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Trends in Containers and Packaging

Safety, quality, ecology and connection
By Tamara Scully



GreenCoat wax-alternative produce boxes on pallet in wet conditions.
PHOTO COURTESY OF INTERSTATE CONTAINER.
Depending on the final destination of your produce, packaging needs can vary. Proper produce packaging means less chance of damage in transit, protection of flavor and quality, and ease and efficiency of distribution. Proper packaging also has to meet regulations for food safety and labeling requirements and typically adhere to standard, accepted sizing. Whether destined for direct to consumer or reseller distribution, proper packaging is not optional. The right container size, look and material can translate into longer shelf life, better merchandising and increased sales. Today's packaging must meet safety needs, enhance freshness, and catch the consumers' mind and consciousness.

Bulk packaging - beyond wax

Wax boxes have been the produce industry standard for retention of quality, but pose a problem as they are generally not readily recyclable. The petroleum-based waxes used - typically paraffin - are not considered environmentally friendly. Even when natural waxes, such as wood resin and carnauba, are used, the boxes are frequently sent to the landfill.

As consumers seek eco-friendly practices from farm to table, options for providing produce the protection of a wax-coated box without the wax are gaining in popularity. Trends toward sustainable packaging are spurring the development of an ever-increasing product line of wax-alternative containers for a variety of needs.

GREENCOAT, from Interstate Container, is a wax-replacement box, offering all of the waxed box advantages in a fully recyclable and repulpable corrugated product. Their produce boxes, introduced in 2011, are USDA-approved, moisture-resistant, durable and can tolerate high humidity environments. ClimaSeries wax-alternative boxes, from International Paper, are another option for produce protection, with products available with moisture-resistant coatings and/or plastic film, yet still fully recyclable.

Reuse

Another way to jump on the eco-friendly bandwagon is to reuse product packaging boxes, safely. Reusable plastic containers have been available and in use by some major grocery retailers for several years. Economical and ecologically savvy, these produce container options are designed to be durable, stackable and readily sanitized. Produce is kept safe from damage, yet is able to breathe, thus eliminating food waste. Recycling of these plastic boxes, known as RPCs (reusable plastic containers), when eventually removed from the system, keeps them eco-friendly.

CropBoxes are a wax-alternative product made from polypropylene. They combine reusable plastic with innovative box design, providing increased benefits. Their air-trapping design helps to maintain produce freshness, provides insulation, and the boxes are mildew and chemical-resistant. They are reusable, durable, have sealed-flute edges, are stackable, collapse for storage or return shipment, are impervious to moisture and lightweight. Originally conceived as the perfect CSA customer box, they are suitable for selling to distributors, directly to restaurants or retailers or for use at farmers' markets, said Phil Edmunds, sales manager for Adaptive Plastics, Inc. (www.farmwhole saleag.com/produce_boxes.shtml).

Introduced two years ago, CropBoxes have proved versatile throughout the farm-to-table cycle and are poised to expand beyond CSA distribution. Designed to meet the needs from field to table, farmers are "picking into them and washing produce down in them, taking them to farmers' markets and sending them to distributors, stores and restaurants that will save and return them," Edmunds said. The boxes have holes that make it convenient to hang them on hooks or dowels for storage, and the dimensions on both the .75-bushel and 1 1/5-bushel boxes are equal, fitting eight to a layer on a standard 40-by-48-inch pallet, making them appropriate for this larger-scale use.

"The features about our boxes that make them unique are that they have sealed edges so that they don't harbor contaminants in the flutes, water does not affect their structure, they can be cleaned and sanitized and reused well over 100 times. They hold the cold because of the insulation from the corrugation, and they can be screen printed in quantities of 500 or more," Edmunds said. "They are meeting growers' needs by saving money on waxed corrugated [boxes]."

Fresh and safe

Another alternative designed to reduce the use of wax coatings while still retaining the advantages of wax are specially designed carton liners, available for bulk and smaller packaging needs. PEAKfresh USA's products reduce ethylene gas and moisture, while eliminating the need for ice. From pallet covers and box liners to point-of-purchase bags, the system is designed to retain freshness without the use of wax coatings and is approved for organic packaging use. The mineral-infused polyethylene liners also have deodorizing components. PEAKfresh USA's product line enables the retention of freshness from on-farm packing through to end user purchase.

Ethylene-reducing packaging inserts are also being developed by several companies, and include inserts for cardboard packaging flats or boxes, as well as strips inserted into clamshell or other consumer packages.

