SPECIAL SUPPLEMENT: PACKAGING & CONTAINERS EDITION


Packaging for Produce

By Curt Harler


Packing Box Trivia

Bulk boxes are known in many parts of the country as "gaylords." That traces back to the Gaylord Container firm, originally a small company based in St. Louis, Mo., called the J.C. Bulis Co.

Bulis was purchased by Robert Gaylord in 1920, and Gaylord began turning out bulk boxes suitable for loading on pallets. Gaylord had several patents on the system, and - just as facial tissues are often called Kleenex even if they are not Kleenex-brand tissues - the gaylord became an industry standard name.

Paper or plastic? The classic question is not limited to the grocery store. Fruit and vegetable producers are faced with the same question when looking at ways to get their harvest - safely and unblemished - to the consumer. In this case, the "paper" component is corrugated cardboard boxes in all of their guises. The "plastic" is typically RPCs (rigid plastic containers). Add wooden crates to the mix and the choices are many.

As far as the bulk transport of produce, corrugated and RPCs are the two largest players in the market. There are, however, a variety of packaging concepts out there, and several of them have a good piece of market share.

In the field, wooden crates still have a place, if for no other reason than cost. A plastic field bin today sells for about $200. The same bin in wood will cost $45.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach, says Bill Hudson, information systems manager at Robert Mann Packaging (www.rmp.com) in Salinas, Calif. Although Robert Mann is a corrugated carton company, they acknowledge that there is a place for RPCs. "RPCs tend to work better for larger operations than they do for smaller ones, and there are significant start-up costs," Hudson says.


Wencesloa Fuentes stacks bundles of boxes that have come off one of Robert Mann's Ward Flexo Folder Gluer machines onto a load former. This puts the bundles into a stack that is ready to be strapped, palletized and bagged, ready for shipment to the farm.
Photo courtesy of Robert Mann Packaging.

He says that the advantages of corrugated over plastic are that in the era of increased scrutiny on food safety, corrugated reduces the risk of contamination by virtue of its single-use concept.

The ever-changing landscape of food safety also presents challenges. The multiple-use design of an RPC system raises the possibility of contamination events and requires that sanitation systems be installed in the supply chain, say engineers at Robert Mann. RPCs are continually in transit and being warehoused before their next use, presenting more opportunities for contamination to occur. The plastics in RPCs must be USDA-approved for food contact, or else liners are required.

In addition, RPCs place a greater burden on the shipper for tracking/tracing the RPCs in order to meet food safety requirements. Large investments in bar code or RFID technologies may also be required. The one-way characteristic of corrugated boxes is probably the safest way to eliminate food safety concerns, Robert Mann engineers say, citing the current practice by many box producers to encapsulate the shipping units as the boxes are being made with a plastic cover to minimize possible contaminants. Corrugated manufacturers can alleviate the traceability issues by providing bar-coded pallets of corrugated containers.

Some produce doesn't even get transported in those containers at all. Hudson is proud to say that he lives in Gilroy, Calif., which bills itself as the "Garlic Capital of the World." He says, "I see truckloads of garlic transported in screen-sided hopper trucks."

"I would definitely recommend going with plastics for picking fruit," says Kevin Martin, owner of Martin's Produce Supplies, Shippensburg, Pa. "Plastic inhibits germs and will last forever. It is easy to clean and strong - stronger than cardboard," he adds.

Shipping costs

There are two sets of shipping costs associated with any packaging. The first is getting the packing boxes to the farm. The second is getting the full boxes to the produce distributor, warehouse or other outlet. While the volume of the second haul is pretty much fixed, the volume of the first is not.

Hudson acknowledges that there are shipping costs associated with corrugated. However, he maintains that the volume of corrugated is smaller than the volume of RPCs required to contain the same volume/weight of produce. "RPCs are bulkier, even if they fold down," he says.


Since corrugated boxes go one way, they may be the safest way to eliminate food safety concerns.
Photo courtesy of Robert Mann Packaging.

Martin agrees that corrugated moves from the plant to the farm more easily since it folds flat. He also concedes a weight advantage to corrugated.

