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The Corrugated Packaging Alliance recently asked the question, “Why put good for you produce in a bad for the planet plastic container?”  Here is my answer:  when operating a system of reuse with plastic containers that are designed for continuous purpose, plastic will reduce environmental impacts, deliver superior quality fruits and vegetables, optimize unit and transport loads, and offer value-added technology enhancements.

Environmental Impact – Package & System Design vs. Material:  Solid waste pollution is not about the material used in packaging, but rather about ineffective package design and recovery.  Plastic is not bad for the planet; instead, it’s the inability to recover plastic for reuse or recycling that is the problem.  In the case of reusable plastic containers (RPCs) for fresh produce, RPCs and their total system of use are intentionally designed and managed to drive out waste and to deliver maximum supply chain performance. Operations are in place to recover all containers for their reuse, repair or recycling.  This, by definition, is sustainable material management, which is the goal of packaging in a circular economy.

In contrast, the single use of a corrugated box – or a box made of any material (including plastic) that is only used once, is, by definition, wasteful.  Wikipedia defines waste as “any substance which is discarded after primary use.”  Consuming resources to make and recover packaging for one-time use, then breaking it back down into its raw ingredients, only to re-manufacture the same packaging again for another one-time use, is simply a linear model of waste creation and management; higher recycling rates just increase linear efficiency.  Experts agree, when given the choice, reuse (of plastic) is a better approach to environmental conservation and stewardship than single-use recycling (of corrugated).

(Side note:  the corrugated industry’s own data shows that corrugated boxes made for fresh produce applications contain an average of only 38.4 percent recycled fiber content.  Source: Corrugated Packaging Alliance)

Product Protection & Quality:  RPCs provide superior product protection and temperature management in the transport of fruits and vegetables, preserving and extending the quality of fresh produce.  I have personally conducted extensive, end-to-end supply chain field trials comparing the side-by-side performance of RPCs and corrugated boxes.  In general, it is the strength, integrity and ventilation of the RPC structure that protects the commodities and maintains desired airflow for superior cold chain and shelf-life results.

Alternatively, corrugated boxes weaken and retain moisture through distribution. As a result, the fresh produce itself becomes the weight-bearing entity of the load and ventilation holes reduce or misalign.  I call this failed corrugated structure “compression;” the corrugated industry calls it “cushioning.”  There can be a lengthy discussion about side-by-side quality differences, but nothing is more convincing than empirical evidence in real-world commercial conditions.  I suspect this is why the corrugated industry relies so heavily on narrow and variable-controlling laboratory research for comparisons, and avoids research conducted in the demanding conditions that are the reality of moving perishable foods in bulk from farm to consumer.

(Side note:  the corrugated industry’s claim that corrugated boxes “can reduce the transfer of harmful bacteria” is not only unconvincing, but actually a pesticidal claim requiring U.S. EPA registration under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA)).

Strength, Stability, & Space Utilization:  The strength, ergonomic design, stacking compatibility, and palletized unit load stability of RPCs offer handlers and transporters an improved warehouse and shipping platform from which to generate labor efficiencies and cost-saving opportunities.  A good example here is the preparation and transport of order-fulfilled pallets from grocery distribution centers to retail stores.  As pallets are built with mixed products of varying sizes and weights, operations designed with RPCs can create secure pallet loads that maximize quantity and space in truckloads.  RPCs offer greater modularity of the packaged units and uniformity of the loads, resulting in higher worker handling and transportation performance.

On the other hand, corrugated boxes have greater limitations in order-picking and store-delivery activities.  Corrugated box pallets more often reach unit count and height restrictions due to top-load weight concerns and pallet instability.  One common practice is the shrink-wrapping of mixed-unit pallets for the containment of the varied boxes, increasing single-use dunnage packaging material needed in the process while blocking airflow ventilation.  RPC pallets can reduce or even eliminate this dunnage while maintaining proper ventilation for temperature-sensitive perishables.  In the warehouse-to-store stage of the supply chain, RPCs markedly outperform corrugated boxes for perishable food items, excelling under commercial conditions which the corrugated industry’s laboratory testing does not replicate.

(Side note:  bananas are a great example of differing warehouse performance between RPCs and corrugated boxes, and the enhanced ripening precision of bananas in RPCs is remarkable.  Check out how the “cushioning” corrugated box pallets bulge and extend beyond the pallet slots in a ripening room.)

Technology Enablement:  Technology is driving tremendous innovation in the retail supply chain and creating Big Data opportunities for operations.  The reuse of transport packaging like RPCs, pallets and bins facilitates the deployment of technologies to identify, monitor and track products.  Improvements in devices, battery life and costs bring great promise in the application to transport packaging, especially when affixed to or embedded within the packaging for lasting use.  The ability to track location and monitor conditions in real time down to the case packaging level will transform supply chain visibility, generating data to support key functions such as inventory planning and predictive analytics.  Technology will advance reuse performance and offer unprecedented incremental value for reusable packaging.

Conversely, single-use packaging products like corrugated boxes limit technology applications.  Due to design, space, cost and/or recovery constraints, instrumenting a one-way corrugated box with devices such as RFID tags or Internet of Things (IoT) transmitters is not practical today or for the foreseeable future.  With the digital supply chain fast becoming the predominant model for the movement of goods, one-time uses of corrugated boxes will be left behind in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

(Side note: according to a study by IDC Retail Insights, “80% of retailers are set to spend on visibility platforms powered by RIFD, IoT.”)

So why put produce in a plastic container instead of a corrugated box?  When it’s done in a reusable system like RPCs, it’s simply better for the environment, produce freshness and quality, worker handling and transport, and technology enablement.  In short, reusable plastic containers are today’s way to move, save money, and sell more produce.

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Tim Debus
President & CEO
Reusable Packaging Association

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