Western Growers' Gail Delihant and Dennis Nuxoll Discuss Single-Use Plastics Bans and Outcomes for Fresh
BAKERSFIELD, CA - The discussion of single-use plastics is a contentious one as we stare down the barrel of coming restrictions. Yet, even now, industry advocates like Western Growers continue to fight to keep reason in the room and ensure demands are kept practical.
“We’re focused on our fresh produce that, frankly, needs to go into these plastic bags to reduce food waste, which is its own issue that creates more greenhouse gas emissions than you can imagine. Yet we get lumped in with legislation conversations which are not looking at our uses; they’re looking at straws, plastic utensils, and what comes in delivery boxes,” Gail Delihant, Senior Director of California Government Affairs, shares.
She explains what Western Growers is advocating for is not necessarily the perpetuation of plastic, but that the grievances stay where they are intended.
“Nobody is saying there is not a problem—and something has to be done,” Gail says. “But if, say, the current initiative which would ban single-use plastic packaging passes, it would put a penny on manufacturers on every single item. That’s a lot, especially when agriculture uses plastic to, number one, make food safe and extend the shelf-life.”
In short, the means are as important as the ends in this case.
The Devil’s advocate will point out that plastic bans are already in effect across Europe, and those that serve those markets are working actively to solve this equation.
“There is a definite global movement around this, and the challenge is going to be different in different markets. Where this is succeeding, there is infrastructure to support it,” Dennis Nuxoll, Vice President, Federal Government Affairs, clarifies. “Regions with smaller refrigerators in the home and more frequent trips to the grocery store—all this factors into the type of packaging you need to design and, right now, all of that packaging is petroleum-based. If we want to move away from that, we have to consider those multiple factors as we think about replacement products going forward.”
For example, Canada has an exemption in place for fresh produce until research and development (R&D) catches up the ability to recycle single-use plastics or find a different way to accomplish the key safety element single-use packs currently provide.
“That R&D is in the mix, but it’s not going to be ready for another 10 to 15 years,” Gail shares. “And that’s what we’ve been advocating for in California. I don’t think the consumer at the grocery store or ordering Amazon packages understands what the future is going to look like for them when single-use plastics are banned, or they increase in price because of the initiative that’s going to be on the state ballot in 2022.”
As we discuss this, I think of the range of the ripple effects, from relatively new meal-kit packs to the staple clamshells housing high-value fresh items.
“So, how do we replace those packs?” Dennis adds to my thought. “It’s a very practical question that, to be honest, has not been fully answered. The science is not there, and what we are learning through some colleague organizations in Canada is that petroleum alternatives present differing challenges. For example, you can use the cellulosic materials of plants to create plastics, but it is not recyclable. It’s more sustainable than petroleum, but in Canada, every landfill struggles with that product.”
To support that infrastructure, there would need to be not just new developments on the supply end of the chain, but on the recycling end. Gail points out that a plan called the Bottle Bill stood as an operable idea on how to put money back into the recycling infrastructure over time with small upcharges on product. But the funds did not get distributed as intended and a large amount of the existing facilities closed, meaning there are no hands to support the spike in recycling these new requirements will create.
Yet, while she and Dennis both see the potential of the past repeating, they both argue that steps can and are being taken. The critical point is that those steps are given the necessary time to succeed.
“Many other challenges are winning priority right now for California growers, namely water. But, thinking about more innovative packaging is a need, and many of our larger growers are working with companies to develop more sustainable options,” Dennis states. “There is a drumbeat in the background, and it may, in fact, be retailers pushing us ahead of coming regulations. Likewise, the American produce industry’s number one export market is Canada. So, a significant number of our California growers are going to have to tackle this at the same time as their markets are.”
While the clock is ticking, reason and execution continue to be mapped out. As those conversations continue, the industry will continue to keep its seat at the table and its voice raised.