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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Driscoll’s Working to Scale Circular Plastics Economy, from Field to Clamshell

Driscoll’s leads the produce industry in increasing the circularity of packaging and landfill diversion of agricultural plastics. It’s the first berry company to make public commitments and inject serious funding into innovation — with a goal to create economies of scale.

Driscoll’s berries are the culmination of a century’s experience of growing, harvesting and delivering the freshest, most nutritious berries possible to the market. And plastics are a key ingredient in Driscoll’s success, from improving berry production to increased shelf-life.

The family-owned company has been thinking creatively about reducing the negative impacts of plastic in its supply chain. It has joined the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and taken the “Berry Sustainable” joint pledge, and has been working to improve the circularity of its clamshell packaging. Driscoll’s has committed to 100 percent recycle-ready packaging by 2025, which includes:

  • New labels that are easily cleaned and recycled

  • New supplier requirements to incorporate more post-consumer content from clamshells

Pre-competitive collaborations and information-sharing with suppliers and industry groups helps scale existing solutions, spur new solutions, and cross-pollinate on recycling innovations across the industry and beyond.

In April of last year, Driscoll’s became the first US produce company to join the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. The partnership, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in collaboration with the UN Environmental Programme, sets a clear and unified vision for a circular plastics economy.

“With these partnerships, we’re trying to understand the state of recycling and where we can leverage our power as a brand to make a difference,” Camille Herrera, Driscoll’s packaging development and sustainability manager, told Sustainable Brands™.

Driscoll’s switched to ventilated plastic clamshell packaging in the ‘90s. Improvements in product safety and longevity were a huge boon over fiber-based predecessors, which were prone to dissolving when moist. Driscoll’s clamshell packaging already contains 50 percent recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET), sourced primarily from recycled plastic bottles — and the company aims to substitute it with 25 percent post-consumer resin (PCR), from used plastic clamshells, into its packaging by 2025.

“It’s not enough for Driscoll’s to put out this material and say ‘Hey, it’s recyclable.’ We needed to say, ‘This is our material, it’s recyclable, and it is made from recycled clamshells,’” Herrera said.

While great for protecting and transporting fruit, PET clamshells are challenging to recycle with PET bottles due to the difference in their flexibility, which causes them to melt unevenly when mixed. By directing its packaging suppliers to incorporate 25 percent recycled PET clamshells back into new clamshells by 2025, Driscoll’s is creating a new supply chain and economy of scale for recycled clamshells. In 2021 alone, Driscoll’s circular clamshell initiative diverted nearly 12 million pounds of PET clamshell packaging from landfills.

Beyond packaging

Image credit: Driscoll's

But clamshell packaging is only a part of Driscoll’s circularity story. The plastics used to grow and harvest berries represent a massive share of the total plastics footprint in Driscoll’s production and value chain. Through pre-competitive industry partnerships, a new innovation challenge, and deeper collaboration with suppliers and consumers, Driscoll’s is working to close the loop on all of its plastics challenges — in and out of the field.

Field plastics represent a broad set of plastic products used to grow berries in the field. Their introduction into berry production provided multiple benefits — including improved yield, reduced water and waste, and product safety and quality.

In fact, the company says its growth and success has largely been made possible by the use of field plastics. From bed mulch to hoop houses to drip irrigation materials, field plastics are key to the quality and consistency of Driscoll’s berries. Without them, growers would have to increase their dependency on inputs including pesticides, fertilizer and water.

“The yield and quality increases that we see [when using plastics] are quite significant; and they allow us to grow and produce fruit year-round,” said James duBois, senior manager of environmental impact at Driscoll’s of The Americas.

How do you solve a problem like field plastics?

Driscoll’s is leading the industry with the creation of pre-competitive partnerships to assist in reducing the impact of plastics in and out of the field. In addition to its clamshell initiatives, Driscoll’s seeks to raise awareness of the challenges the greater industry faces in dealing with field plastic.

Discarded field plastics are unsightly, their disposal logistically challenging; and they negatively affect communities and the local environment. And because nearly all field plastics carry some amount of soil residue, they’re extremely difficult to recycle.

“The end-life disposal of [field] plastics presents both a social and environmental issue,” duBois says. “In some cases, there isn’t an end-of-life strategy for [field] plastics.”

Collecting, sorting and delivering clean plastics to a recycling facility is a monumental challenge for growers and their communities — leading many field plastics to landfill, duBois says. Driscoll’s is committed to addressing this challenge head on.

Field-plastic recycling must be tailored for each region depending on the climate, crop and type/use of plastic in circulation; it’s also dependent on regional recycling infrastructure. Recycling field plastics had fits and starts in the early 2000s and has improved nominally in the last five years.

“That — combined with our growth and entry into new areas where there aren’t as many options for end-of-life disposal — we decided that we needed to focus on assuring end-of-life solutions are available in the regions that we operate,” duBois says.

The first step was understanding the waste that Driscoll’s growers generate. The company has cataloged the types and amounts of plastics generated in each region and for each crop, as well as reviewed solutions to each area’s specific issues and current recycling rates. Driscoll’s has reached out to recyclers in the US and Mexico to identify opportunities to increase the recyclability of field plastics through collection and cleaning processes, and the company is investing in ways to improve recyclability — its goal is to divert all field plastics waste in key regions by 2025.

To improve recycling and cultivate sustainable alternatives to field plastics, Driscoll’s launched the Agricultural Plastics Innovation Challenge with Think Beyond Plastics and other industry competitors in October of last year. The Innovation Challenge is designed to identify nascent solutions for collecting, recycling, composting or converting field plastics into useful materials, and scale these solutions. Winning solutions will be announced in February 2022 and will be piloted in Driscoll’s value chain and those of industry collaborators.

“All of [Driscoll’s] work highlights the importance of packaging stewardship,” Herrera said. “You see companies making investments in not just ensuring their packaging material is technically recyclable, but making investments to make sure that it’s practically recyclable.”

Driscoll’s leads the industry in increasing the circularity of packaging and landfill diversion of field plastics. It’s the first berry company to make public commitments and inject serious funding into innovation — with a goal to create economies of scale.

As Alejandra Sanchez, Driscoll’s corporate social responsibility marketing manager, summed up: “The more of us that are making similar commitments and putting pressure on the marketplace, the easier this is going to be and the more benefit there is.”