One of the key questions for a producer is to analyze whether it is better to go with a heavier but more durable carton or multiple lighter ones. Hudson says, "[It] depends entirely on the nature of the produce being transported. There is no hard and fast rule. Some produce can sustain crush and some cannot."

There are definite differences between crops. "Apples packaged in a plastic bin will be more economical than moving a bunch of cases around," Martin says. He adds products like watermelon, cantaloupe, pumpkin and squash to the big-bin rule. Strawberries are probably better packed in smaller flats. Whether to pack a product in multiple smaller boxes or in one huge box depends on the packaging and the market.

In fact, there really are no good rules of thumb here. The calculations would be different for watermelons versus apples, for example. "This is where having an experienced designer comes into play," Hudson says.

If the product is large and relatively tough-skinned, Martin would recommend wood. "Wooden bins are extremely durable and are economically priced," he says.

Wood cleans easily with a spray-on bleach solution to remove germs. "We sell more wood than plastic," Martin notes. Since large wooden bins cost about a quarter of what their plastic counterparts run, wood maintains its advantage.


A modern box plant, like the one at Robert Mann Packaging in Salinas, Calif., can turn out thousands of produce boxes daily.
Photo courtesy of Robert Mann Packaging.

Living color?

One add-on for most packaging orders is color printing. Boxes can be printed in flat black, a single extra color - say red for apples or green for lettuce - or in full color.

The individual grower has to decide whether or not to use color printing.

"There is something to be said for a box that looks good being transported down the road on a flatbed," Hudson says, and several other packaging experts echo that observation.

Some boxes double as display containers on the grocery floor. Being attractive to the consumer at first glance can make the difference between a sale and no sale.


ShaRonda Martin, daughter of Kevin Martin, Martin's Produce Supplies, makes a pitch for wooden and plastic packaging crates and baskets.
Photo courtesy of Kevin Martin.

That said, color printing is much more expensive than plain black printing. "The ink costs are higher, and the cost increases as the number of colors goes up, because you have to run the boxes slower in order to allow the prior color time to dry," Hudson explains.

Martin says he gets little call for color in south-central Pennsylvania.

Recyclability

"It pays to think about the entire logistics chain when considering costs," Hudson advises. One of the reasons given for justifying the use of RPCs is the environmental cost, but some of the claims made about the environmental costs of corrugated cardboard are inaccurate, he says.

Most fiber comes from managed forests that have been cultivated for decades. The rate of recycling of old corrugated cardboard is about 90 percent, which keeps a lot of waste out of landfills. That which does get into landfills is usually biodegradable.

Most producers are environmentally conscious and want to run a green operation. Little wonder, then, that recyclability of the boxes used to pack and transport produce is a major question.

Wood boxes are not really recyclable. However, many farms have outdoor wood furnaces used to heat the packinghouse, and those wood boxes make excellent firewood.


Packaging material ready for shipment to the farm or grove.
Photo courtesy of Robert Mann Packaging.

Typically, the last user in the chain sells off cardboard boxes to a recycler at bulk rates. Those boxes then re-enter the chain at a pulp mill, where the paper pulp is mixed with virgin fiber.

"It is estimated that a typical produce box is recycled six times through that chain," Hudson notes.

Waxed and other boxes

One exception to the recycling rule is that wax-coated corrugated is generally not easy to recycle.

"Everybody is still chasing wax replacement," Hudson says. There are some innovations in that regard.

Robert Mann is experimenting with some waterproof coatings.

"The corrugated industry as a whole is experiencing a massive consolidation," Hudson says. "That trend is concerning, as the concentration of price-setting power is increasing for those larger companies."

New products always draw interest. Martin's is adding a few different-sized boxes to its line, including a peach crate and a 5/8-bushel picking bucket.

Modern technology in the peach crate? Actually not: The peach crate, which will handle any similar-sized fruit, is wooden with two handle slots. Just like Grandpa used to use.

Curt Harler is a freelance writer from Strongsville, Ohio.