Handheld plastic crates and reusable bulk bins provide enduring value to the agricultural supply chain as it responds to food safety and efficiency challenges
Durable, reusable packaging plays a significant role in agricultural operations. Reusables offer superior product protection and ease of handling in the field, as well as other important benefits such as increased productivity, ergonomics, and tracking capabilities. Intermediate bulk containers (IBCs), including foldable bulk bins, and handheld crates are commonly used in harvest operations while other reusable packaging options are available for seeding and processing.
The use of plastic reusables in the agricultural sector goes back to at least the 1980s. Before that time, the industry relied on products such as plywood orchard bins and harvest crates.
Reusables for Planting, Harvest, and Processing
Reusable packaging is available to enhance the food supply chain at every stage of operations, including seeding, harvest, and processing. Buckhorn, for example, offers its CenterFlow seed boxes, a bulk, reusable alternative to super sacks and wood pallets. For harvest operations, handheld containers, bulk boxes, and plastic pallets replace other items such as large polyethylene bags or wood pallets.
Reusable packaging delivers substantial benefits in food processing as well. Suppliers offer a selection of IBCs made of FDA-approved materials. These containers are collapsible and are available in a top or bottom discharge configuration for different food, liquid, and semi-liquid applications.
Reusable packaging now often addresses extended supply chain applications versus being restricted to the farm or processing facility. For example, Buckhorn’s Caliber IBC is certified for rail transport.
“Reusable containers are of particular importance in the agricultural world,” summarizes Iftah Poran, VP R&D for Plasgad. “They offer a much more comfortable and durable packing and storage solution for work outdoors and in the field. This solution is in contrast to the traditional cardboard alternative, which quickly loses its essential ability to remain resistant when faced with heavy weight, rough terrain, and transportation of fruit to the packing house. Crates and plastic containers provide improved ventilation and better protection, preserving fruit and softer vegetables from injury and rotting before arrival at the retail chains.”
The Emergence of Plastic Reusable Packaging Systems for Agriculture
Buckhorn’s experience in returnable containers such as bakery trays and distribution totes allowed it to branch out in the 1980’s to handheld containers for fruit and vegetable harvesting. The containers held crops such as mushrooms, asparagus, lettuce, strawberries, and grapes. Eventually, this led to a bulk container for cranberries. For Buckhorn, its increasing experience with bulk containers in the 1990’s transitioned well to its first seed box, which was a modification of an existing bulk container. Later that decade, Buckhorn worked with a leading seed manufacturer to design and introduce its popular CenterFlow container.
Within the food processing sector, one area of early interest was the design of handheld totes for quick chill operations and transport of pre-packaged meat, poultry, and seafood. In the 1980’s, Buckhorn developed the NestPac container for shipment of chicken to a major fast food restaurant. The growth of interest in the bulk handling of liquid and solid foods over the last decade has led to continued refinement of IBCs by Buckhorn and other leading providers.
The Benefits of Reusables for Agriculture
There are a variety of reasons why reusable containers are essential to agricultural operations, according to insiders. Correctly specified reusable containers are safer than alternatives. They offer secure stacking and eliminate problems from splinters, nails and dust from operations. They also have smooth walls making the containers easier to clean. And of course, reusable packaging also provides cost savings over time by providing a lower cost-per-use. Ultimately, reusable packaging is a sustainable solution that can deliver a quick return on the customer’s initial investment.
Two dominant trends are taking hold in the agricultural market. First is food safety with the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act taking effect in 2015 and 2016. The Act regulates the way food is grown, harvested and processed with the primary goal to prevent contamination. This requirement is inspiring customers to find a cleaner, tamper evident approach to how they handle and store food. Buckhorn notes that it is also witnessing a desire for customers to consolidate their operations and become more efficient. Such improvements include reducing packaging steps from farm to retail.
“We see a shift in the market from cardboard to plastic packaging,” adds Poran. “This is mainly due to biological reasons, the main one being contamination. For the packing world, plastic packaging solutions offer many advantages. Improved ventilation and product protection are provided throughout transport, right up to arrival at the customer.”
Another emerging trend to watch is the ag tech explosion. While food safety concerns are driving interest in advanced tracking technologies in reusable packaging, ag tech initiatives might also help further push such technologies to the forefront. “The ability to implement IML or RFID labeling on plastic crates gives them a unique identification, allowing products to be tracked, a huge advantage for growers,” states Poran.
New Products and Services
Innovation is ongoing regarding services and products.
In January 2016, Buckhorn announced the launch of Buckhorn Services, which provides a mobile washing service for seed manufacturers, allowing them to focus on their core business. Buckhorn Services can wash units in a matter of days which would otherwise take weeks or months. After arrival, the washing unit is backed up to one of two adjacent dock doors. Buckhorn sets up a conveyor, so as boxes proceed through the washing unit, they re-enter through the adjoining door. Set up and tear down is quickly managed by Buckhorn Services’ on-site team.
“The customer should be able to remain focused on making the best seed product,” Jon Bertolino, National Sales Manager for CenterFlow at Buckhorn, commented at the time. “Too much money and time have been consumed preparing boxes for the upcoming season. After researching multiple approaches, we designed a service offering that responded to our customer’s primary needs.”
While handheld crates are a mature application, innovations continue to take place. For example, after a cross-functional and collaborative supply chain development process, Plasgad launched its Picker Crate in 2016. A key feature of the Picker Crate is that it operates in two working modes – stacked or nested, identifiable by color. It is also designed to offer maximum ventilation in both modes, locking mechanism for column stability, and a full match with existing versions and others.
“One of the greatest achievements of the Picker is that it offers a dual-mode solution in a single crate,” explains Poran. “The Picker Crate was specifically designed to suit agricultural purposes, accommodating packing of dates, mushrooms, berries and more. However, some other sectors are also enjoying its benefits, such as food producers and bakeries. With the Picker Crate, we were able to significantly upgrade the company’s capabilities, regarding technology and open up the door to a new world of products.”
The main thing to remember is that not all containers are created equal. Customer evaluation should consider the quality of the materials used, wall thickness, durability, and after-sale service when implementing a reusable packaging program.
Leading vendors will help prospective buyers identify priorities and will perform a packaging and economic analysis. “Our team works with customers to analyze production, warehousing, material handling and shipping processes,” explains a spokesperson from Buckhorn. “We take all requirements into consideration to develop a plan that fits the customer’s needs exactly. And Buckhorn’s involvement doesn’t end with the sale. We provide continuous support for reusable packaging programs to ensure maximum performance. This service includes asset tracking, washing, repairing, recycling, and buyback.”