NATURAL BRANDING – A CHALLENGE TO PLASTIC WASTE

No more plastic bags at the supermarket; the first countries prohibit plastic drinking straws and disposable cups. Humankind recognises that we now have to act so as not to suffocate under the growing mountain of plastic waste. Yet, with fruit and vegetable of all things, the consumer is faced with an irresolvable contradiction in the supermarket – ecological products are on sale packed in plastic. There is method in this madness, and up to now there have been few alternatives. However, in the era of plastic, Natural Branding demonstrates that it is an expedient and even a cheaper alternative, at least for many varieties of fruit and vegetables.

Plastic for organic vegetables – why would it be used for this of all things?

 

An organic avocado in a special bag of its own, ecologically produced potatoes on a paper tray with additional plastic covering: all this while conventionally produced equivalents lie unpackaged nearby. This picture is not the exception but the rule in German supermarkets. Interest in organic fruit and vegetables is growing. In 2017, the organic industry in Germany achieved sales of EUR 10 billion for the first time. (5.7% market share / 10% increase per year). This quantum leap can be traced back in particular to the fact that ecological products have moved on from their niche at health food shops and weekly markets. The path from the organic grocery shop to the supermarket has made the topic of ecological farming known to a wider audience

In the light of ever-increasing environmental problems, the consumer is now ready to recognise the advantages of sustainable production – and to pay for it. As supermarkets have greater commercial power than small buyers, organic products also generally cost less in the supermarket than in organic grocery shops. Cheaper, fresher, more sustainable and healthier products in the fruit and vegetable section for everyone – this is the good thing about the organic boom in the supermarkets. The flip side is a rather farcical form of consumer protection:
customers should be able to recognise straight away at any time whether or not a field product is an organic foodstuff. Visual anchors for this are organic seals or certificates in particular. Nevertheless, these have to be affixed somewhere. Stickers are not usually considered as they can detach easily during transportation. Therefore, suppliers usually resort to plastic packaging. However, such plastic coverings are not compatible with the basic convictions of ecological agriculture, and they make the product unnecessarily expensive. Ultimately, every fruit or vegetable has its own protective layer in the form of a skin or peel. And plastic is anything other than biodegradable.
However, the pressure to be able do differentiate does not pass producers by, if they want to be in on the organic boom and appeal to a correspondingly large clientèle with their products. There is no such pressure in the organic supermarket, which does not achieve the same level of sales. What is more, retailers who argue for plastic packaging as protection from cross-contamination are trying to deflect attention from the actual problem. This contamination between conventional and ecological products during transportation, in the warehouse or on the shelf, is negligibly small – and carries no weight in terms of the strict ecological benchmarks of certification bodies. It is solely about creating an visible demarcation between both types of production in the supermarket. It is therefore ironic that it is the ecological products in the fruit and vegetable section that are under film, while plastic packaging on conventional products would be more understandable.

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Even though the proportion of organic fruit and vegetables in the supermarket is constantly rising, traditional production still accounts for the greatest percentage. Thus, according to GfK, 5.9 per cent of turnover for fresh products consisted of ecological variants in 2017. Plastic packaging for ecological fruit is therefore the lesser evil. However, even this is being called into questions by increasing numbers of producers, supermarkets and retail chains. Alternatives for the marking of ecological products in particular have therefore long been sought. Natural Branding via laser is therefore emerging increasingly as a consistent, expedient, economical and, above all, ecological alternative.

Natural Branding goes one step further towards true organic packaging

There is a simple insight behind the Natural Branding procedure: why do we have to look around for packaging alternatives when products already have the best packaging on them? Nature has designed each fruit or vegetable peel precisely according to the storage requirements of a fruit or vegetable. There is essentially no difference between the hard shell of a coconut and the thinner protective layer of a cucumber. Both protect the inside of the fruit or vegetable from environmental effects, both ensure cushioning from impact damage in the growing environment, and both enclose the product perfectly from the exterior on all sides.

