Dole Has Been Bananas about Plastic Recycling for 25 Years

This is the story behind those plastic corner boards that help keep boxes of bananas on the up and up.

Dole plastic corner boards,

Raul Martinez (right), General Manager of Dole Standard Fruit de Costa Rica, receives a plaque from Jose Miguel Ramirez, General Manager of Recyplast, in recognition of the contribution of Dole’s banana plantations in the correct handling, storage, and provision of field plastic waste.

Back in my days at the local Safeway distribution center, those black plastic corner boards would really pile up. They came strapped to pallets of bananas and other column stacked fruit. When the pallet straps were cut for order picking, the corner boards would fall and end up like a mountain of stiff giant sphagetti nera noodles on the floor.

It was a safety hazard. Then someone came up with the idea to join two wood pallets end to end with 8 foot 2x4s and add uprights to form a cradle. We built full lifts of those long black noodles and then bundled them.  Over the years we kept on giving them to various local growers, so I presume that many were reused at least once.

This type of reuse is what I call opportunistic reuse, as opposed to durable packaging designed with reuse in mind – like RPCs (reusable plastic containers) for bananas, for example, which are very big in Japan, by the way. But I’ll leave that for another time.

I had no idea that the banana corner boards were the product of recycled agricultural plastic scrap. It turns out Recycplast S.A., an innovative plastic recycling company based in Costa Rica with joint ownership including a subsidiary of Dole Fresh Fruit, recently surpassed 25 years in its mission to dramatically reduce and reuse farm waste.

Recovering plastic field waste

The plastic recycling facility pioneered the collection of field plastics after use in banana growing operations in Costa Rica. This reuse and recycling process includes reclamation of plastic bags that protect bananas from weather and insects, as well as the collection of plastic twine used to prop the banana plants and other plastics used to protect the fruit during cultivation. The field plastic is processed into plastic corner boards, which support and reinforce the structural integrity of shipping pallets. Even after arrival some Dole customers continue to recycle the corner board products down the chain, Dole says. That was certainly true in our case.

Dole notes that this organization is a rare example of an environmental service that is vertically integrated within an industry that generates the waste, which after recycled, is used as a material in the fruit export process. The process represents the convergence of environmental, social and economic interests, creating sustainability that makes both business sense as well as public benefit.

105 direct jobs and now importing waste from across Central America

Initially Recyplast required a fee for collecting and recycling field plastic waste generated by the banana industry to finance its operation. Today the operation generates 105 direct jobs, stands financially independent and in fact pays small businesses and community organizations to provide basic raw material: plastic waste from other agricultural operations, as well as post consumer waste from domestic uses.

As Recyplast has grown the negative impacts related to plastic use and disposal have subsided in Costa Rica. These positive results have been extended throughout Central America as the recycler now imports waste from Guatemala and Nicaragua and soon Honduras.

At a recent celebration to honor its 25th year of operations, Jose Miguel Ramirez, General Manager of Recyplast, proudly recalled how the operation has grown from producing four metric tons of plastic materials (derived from waste) per day, to over 21 metric tons today. This translates to the manufacture of 44,000 pallet corner boards each day, the equivalent needed to export over 500 containers of fruit!

Renato Acuña, President of Dole Fresh Fruit, was present at Recyplast’s 25th Anniversary celebrations held in April.

“This is a great example of social responsibility. It is clear that the leadership, dedication, and imagination demonstrated here are needed to respond to the increasing demands of our society,” stated Acuña. “The commitment of all the employees of the organization is more than evident, as is that of the community groups that manage the collection of domestic waste to be recycled.”