While fungicides or other chemical spoilage retardants are sometimes used to retain produce quality and offer microbe protection across the distribution chain, natural alternatives are also being marketed. One such product, Fenugreen FreshPaper, is natural, biodegradable, and is made of organic botanical extracts that have been shown to inhibit bacterial and fungal growth. The FreshPaper sheet is placed in fresh produce containers and protects against spoilage.

Edible film membranes are another product designed to act as oxidation barriers to protect food and reduce spoilage, as well as to reduce landfill waste. These edible films are being developed from carrots, apples, green tea extracts and cassava, among others. Some may offer antimicrobial properties, enhancing food safety. Research is ongoing at Harvard and other venues, and industry insiders predict that new products should hit the shelves within a year.

Convenience

The consumer trend, as per a recent Produce Marketing Association survey, is toward more convenience products, such as produce in smaller-size packaging. This can be in conflict with the environmental concerns, as more packaging is needed to protect and preserve single-serve items rather than larger packages or loose produce items. According to the Produce Marketing Association's Consumer Attitudes Toward Packaged Fruits and Vegetables study in 2011, packaged produce is seen as cleaner and safer than non-packaged items.

Clamshells are a popular item with retailers, and are a consumer-friendly package. When made from polylactic acid (PLA) plastic, a bio-based product made from cornstarch, clamshells meet the need for small-sized, eco-friendly containers that retain quality. Innovative new styles, sizes and designs show promise for a variety of produce.

According to the USDA, bio-based products are those composed wholly or significantly of agricultural ingredients. The USDA has been offering a certified bio-based label, available to eligible products, on a voluntary basis. Clear Lam Packaging, Inc. was the first to apply and receive certification for its thermoform produce containers made from PLA plastic in 2011. Clear Lam, in conjunction with Apio, Inc., was also awarded the Produce Marketing Association's impact award for excellence in produce packaging for their thermoform container with "Peel and ReSeal" lid, designed for cut butternut squash.

Fiber products made from renewable resources, Including bamboo and sugarcane, are leading the way in other produce packaging trays. These trays resist moisture, helping to maintain produce quality, and are suitable for packaging produce in small quantities.

Display-ready packaging is in demand, whether at the retail grocery or farmers' market. Retail-ready packaging can go from pallet to shelf without wasting time and labor. The Institute of Packaging Professionals 2012 AmeriStar Packaging Competition award winner was the Gourmet Trading Company's retail-ready asparagus shipper. The shipper top separates from a bottom tray without box cutters and retailers simply remove it and place the bottom, which has a built-in moisture pad to ensure freshness, on the shelf.

2011 winners of the PMA Impact awards, which recognize innovation in produce packaging,, included Monterey Mushrooms 'biodegradable and recyclable fiber tray with printable surface, allowing its brand message to be front and center while meeting all of today's packaging needs.

Branding

Packaging is also used to brand a product. Whether selling directly to the customer or via wholesale distribution channels, connecting to the consumer through brand recognition is an important factor in increasing sales. While label requirements such as country of origin, food safety labeling and tracking information, UPC codes or nutritional information are an important part of any package, today's consumers are seeking additional information. They wish to be knowledgeable about specific growing practices, company mission and philosophy, as well as other details, all of which can be conveyed through packaging.


GreenCoat wax-alternative boxes on pallet.
PHOTO COURTESY OF INTERSTATE CONTAINER.

Including informative descriptions about the produce - such as handpicked, all-natural, heirloom variety - on the packaging is a way to catch the consumer's interest and make a connection between grower and purchaser. This use of packaging as promotion adds value to fresh produce simply because it offers consumers the information they feel is important in making product selections. Scannable QR (Quick Response) codes on packaging, which allow consumers another way to get further farm information or even recipe ideas, are an innovative way to go beyond the basics in product packaging. At the point of sale level, offering an environmentally friendly option, such as bags made from recycled products, those derived from natural sources or reusable bags printed with your farm information, can influence purchasing decisions and also help to brand your farm.

From bulk packaging for wholesale distribution to bagging loose produce for the consumer at the farm market, packaging options abound. Consumers will take note of the options, offering growers the opportunity to make a statement with packaging choices, from field to retail point of sale incorporating today's food safety, quality and consumer demands into produce packaging selection is vital in today's marketplace. Produce packaging has moved far beyond yesterday's choice of "paper or plastic."

The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey.