Reusables – Where Is the Next Big Win?

At risk of dating myself, I recall attending a pallet session at the PMA (Produce Marketing Association) Conference in San Diego in 1995 with my old friend John McCallum, who is probably as I write, most likely driving a tour bus full of retirees to Las Vegas in search of their next adventure, having come up from Mexico for the summer.

There were maybe 50 people there at that San Diego session, and some of our Reusable Packaging News subscribers were in that room. At the time, the produce industry was working towards pallet footprint standardization. Somewhere in my files I have a copy of the numerous pallet footprints that produce shippers in the U.S. were still using in 1995. As I recall, it was somewhere between 30 and 40 different sizes. For some reason, 37 pallet footprints rings a bell. I’m too lazy to check it out. It was somewhere in that range.

Where am I going with all of this? Just think of the recent news. Kroger is celebrating milestones with respect to the usage of RPCs, and so is Safeway. These wins are predicated on harmonization of shipping with respect to pallet standardization and then a limited range of shipping container sizes. Those of you who are involved in produce will recall the common corrugated footprint initiative of several years ago. That harmonization was emerging when I entered the produce industry in 1985!

A lot of industries do not yet have that kind of standardization with respect to pallet footprint or with respect to limiting the range of transport packaging sizes. Recently I have been involved with toy distribution. What a crazy range of sizes in this industry! Not much hope of reusables there until there is some high level harmonization to limit the range of transport packaging sizes. Can’t we get all of those action figures and junior kitchens and doll houses into a finite range of carton sizes? It may involve the intervention of Buzz Lightyear to set the carton size spectrum into something that makes sense for reusables. (Either that or a mandate from a powerful retailer!) Getting back to fresh produce in the U.S., what was begun in the early 1990s or earlier is just now coming to fruition, twenty years later.

A couple of thoughts come to mind. One is that for reusables to be embraced, high level support is needed to harmonize the range of transport packaging sizes for a potentially vast range of SKUs, and secondly, you may be looking at a career-length process for many industries in the absence of a strong collective will of a particular supply chain to make it happen. The good news is that now more than ever, supply chains are looking towards reduced damage, reduced consumption of inputs, zero waste mandates, and better ergonomic solutions. Reusables are at the right place at the right time, with the right solution.

As Jim Tompkins, supply chain visionary and one of my favorite interviews has been known to say, “Go go go!”

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