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There is no doubt that the sight of rotting fresh produce in the aisles would go down just as badly with customers as images of plastic-strewn beaches in the papers

There was a time just over a year ago when if you stood still in the produce aisle of Asda for long enough, you risked being covered with cellophane by a member of staff. If ever there was evidence of how quickly the war on plastic has changed the agenda, Asda’s about-turn is it.

Today’s announcement that it has removed the packaging from swedes, a product it sells nearly six million of a year, is a big boost for anti-plastic campaigners. Especially as other products, such as asparagus, will follow in a rolling programme.

It was, after all, only in the spring of last year that Asda announced trials to increase the use of plastic by stopping the sale of loose fruit & veg lines across certain key products. Carrots, apples and potatoes were bagged, whether customers liked it or not.

Read more: Iceland named worst offender in fresh produce plastic use

Many did not, some even taking it upon themselves to take ‘vigilante’ action at the time by ripping open the packages. Asda was soon in back-pedalling mode and loose veg did not take long to return, albeit alongside a whole raft of fresh produce still in plastic.

However, there was another striking element to today’s announcement – that it would not be following Morrisons’ lead in taking the plastic sleeves from cucumbers. It also warned other products, such as cabbages, were, as yet, no-go areas.

Asda’s argument is that such moves would go too far. Removing plastic from these items would lead to rotting and mouldering products in the aisles, it says. This would of course add to the burden of food waste.

The impact on food waste of reducing plastic has long been the elephant in the room when it comes to this debate. Environmental campaigners make the point that plastic itself creates waste, by encouraging consumers to buy too many items. But there is no doubt that the sight of rotting fresh produce in the aisles would go down just as badly with customers as images of plastic-strewn beaches in the papers.

Read more: Plastic packaging increases food waste, study shows

As well as cucumber, lettuces, celery and cabbages dehydrate significantly when out of packaging. Mushrooms dehydrate more when loose and also attract high waste levels, say supermarkets. Berries, meanwhile, are notoriously difficult to protect without packaging. Celeriac is an allergen, so has to be packaged.

These sort of industry-wide issues are the reason it is so important that the war on plastic does not simply become a PR battle between rivals out to be seen to be outdoing each other. Where there are products where the removal of plastic has direct consequences for food quality and waste, the industry needs to work together to tackle them and find alternative ways of packaging.

The twin wars on plastic and food waste are both too important to be hindered by competitive rivalry. And even when there are headlines to be had about naked swedes, we must not forget how serious the repercussions are behind these moves.