Swedish supermarket giant ICA is trialling laser marking its sweet potatoes and avocados in search of an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional plastic stickers or packaging.
The experiment is called, ‘Natural Branding’. A low energy carbon dioxide laser is used to quickly remove pigment from the outer skin of a fruit or vegetable.
“It’s a new technique and we are searching for a smarter way of branding our products due to the fact that we think we have too much unnecessary plastic material or packaging material on our products,” explained Peter Hagg, Business Unit Manager, ICA, Sweden.
The initial five-week trial began in December last year and has since been extended to the end of March. The result is etched markings that give the product’s name, country of origin and code number.
It’s claimed the process has no negative effect on the taste, smell or shelf life of the fruit or vegetable
“It gives the product a natural bright light, which makes the pigments of the fruit’s skin vaporise and it leaves a mark. And it’s very delicate, because the mark is not going through the skin in any way, it doesn’t affect the quality or taste of the product,” stressed Peter Hagg.
ICA says it selected sweet potatoes and avocados for the trial because the skin is not typically eaten and they often encounter problems with stickers falling off.
Of course, at times plastic packaging is required to extend a product’s lifetime.
But ‘Natural Branding’ is about removing those unnecessary uses.
“The plastic branding, there is of course positive things with it. Some products, you help the shelf life with specific material so it’s just not an enemy for us. But in some items it’s just unnecessary because it doesn’t bring you better shelf life, it just brings you extra costs,” Peter Hagg pointed out.
Next up for the experiment could be a fruit like an apple, says the supermarket chain. The skin of an apple is of course eaten.
So central to these trails success will be shoppers reaction and whether they want their fruit and veg with a tattoo.
“It’s actually the first time I’ve seen this branding, but if it’s a more sustainable alternative, I’m all for it,” was one reaction while another shopper said: “I have two kids, so they’re very important to me. So I try always to look at the good stuff, I try to think about the environment, so I think this is perfect for us.”
But laser marking can’t be used on everything. Citrus fruit skin has a unique ability to heal itself, so the laser markings disappear after just a few hours.
But any reduction in the use of plastic labels and packaging has the backing of the environmentalists
“We know there’s a huge amount of waste across the supply chain before we get to the packaging we see on our shelves. We know that manufacturers and retailers have been trying to decrease this, but they’re not going to get that down to zero unless we move to forms of packaging that are biodegradable, that are natural and forms of packaging that aren’t going to be left in landfill after we finish using them,” said Kierra Box, Campaigner Friends of the Earth.
Eosta an international distributor of fresh organic fruit and veg is working with the Swedish supermarket chain.
It says it sold 725,000 packs of organic avocados to the chain in 2015 and packing them required about 217 kilometres of plastic wrap.