June 11, 2015

Corrugated Packaging: Keeps Shipping Produce Green, Clean and Lean

By Dennis Colley, president of the Fibre Box Association


Growers, shippers and packers have a long history of using corrugated containers to send their fresh produce to distributors and retailers.  Most have built an infrastructure to fit and facilitate packing in corrugated boxes.  Successful operations require an efficient system for managing the entire process and supply chain—growing, harvesting, packing, shipping and maintaining positive relations with retail customers.

That’s a lot of moving parts, and packaging is just one piece of the rather complex path a fresh product takes from field to store.  There’s a lot of buzz about GMOs, organic vs. non-organic products, environmental and health impacts, and food safety—all critical issues that growers face in their business.

Corrugated packaging provides real contributions to holistically addressing some of the most pressing issues: environmental responsibility, package cleanliness and efficient economics.


Keeping it Green

A new survey shows that for the fourth consecutive year the recovery rate for old corrugated containers (OCC) has hovered right around the 90 percent mark—that’s 90 percent of the corrugated produced in the United States successfully recovered for recycling.  Corrugated recovery has been rising steadily for decades—from 54 percent in 1993 to 80 percent in 2009 to 89–91 percent over the past four years.

According to the U.S. EPA, the recovery of corrugated packaging far outstrips that of other packaging materials.  For 2012, the EPA published a municipal waste characterization report showing that corrugated accounted for 74.6 percent of the packaging that was recovered for recycling.  Far behind, 8.3 percent of recovered packaging was glass; 4.9 percent plastic; 4.4 percent metal; and 7.8 percent “all other” packaging materials.

Some producers face special challenges in transport packaging, such as a need for their products to be kept moist or iced in transit.  Traditionally, wax was used as a moisture barrier to preserve box strength for these applications, which met its purpose but made recycling the containers much more difficult.  Retailers and producers with sustainability imperatives viewed waxed corrugated as an area for improvement.

Growers today have plenty of recyclable alternatives to wax. The Fibre Box Association’s recyclability standard allows wax alternatives to be tested, proven and certified recyclable.  Grower shippers can specify these new coatings for their corrugated containers, and have them imprinted with the symbol indicating they are certified repulpable and recyclable, to show their support for environmentally responsible packaging that also protects their precious cargo.


Keeping it Clean

Food safety is probably the biggest issue facing the produce industry today and packaging has its role.  The corrugated industry recently conducted research to validate the cleanliness of its packaging products for food.  The research studied the possible presence of bacteria in corrugated containers.

Third-party testing and analysis conducted by the University of California-Davis and toxicology experts Haley & Aldrich confirmed 100 percent of tested corrugated containers met acceptable sanitation levels.  Experts examined 720 swab samples taken from containers produced by six different corrugated manufacturers at grower/shipper locations in three different U.S. regions, the Pacific Northwest, California and Florida.

One hundred percent of the evaluated samples were below 1,000 CFU per swab confirming that corrugated containers provided for food packaging meet acceptable sanitation criteria at the point of use.  Typical corrugated manufacturing practices are responsible for the low levels of bacteria.  Corrugated containers are engineered for single use specifically for the product they contain.  After use, there’s nothing to wash.  The corrugated box is returned to the paper mill where the recycling process greatly reduces bacterial loading.

This continuous cycle of using boxes, recycling them and then creating new boxes not only translates into package cleanliness, it also contributes to the sustainability of the corrugated industry.


Keeping it Lean

Several case studies have been done comparing the supply chain costs of using corrugated containers vs. reusable plastic containers (RPCs) for transporting fresh produce.  All of these studies have shown that corrugated remains the most cost-effective solution—especially for grower shippers, who bear the brunt of cost increases for reusable crates.

The latest economic case study showed that shipping onions in corrugated saved 10.4 percent annually versus shipping in RPCs.  Using data provided by a large onion grower, the Full Disclosuresm modeling tool was used to analyze total annual costs involved in using each of the two packaging systems.  The study showed higher costs incurred throughout the supply chain using RPCs rather than corrugated, and the grower shipper shelled out the lion’s share of that burden.

Some of those extra costs are obscure and easily overlooked.  In this situation, these included additional labor at the packing shed, more collapsed pallets at the distribution center, and monthly administrative and “add-on” fees.  RPCs arriving wet required extra labor to wipe them down before feeding them to the filling line.  When shipping long distances, RPCs consistently resulted in more collapsed pallets at the DC than corrugated.  And additional administrative costs and fees were also incurred each month.  These three extra costs added up to about 13.5 cents per case.

A cost analysis showed a total annual supply-chain cost of $7.3 million for corrugated vs. $8.06 million for RPCs.  In other words: total packaging, shipping and handling costs were 10.4 percent higher using RPCs.

The retailer’s costs were 9.9 percent higher using RPCs, and the onion grower paid 15.4 or $0.17/case more.

Case studies show corrugated containers to be the lowest-cost supply-chain solution for fresh produce, especially for the grower.  These facts have been demonstrated for strawberries, tomatoes, apples, broccoli, citrus, grapes and watermelon.


The Total Package

Change for the sake of change is not always a good thing.  Corrugated has been around for a long time, and it still works well as a cost-effective, high performing, recyclable shipping container.  Corrugated boxes also offer branding opportunities through full color printed graphics.  Single use provides an advantage in package cleanliness.  And multiple economic studies show corrugated to be the most cost-effective transport packaging solution.  Green, clean and lean.

(Dennis Colley is president of the Fibre Box Association, and this column represents that industry’s view of produce packaging.  It does not necessarily represent the view of Western Growers staff or board of directors.)