the families.

Nikki Baird
I have been contemplating this problem myself, as a shopper dedicated to using less plastic. We bring reusable bags from home, which works great – except when it comes to produce. Part of the problem is that the items have to be handled multiple times – going into the basket, coming out of the basket, getting weighed and scanned, going into the bag to go home. If you want to buy 10 apples, well, that process really sucks. And has a much higher potential of damaging the fruit, thus causing additional food waste, which is almost as bad as the plastic. This is a great opportunity for someone to be innovative. Some kind of tray? I don’t know – but I know if we truly want to eliminate plastic, this problem will need to be solved. As for the use-by dates, I think that is partly a uniquely British challenge. In the U.S., we don’t really “pre-package” things like bananas, for example, and if you don’t pre-package, then you don’t need a use-by date on… Read more »
Min-Jee Hwang

Many cities across the U.S. are already banning plastic bags, so there’s starting to be an expectation among shoppers that plastic won’t be around forever. U.S. consumers will respond well enough to the removal of plastic bags in grocery stores, as long as a viable alternative is present and the change is introduced clearly.

Ian Percy

For years, like many, we’ve kept a bag to hold bags. Mostly plastic. But even the re-use of plasic bags does not absolve us of guilt. All that confessed, please Dear Retailer, don’t make those thin plastic bags available at all. If you’re going to help the planet, do it fully.

Ed Rosenbaum

Well said. Our parents and grandparents shopped without using plastic bags. So why can’t we? Why will this even be a problem?

Ron Margulis

The end run here is that shoppers will ultimately have reusable containers for the various produce commodities they want to buy. I saw at least five exhibitors hawking different styles of these reusable containers at Fruit Logistica, the big European produce show in Berlin, last year. Some were similar in fashion and size to the bags Americans are used to, but much sturdier and with qualities that extend the item’s shelf life. Others ranged from recyclable bags to hard plastic boxes shaped like the fruit or vegetable they are intended to hold, almost like an egg carton.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

Marks & Spencer (M&S) should be applauded for taking steps to reduce plastic in our environment. Everyone talks about reducing waste and increasing recyclables, but often the rhetoric is not followed by any meaningful action. Alternatives like compostable baskets and other containers made from paper pulp represent viable alternatives. Despite the fact that the goods for sale are perishable, I believe M&S still needs to address the issue of “best before” dates. Kudos to M&S!

Andrew Blatherwick

Is this really a question? Have Millennials never seen a grocer on the High Street? It was the retail chains which put the produce into plastic in the first place to make it easier for their supply chain and store staff. Customers trust retailers like Marks and Spencer not to display out of date or poor quality produce, other retailers will have to get their act together and make their supply chain capable of handling these items correctly.

This is not a consumer problem.

Adrian Weidmann

Social and environmental responsibility must continue to drive change. The packaging industry must be proactive. Retailers, brands, and consumers all need to push for material change- not just shallow public relations stunts. I suspect there is a strong and well-funded plastic bag lobbying association that is fighting this, and will continue to fight this for strictly financial reasons but all of us as consumers need to demand and expect change.

Georganne Bender

I stopped using bags for larger items in the produce department a long time ago. And now that I’m thinking about it, other than pre-packaged lettuce, our local grocer doesn’t put “best by” stickers on fruits and vegetables.

Small items like blueberries and brussels sprouts are tough to corral without boxes or bags, but I like Nikki’s idea about using some kind of a tray – perhaps one you use to shop that stays at the store once your items are bagged at the checkout.

This all comes down to changing the way we have shopped for groceries for decades. Consumers are finally getting used to paying for bags in some stores. Old habits die hard, it can be done but it won’t be easy.

Brandon Rael

My kids’ generation is growing up in a world where they question why we are using so much plastic and why we run our water so long. They are so conscious of the environmental impacts of every decision, including shopping for food. Today’s environmentally “woke” consumer is ready to use less plastic, so let’s think of some alternatives, including reusable bags. The shift in our local farmer’s markets for you to bring your own canvas and reusable bags is a welcome development.

We have seen grocery stores start to provide plant-based bags in their produce departments. However, while that is a welcome development your typical experience in any Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s etc. is a mixed one, as there are almost as many pre-packaged plastic fruits and vegetables. This is concerning and, while convenience and packaging matter, it goes against the environmental initiatives.

Cathy Hotka

We buy, then throw away, an astonishing amount of plastic packaging. My grocery store bags very little produce … loose is the future.

Steve Montgomery

The use of paper bags and other biodegradable containers is a great alternative assuming that they are placed in a recycling container. If not was are simply exchanging one form of waste for another albeit one that does not have all the potential longer-term harm associated with it.

