Corrugated Plastic Cartons Drive Down Packaging Costs

The reuse of corrugated plastic boxes makes sense where the regular return of corrugated boxes is feasible.  Payback typically in the first year if corrugated plastic containers are used once per month.


Fred Dowd

Fred Dowd, president of Texas-based Technology Container Corp., gave a brief presentation at ProMat 2017 on how his company’s corrugated plastic containers can reduce packaging costs in applications that use corrugated paper cartons and where a closed loop is feasible. He also contrasted some of the benefits of corrugated plastic versus injection molded plastic containers, and the cost differences.

Corrugated plastic packaging eliminates the time, materials and labor involved in producing corrugated paper containers, Fred noted. “We try to make everything user-friendly so that your people spend more time doing more productive work than assembling boxes,” he said.

The up-front cost of developing plastic corrugated packaging is about $2,500, which is the cost of a cutting tool or die.

The first question a business must ask is: does it have a reusable loop, a supply chain that will enable it to retrieve and reuse packaging over and over. “Can you control the box once its outbound and get it back in a timely and efficient manner?” asked Fred.

Incoming Goods are “Low Hanging Fruit” for Returnable Packaging Applications

Fred referred to incoming goods as the “low hanging fruit” for many of his customers. “You can drive the reusability aspect with your vendors,” he said. “You’re the customer. The vendors are sending parts or components into you…As part of their cost structure to you, they have ‘baked in’ packaging costs for corrugated paper boxes, or whatever they’re using today. You can eliminate that cost by forcing your vendor to go to a returnable package, which you in turn control, and then send back to them once the product’s been emptied.”

“What’s different about us is we’re vertically integrated,” said Fred. Technology Container, which also supplies corrugated packaging, buys virgin polypropylene pellets and extrudes it into sheets. It’s operations also include printing, cutting, folding and gluing. “It’s a one-step manufacturing process,” said Fred. The company can fill orders for “very large systems on a timely basis,” he said.

Customers of Technology Container include Mission Foods, Frito-Lay, and other large corporations.

“Anything you can do with paper corrugated, we can now do with corrugated plastic,” said Fred.

“We always tell customers you need to

turn that box at least once a month in the first year to

get your return on investment. After that, you’re making money.”

For example, Technology Container can vary the density, strength, and thickness of the plastic sheets according to a customer’s specification. Bags of potato chips, he pointed out, can be packaged in very lightweight containers, while Technology Container also can supply packages with walls up to 7/16-inch thick for applications like heavy automotive parts.

Corrugated plastic packaging is available with numerous features. For example, Frito-Lay added velcro fasteners. Mission Foods, which won an environmental award for using Container Technology’s corrugated plastic packaging, added RFID technology to help track and control containers.

The Cost of Returnable Corrugated Plastic Cartons

Corrugated plastic containers lower packaging costs per distribution cycle, said Fred. “How much is a plastic corrugated box?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s about eight times the cost of a paper box.”

“We always tell customers you need to turn that box at least once a month in the first year to get your return on investment. After that, you’re making money. Many customers turn these boxes every 24 to 48 hours…The faster you can turn the box, the harder it’s working for you, the faster your payback will be.”

Companies get from 100 to 500 trips from corrugated plastic containers, said Fred. The range depends on material handling and retrieval systems. “Once we understand what the life cycle expectations are of the carton, then we can help you design a box that will meet your needs and get your payback,” he said. (Technology Container Corp. typically targets return on investment for a customer at 12 months.) Even if a business tries to reuse corrugated paper containers, they will only average 2-3 trips, he said.

At the time Mission Foods transitioned to corrugated plastic packaging, it was using corrugated paper cartons in its 16 plants in North America. Technology Container Corp. helped them save $18 million, said Dowd, besides reducing energy consumption and solid waste and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. “It’s a sustainable technology,” he noted. At the end of the life cycle, corrugated plastic packaging can be recycled and used for a different purpose.

His father invented the one-step manufacturing process for corrugated paper boxes, said Fred. “We, in turn, evolved that technology.”

Benefits of Corrugated Plastic Packaging

Fred contrasted corrugated plastic with injection molded plastic packaging. The vertical wall structure of corrugated plastic cartons is more efficient than an injected molded tote, he noted. Totes are tapered, and there is lost space between them when they are butted up against one another, especially totes with a foldable hinge lid. A study by Walmart comparing injection molded totes and the vertical wall structure of a corrugated plastic carton showed that totes would reduce 20 percent of the cube on trucks in shipping.

Corrugated plastic packaging also is “more forgiving,” providing more cushioning for fragile contents than a hard tote, said Fred. “We’d like to get involved with you. We’d like to visit your operation, try to understand what it is you’re trying to achieve, and then we’d do a custom design job specifically for you.”

“It all comes down to: can you get the box back,” said Fred. “if you can the box back, then we can pretty much drive down your distribution costs and your packaging costs as it relates to packaging. It’s all about cost per distribution cycle.”

Once a supply chain has been fully charged with corrugated plastic cartons, packaging costs will flatline, said Fred. As an example, he said a business that spends $100,000 on corrugated paper cartons, once it transitions to reusable packaging, its future costs will run about $2-5,000 a year to cover maintenance and growth.

“I’m a third-generation paper corrugated guy,” said Fred. “Whenever I see a customer who can reuse their boxes, I try to move them into corrugated plastic just because of the cost savings alone.”

“It’s not a very complicated subject, folks…It’s an easy technology to work with,” and up-front costs are significantly less than injection molded reusable packaging.

In response to a question from the audience, Fred noted that corrugated plastic cartons offer numerous options for closure and options for additional features.

The company’s plastic corrugated cartons are not suitable for applications involving raw foods, Fred said in response to another question, because they cannot be washed thoroughly due to the corrugated flutes.

Since the corrugated plastic cartons have such a long life cycle, it is cost-effective for Technology Container to ship them throughout the world. The company has supplied plastic packaging to customers in Latin America, Canada, Europe and the Far East. Technology Container can provide full-size prototypes and is willing to meet with potential customers anywhere.

Tim Cox is a Virginia-based freelance writer, editor and marketing communications practitioner.

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