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The Great Supermarket Cover Up: Naked vegetables choking in plastic

by Karen Mak on 03/09/2017

Growing public disapproval of one-time-use plastics and consumer willingness to shop elsewhere may force supermarkets, vendors and brands to reconsider the practice of packaging fresh fruit and produce in multiple layers of unnecessary plastics and wrapping.

Red Ocean Solutions sent 161 members of its SmartRocket community, a trained mobile workforce assigned to retail auditing, into 161 supermarkets across Hong Kong to observe the use of plastic packaging of fresh produce items and to gauge their own opinions and practices on the subject.

The reported use of plastic packaging and wrapping was not encouraging;

  • Agents estimated that 57% of all fresh fruit and vegetables were wrapped or packaged in some sort of plastic
  • 24% of supermarkets visited had plastic packaged 76-100% of all fresh produce.
  • 33% of all plastic packaging on fresh produce was “unnecessary”, per the mean score of all agents
  • According to agents, 19% of the supermarkets wrapped more than 50% of the fresh fruit and vegetables unnecessarily while 8% said the figure was as high as 80%.

The agents opinions, as consumers, are at odds with supermarket practices;

  • 86% of the 160 agents believe that supermarkets are using excessive plastic packaging, with 20% believing that it was “way too much
  • Supermarkets have strong competition from wet markets with 44% of agents’ households mostly buying fresh produce from wet markets compared to 52% who mostly purchase at chain supermarkets.
  • 90% believe that supermarkets should use less plastic wrapping and packaging on fresh produce.
  • 83% are concerned about the amount of plastic garbage in the sea and waterways around Hong Kong
  • One third claimed they had declined purchasing a desired fresh produce item because they believe it had excessive plastic packaging
  • 98% of agents said they would bring their own shopping bag while 86% claimed that the fifty-cent plastic bag levy imposed on supermarkets was an effective deterrent.
  • When asked, what options were available if deciding that a fresh produce item is unnecessarily wrapped in plastic, 37% said they would consider shopping elsewhere, 34% would choose a different item and 22% would simply not buy the item. However, 33% said there was no viable alternative option.

Agents also submitted 465 photos showing what they believed was the “unnecessary” use of plastic packaging on fruits and vegetables. The common sight of bananas, coconuts, melons, apples, avocados and carrots gang wrapped and sometimes individually triple packaged with plastic trays, Styrofoam socks and cling film portrays a disheartening scene.

Perhaps more than any other category of supermarket items, consumers find it intuitively improper that healthy, fresh produce needs to be packaged in multiple layers of plastic and film. These are decisions that increasingly torment the conscience of the modern consumer in a city not famous for recycling.

Environmental protection groups have also been ramping up their anti-plastic activism in recent times to increase the awareness of wasteful practices and shining a light specifically on supermarkets as key perpetrators in the rising tide of consumer packaged goods plastics clogging the landfills, waterways, seas and beaches of Hong Kong and eventually making their way into the food chain via sea life that ends up on our dinner plates.

“The insanity that we are seeing over recent years of excessive, unnecessary plastic packaging highlights irresponsible corporations that are so far detached from their own corporate environmental pledges. They seem only interested in maximising profits by ‘enhancing the visual worth’ whilst allegedly reducing wastage by wrapping everything in plastic, all at the expense of the environment”, Gary Stokes, Director for South East Asia , Sea Shepherd Global

Through social media and viral videos consumers are finding it much easier to draw a clear and direct line between scenes of beautiful beaches covered in residential trash and their own lifestyle choices … but who will come to the rescue?

Will supermarkets and brands embrace the will of the public and change their practices to restore faith and preserve profits? Will governments introduce sterner legislation such as the plastic bag levy which has had a very significant impact on consumer practice? Or will consumers vote with their wallets and purchase their fresh produce needs from alternative sources?

With so much at stake and the battle in full swing, how will retail react?