Kroger loose fruit and veg aisle

Supermarkets are massively scaling back their aim of switching to loose fruit & veg, after experts agreed initial expectations had been too ambitious.

Today climate change body Wrap announced a new “pathway” setting out timeframes for supermarkets to ditch plastic from dozens of products, including apples, bananas, broccoli and cucumbers.

It follows a landmark report a year ago that found fears of removing packaging causing a huge spike in food waste were unfounded.

However, whereas 12 months ago Wrap said it hoped as much as 80% of all packaging on fresh fruit & veg could be removed by 2025, the new target is for just 30% of the total packaging, rising to 50% by 2030.

It comes with just 15% of fruit & vegetable sales currently coming from loose products, despite several retailers announcing an expansion of their offer.

Wrap said there were still major disparities in availability, with many convenience stores and the discounters  lacking the weighing capability at tills to offer loose products.

Its head of business collaboration Helen Bird added that while consumer demand for loose fruit & veg had picked up since the pandemic, which saw retailers revert to packaging for hygiene reasons, it was still not back to pre-Covid levels.

She warned it would take a much bigger effort to sell the idea of loose fruit to consumers.

However, Bird defended the UK’s voluntary approach, which contrasts starkly with countries such as Spain and France, which have outlawed packaging on loose products, with other EU countries looking to follow suit.

“There may come a time when a mandatory approach is necessary,” she said.

“We are keeping a close eye on what’s happening in Europe. It’s fair to say that the feedback we’ve had from those countries is that the regulations have come very, very quickly and that it’s caused lots of challenges in the supply chain.

”These are minimum targets, designed to reflect the diverse range of operating models in the UK retail sector.

“We would hope to see some retailers going further, faster. We will track and report on progress. It is an extremely challenging operating environment, off the back of the pandemic which saw an increase in the use of packaging due to hygiene/safety concerns from customers.

”These targets have been developed with industry and we know that industry are supportive of the direction of travel on this, everyone agrees it is the right thing to do for the planet and for people in general but it is just very challenging. Wrap are working with industry to overcome these challenges in a sustainable way and whilst keeping an eye on and trying to avoid/address any unintended consequences.”

Rather than banning packaging, the new pathway asks supermarkets to voluntarily commit to sell a loose variety of a list of more than 20 lines of fruit & veg by 2024, also including aubergines, avocados, carrots, onions and peppers.

Wrap’s research last year found switching to loose fruit & veg could have a major impact on the 70,000 tonnes of plastics put on the market every year, around fresh produce items.

It also found a “staggering” 100,000 tonnes of food waste (plus 130,000 tonnes of CO2e) could be prevented by removing packaging from the top five most wasted fresh fruit & veg products, because packaging encouraged households to buy more than they needed. However, supermarkets have been wary of moving en masse to loose products even before the pandemic.

In 2019, Iceland abandoned a single-store loose produce trial after it led to a 30% drop in sales.

Wrap’s pathway comes in the same month the organisation and IGD announced it had relaunched its Food Waste Roadmap, with some of the key ambitions in timescale watered down because of the impact of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis.