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Fairtrade bananas – (bio)logical packaging?

Banana farming tends to be pretty harmful, both environmentally and socially. Which is why we decided to launch a ranking for tropical fruit brands last year. And we were pleased to see that the Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance banana is gaining ground – after all, these labels protects both environmental and labor standards. Nowadays, you don’t even have to trek to the organic market or eco specialist to find them. In the UK, The Coop has been selling Fairtrade bananas for ten years – and Wal-Mart in the States has expanded its Fairtrade banana offering in recent years. In the Netherlands, Coop, Plus and Spar ONLY sell certified bananas.

And what’s the easiest way to spot a Fairtrade banana? Or an organic one? They’re the ones packaged in ‘compostable’ bioplastic. Sure comes in handy when you’re trying to pick out those ‘good’ bananas in a hurry, but is it actually better for the environment?

What do we mean by bioplastic?
Most of the compostable plastic used to wrap up our Fairtrade bananas is made from renewable raw materials, such as the starch from casino maize (= food). Compared to conventional plastics, bioplastics take about 20% less energy to produce (and release about 20% fewer carbon emissions, too). And in the EU, there’s even a certification system to guarantee that the material will break down naturally within three months: just look for the seedling logo. The advantage is that this plastic will not blow around our streets, get snagged in trees, gather on beaches and feed the plastic soup building up in our oceans.

Pros and Cons
There are several people raising awkward questions about bioplastics – including Greenpeace, which is unhappy at the amount of genetically modified maize being used as a raw material. Plus, allowing the compostable varieties to break down in landfill sites may release CO2 – and other greenhouse gases, like methane (which has a much more powerful greenhouse effect than CO2). If this is indeed the case, incinerating the plastic would actually be better than sending it to landfill, as it produces energy. Yes, it would still release CO2, but that counts for burning petroleum-based plastic as well.

Do we even need it anyway?
But not all bioplastics are compostable. And there are loads of things that are pretty difficult to transport and sell without packaging. So fair enough – wrap it up in bioplastics. It’s got to be better than using up our oil reserves. But bananas? Don’t they kind of have packaging built in? Why then, do so many Fairtrade bananas come in plastic packaging? We asked at a couple of supermarkets why they package their bananas, but they’re keeping us waiting for an answer.

Bioplastics yes, banana packaging no.
At Rank a Brand, when it comes to tropical products, we give points to brands that have set clear targets for reducing the weight of their packaging. Plus, so far, we have also seen an increased use of bioplastics as a responsible move. But is it actually? We’re now thinking about changing our criteria for bananas, based on the assumption that they don’t actually need to be wrapped in plastic – whether or not it is made from plants.

Is this assumption fair? Or is there a good reason to pop each Fairtrade bunch in a plastic bag? If you know the reason, let us know below – or send us a tweet to @rankabrand_org.

For more information about bioplastics in general, check out this excellent blog post from Green Living Online.

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2 Comments

  1. Alexandra
    Posted 01/02/2012 at 14:48 | Permalink

    Great Blog!

    So true.

  2. Alexandra
    Posted 01/02/2012 at 15:01 | Permalink

    Bio Plastic is OK if you live outside of a city, where you can have your own organic garbage bin. However in a city, my entire collection of garbage is thrown in to ONE bag, which is transported to the nearest garbage-burning oven and burned as a whole. In this case, Bio plastic is as good as any other form of plastic, which suck.
    I am sorry to state the obvious, but since 50% of the global population resides in cities, and bio-plastic is treated as any other form of plastic, maybe be should not wrap our fair-trade fruit and veggies in it.