 Besides this, every skin or peel on fruit or vegetables always consists of a coloured upper layer in which most of the pigments are to be found. These include more or fewer levels of colour which have their own protective function. From the perspective of marking, fruit or vegetable peel is also a perfect surface for marking. In theory, a lemon has enough space for placing an organic seal prominently and visibly. An entire story could even be accommodated on a banana using the relevant marking device. The problem with these considerations before was how to permanently mark the peel while not damaging the fruit or vegetable or altering it chemically, and without having to resort to additional means such as adhesives, colours or pigments. Natural Branding has found the answer. With this method of marking fruit and vegetables, a laser removes the topmost layer of pigment from the peel according to computer-controlled specifications. This colour removal is carried out so precisely that logos, lettering and text can be marked permanently on a fruit or vegetable in an exact size and position within fractions of a second.

 This form of marking foodstuffs is something like reverse tattooing: Instead of adding colour, the colour is taken away from the peel. This creates a negative that is clear in terms of legibility and contrasts. It is possible because the uppermost layer of peel always contains the highest concentration of colour pigments. The laser focuses exclusively on this layer, so that the parts of the product underneath it are not affected. The peel thereby contains the same protective function that it would have without Natural Branding. No additive – let alone plastic – is required in any single marking stage of this process. Nor is any form of packaging necessary afterwards. Ultimately, ecological products with a branded organic label are clearly recognisable as such and are distinguishable from the conventional products in the supermarket.

 With the latest machinery, such as the NB 3002 from EcoMark, it is not necessary for a person to monitor the marking process at any stage. Everything, from identifying the optimum logo position to the optimum running speed for the fruits or vegetables on the belt to the optimum penetration depth of the laser in fruits or vegetables that are grown differently, is carried out in a fully automated and computer-assisted procedure. This is precisely the reason why Natural Branding is receiving more and more attention.

Natural Branding – Why only now and why this method?

 

Lasers that work with precision are not new. And nor is alternative marking of fruit or vegetables. For example, there has long been experimentation with stencil technology, which uses the ripening process of products and their colour changes under the influence of light. Therefore, why has it taken so long to bring together both ideas using Natural Branding and implement them with viable machines and pilot projects?

One reason is surely the changes in the organic market, which have only kicked off recently. As the acceptance and demand for ecological products in the established supermarket business is continually rising, retailers are faced with a constantly increasing organic range, which they must keep separate from conventional products, with the associated greater costs for this. They are therefore looking for methods to not only lower this cost, but also to decrease the expense and consequences of ever more plastic in the fruit and vegetables section.

Secondly, producers are only just fully catching on to this change in the organic sector. Their distribution chains are shifting. The main task with the requirement for marking and separation is to look around for alternative forms of marking which do not conflict with the ecological production status. Many manufacturers have therefore turned to alternatives that were already known and accepted – stickers in particular. However, stickers are a much greater logistical nightmare than plastic covering in every respect. Stickers required a similar amount of material to plastic film. Not only are the stickers themselves required; they must also have an adhesive that is suitable for the fruit or vegetable. Each product type requires its own supply of stickers. If the information on the sticker changes, a new batch has to be created and the old stock is written off.

A suitable carrier medium is also required, which is supplied in a corresponding labelling machine for the stickers. In addition to this, the product does not necessarily present an adhesive surface, and an automatic labelling machine cannot always identify the best gluing surface. A final check by a person is therefore unavoidable. Even after all these challenges, the stickers may detach during transportation and handling. It is even possible that the organic fruit or vegetable does not end up on the right shelf due to this factor alone, or is charged incorrectly at the till. Other ideas such as stencil technology for example, tend to correspond with the aspirations of Natural Branding and have the same ecological value. However, the stencil method has (up to now) turned out to be too imprecise and above all, too expensive. Ultimately, each product has to be treated on the tree / bush or in the field accordingly here, which involves a great deal of work.

Up until a few years ago, the laser method still presented a major problem: thin-skinned products, including of all things citrus fruits, were not suited to this type of marking. Lasers had a minimum penetration depth that was too high and therefore damaged the layers of the citrus peel which they should not have even been touching. At the time there was a lack of experience with regard to the correct setting for the laser. Besides this, it was also relatively difficult to identify the right position on the products and to balance the typical height differences of the peel surface, to ensure that an even and precise logo or text image was legible on each fruit or vegetable. The camera systems required a high processing power and the technology was correspondingly expensive. EcoMark has now overcome all these obstacles to wider introduction to the market with the latest generation of machines.