The bag-less approach or biodegradable containers will initially be a point of differentiation and then move from a needed-to-win to a needed-to-play approach to produce. As Ron noted the long-term solution will likely be reusable containers.

Bob Amster

They are preaching to the choir. I haven’t been using bags for produce for years now!

Rich Kizer

I don’t think anyone (well maybe a few) can or will argue for the need of plastic bags. I remember the Kroger announcement some time ago that they will be completely stop using plastic bags by 2025. I do believe that customers will want containers for produce, but these very well could be small fabric shopping bags with copy promoting a store’s great produce department. I also remember a source of reusable mesh produce bags featuring a set of nine premium washable bags that were transparent, lightweight, strong and see-through. Perhaps some brilliant manufacturer will supply these bags with logos/messages to grocery stores. Smart move.

Ken Lonyai

I shop often and don’t see “best before” dates in produce, but I don’t buy shrink-wrapped produce.

There are a couple of easy solutions to ending the use of plastic produce bags; recycled paper and reusable shopping bags. Both are easy solutions and don’t have to generate an added cost to stores or consumers.

It’s widely known that we are being choked by plastic, but the deep connections to supermarket generated plastic aren’t always seen. I highlighted another British grocer here: Plastic waste might just be grocery’s new call to action.

Domestically, despite its popularity, an industry expert pointed out to me that Trader Joe’s is “the worst” at uncontrolled produce plastic use and I have personally seen that they do indeed shrink wrap a lot of produce. Hopefully, they will learn something from this.

Evan Snively

I think a large percentage of American consumers WANT to be more eco-friendly and cut back their plastic consumption, but when it comes to taking action in store we fall back into the default or path of least resistance — which tends to be using plastic followed by an “I’ll remember my reusable bag next time” inner dialogue. In that regard, it is a consumer problem but grocers and packaging innovators need to be the ones to enable the shift. Otherwise it will be the same old routine.

James Tenser
Considered in isolation, the proposition of reducing or eliminating plastics from the produce department would no doubt have very few opponents. Under present practice, however there’s a handling hangup at the POS for random weight items. Nikki Baird has articulated this well in her comment. The lightweight plastic bags and tiny bar code labels used so freely in today’s produce departments make separating, identifying and weighing items very efficient for the checker. Eliminating them would mandate a re-thinking of the price lookup and weighing process. It’s possible that added labor and shrinkage costs would make this decision economically difficult. Pricing produce by the unit is a partial solution. Avocados, celery, cucumbers and bell peppers are often sold that way. But tossing loose mushrooms or green beans or Brussels sprouts in a wire shopping cart just ain’t gonna work. As so often happens in the retail business, a commendable goal — eliminate unneeded plastics — has a host of secondary consequences. A workable solution must take a systemic approach. How about re-usable small wire baskets that… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom

“We know our customers want to play their part in cutting out plastic.” Do they?

Of course it’s axiomatic that a good seller “knows” their customer(s), and this may well be an example of that, but I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t wishful thinking. Once upon a time, the goal was to “give the lady what she wants,” in this case that would seem to be a multitude of bagging options. But here it seems the decision on what they want has already been made … just not by them.

David Naumann

The one-piece polyethylene shopping bag was patented by a Swedish company, Celloplast, in 1965 and it wasn’t widely used in the U.S. until around 1980. How did we live without plastic bags before that? Paper bags or cardboard containers for loose produce. Consumers will adapt new processes, just like the states and/or cities that have ban plastic bags. Likewise, consumers lived without “best before” dates on produce until it was introduced in the 1970s.

It is time to take responsibility for our environment, even if it isn’t always convenient.

Bethany Allee

I didn’t realize how progressive my town is. Austin has been plastic bag free for a few years. The law was recently repealed, but the trend continued away. Now, it’s a preference.

Buyers have found ways around needing disposable shopping bags — and packaging for fruits and vegetables. Most stores carry affordable, easily accessible reusable mesh bags for transporting fruits and vegetables. It’s given local retailers and produce growers an opportunity to brand themselves in unique, eco-friendly ways, while also minimizing waste and operational expenses.

Oliver Guy

This is a fascinating subject. Key is, can these items get to the store — and then to the shopper’s home — without damage using this approach. The impact of David Attenborough’s highlighting of ocean plastics in Blue Planet was remarkable with retailers responding almost overnight. Tesco for one eliminated plastic cotton buds.

"This is a great opportunity for someone to be innovative."
"It was the retail chains which put the produce into plastic in the first place to make it easier for their supply chain and store staff."
"The bag-less approach or biodegradable containers will initially be a point of differentiation and then move from a needed-to-win to a needed-to-play approach..."

Take Our Instant Poll

What’s the likelihood that a large number of U.S. grocers will phase out plastic bags in produce departments over the next three years?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...