Ecological yet economical: Natural Branding creates the balance

Whether for the producer or in the retail company: Each (unnecessary) processing stage on the way from the field to the customer takes time and money. The packaging or marking represented a large proportion of this up to now. Previous first steps with different variants of Natural Branding were not able to minimise the costs here. Only innovative machines and methods, such as those from EcoMark, are able to balance the time and cost outlay against packaging made of plastic, and even undercut it considerably. The same applies in comparison with stickers or other marking alternatives. For modern Natural Branding solves the familiar problems of packaging logistics simply:  

  1. even thin-skinned products can be marked without altering the quality
  2. The marking is carried out fully automated without extra work involving people
  3. Marking is carried out without stopping the belt – “on the fly”, individually or directly in the crate
  4. The labelling time is as low as 0.3 seconds for each item
  5. 10. Design or logo changes can be implemented virtually within the control software with just a few clicks

 Each crate of fruit or vegetables is therefore ready for delivery in record time. As all marking is computer-controlled and is placed where it should be, there is no need for typical checking tasks for the packaging. At the same time, idle running is decreased when changing between different types of field products. After a batch of avocados, it is possible to change the Natural Branding machine over to marking limes in just a few seconds.

 Neither new stickers nor sleeves have to be sought, nor does the alignment of the machine have to be altered. Employees set the relevant logo and program in the control software and the rest is carried out fully automatically. One of the most important arguments is and remains, however, that neither chemical additives, nor adhesives, nor plastics in any form are required for Natural Branding. The method not only takes away the colour but also considerable cost factors in the ecological and annual budget of a company.

Natural Branding: What does this mean in figures?

With branding machines such as the NB 6002 by EcoMark, major savings can be made in all aspects of packaging logistics. Natural Branding enables this at full capacity and with optimum equipment.

  • Fully automated marking of, for example, 8,000 cucumbers per hour. With integrated systems, the capacity can be increased to up to 16,000 cucumbers per hour
  • Even with sensitive citrus fruits, hourly quantities of up to 25,000 are possible
  • Packaging costs are around 50% lower than with labels
  • Lower energy consumption than with the production of labels
  • Savings in packaging and CO2 emissions in the millions
  • Consumption is reduced by 20,000 litres per tonne of plastic packaging / labels saved, crude oil

The Dutch trading company Eosta has been a partner of EcoMark since 2017 and is “testing” Natural Branding in daily continuous use. Eosta is the leading fruit and vegetable seller of organic products in Europe and is therefore one of the most important pioneers in the plastic-free revolution in European commerce. According to its own information, Eosta has saved a total of 6.9 million packages since the start of its cooperation with EcoMark – from plastic film and labels to transport containers. The packaging volume for ginger alone, for example, thereby decreased by around 68,000 kg within a year, while around 310,000 kg less CO2 was emitted. According to the estimates of the organic retail giants, the potential is even higher for other crops too, for example, for apples and pears. These are still among the most popular fruits for customers in Europe, and thereby also represent a huge proportion of the avoidable plastic mountain.

Is Natural Branding really safe?

If a laser meets a surface, this alters the condition of the surface – users from the industry know this. Thus, scepticism certainly prevails with regard to Natural Branding too. For if the peel is “damaged” this can have an effect on the quality and shelf life of an agricultural product. Therefore, many supermarkets that are accepting products with Natural Branding in their range on a trail basis, concentrate on products such as avocados. Their peel is particularly thin and is not edible. They want to make customers familiar with the methods in this way, and remove concerns about products being substandard.

 This concern is completely unfounded, however. Ultimately, nothing is added to the product and/or peel here. The laser only removes colour pigments. Secondly, the penetration depth is so shallow that the protective layers of the peel are not affected. The uppermost layer consists practically only of colour pigments, and the actual peel only begins underneath this. It is therefore not a problem to eat the whole of a fruit or vegetable that has laser marking. It can also be composted. Neither the shelf life nor the environment are compromised by the method.

Not least, the laser marking of fruit and vegetables has been fully approved by organic certification bodies. If the procedure were to have any kind of effect on the product, the strict organic watchdogs would not have authorised its introduction onto the market. It is only with very sensitive products such as citrus fruits that the shelf life may be reduced slightly. However, the experience shows that unpackaged organic products are sold more quickly than their counterparts in plastic. This small factor is thereby balanced out from the perspective of the retailer as well as the customer.

Natural Branding is breaking through – but slowly

The consumer is an ambivalent being. On the one hand they are aware that their purchasing behaviour has an effect on the environment and nature. They know that alternatives to plastic packaging are imperative to slow down the growth of the global waste mountain. On the other hand they harbour deep scepticism when it comes to radical changes to their shopping habits. This is already apparent from the introduction of the container deposit system as well as in the condemnation of plastic bags.

Reservations were great at first, and protests too. Ultimately both measures were widely accepted and quickly became part of everyday shopping. Interestingly, the awareness campaigns of the retail chains made little contribution to this. What was much more decisive was that customers immediately understood this measure and recognised that they were thereby making a straightforward contribution to a sustainable environment.

The aim is to attack the packaging delusion for fruit and vegetables in a similar way. As there have been no bans and/or regulations up to now, unlike with cans and bags, the retail trade has to work with more tact, and implement and market the project with a certain degree of urgency, despite its voluntary nature. However, this is already being carried out with exceptional enthusiasm. Many large supermarket chains in Germany, and some companies in the Netherlands, have already included examples of laser products within the range in selected stores.

Rewe and Edeka in particular have proven to be pioneers here, and even discount stores such as Netto are becoming involved with these projects. In order to slowly introduce customers to the method, mainly thick-skinned products with non-edible peel have been offered as Natural Branding alternatives up to now. However, the cucumber, which has already been sold branded, is the pioneer for this development. There is still a lack of reliable sales figures. What has already been determined, however, is that customers have not been put off or alarmed in any way by organic products without packaging. Nevertheless, further educational work has to be carried out in terms of what the laser actually does in Natural Branding, and to let consumers know that loss of quality is not a concern at all with proper handling.

Still, it is a great success; retail chains are requesting ever greater batches and product ranges with Natural Branding more frequently from wholesalers. It has therefore been made possible for Eosta to process these requests and develop a new market segment, thanks to the cooperation with EcoMark. Natural Branding is becoming an increasingly stronger competitor advantage along the entire supply chain, gaining importance little by little among customers and producers alike. It is only now that extension of the test phase to the entire branch network is on the agenda; ultimately waste prevention can only work if it occurs nationwide. It will become evident here to what extent the educational work of the supermarkets and modification of the range is taking effect.

What issues will shape the future of Natural Branding?

Ultimately, there is no question that Natural Branding is the marking method of the future – and indeed little by little, not only for organic products but in conventional agriculture too. For an alternative to packaging is also being sought ever more intensively here too – and the potential savings alone are considerably higher due to market dominance. The question here is, what laser logos, lettering or pictograms should be used to ensure differentiation from organic products.

It is not only retail companies that are increasingly requesting alternative methods of marking. The fight against plastic has picked up speed all over. As is so often the case, an important link in the chain here is the consumer. Their purchasing behaviour drives the retail chains to request natural foodstuffs with natural marking from distributors. As this demand rises, manufacturers such as EcoMark will not only have to work with wholesalers in the future, but above all with producers too.

For over the long term, Natural Branding will become so compact, cost-effective and without alternatives, that a marking machine will stand directly next to the field. A costly interim step for the wholesaler will thereby take care of itself. Also, the optimal time for marking is directly after harvesting.

On the other hand, there is also an obligation for the legislature. As was the case with plastic bags and container deposit legislation, specific regulations are required to penalise plastic packaging for organic products at least. Both examples have ultimately shown that a little legal pressure has always lent a helping hand to sustainable developments up to now. EcoMark is working continuously to drive further innovations in the field of Natural Branding and the efficiency of the machinery. This always takes place in cooperation with the customer. They present their particular demands for marking methods, and EcoMark implements these requirements in the context of close cooperation.

EcoMark GmbH