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Ryan E. Day

Operations

Cutting Costs With Smart Reusable Plastic Containers

IFCO teams up with Real Time Intel to unlock hidden efficiencies, and help create a more sustainable supply chain

Published: Tuesday, June 8, 2021 - 12:03

Automation in the fresh produce sector is standard fare these days. What may not be so standard are the containers that get the produce from farm to market. The quality of produce containers has a direct impact on the quality of the produce—and maximizing profit margins for produce distributors and retailers.

As a produce retailer’s operation scales up, the need for reliable containers grows respectively. Standardized containers, such as IFCO’s reusable plastic containers (RPC), can be a significant advantage for automated logistics centers that might be handling more than a million containers every month. Even the smallest deviation of a few millimeters in container size can create cascading issues.

Unlocking hidden efficiencies

Using RPCs enables a one-touch system that contributes to time savings and reduced labor costs related to handling, storage, and transportation of fresh food.

“RPCs are filled by growers and packers of fresh food and displayed in the same RPC by retailers, avoiding the need for product to be retouched along the supply chain,” explains Candice Herndon, president of IFCO North America. “In recent independent studies, up to 54 percent in time savings was identified for placing products on display and up to 11 percent for folding and stacking empty packaging. This helps more fresh produce to reach consumers at a lower total cost.”

Walmart Employee
In 2021, Walmart selected IFCO in a multiyear contract as their exclusive provider of reusable plastic containers (RPCs) for fresh fruit and vegetables in the United States.

Several factors contribute to the efficiency of RPCs:
• Standard footprint—no time wasted on accommodating different sizes and shapes
• Each container is equally strong and can be stacked in any order. Because of their stability, RPCs can be built higher for efficient movement, storage, and loading.
• The ergonomic design means they are easily moved and placed in position. They go straight from storage to display.
• No box-cutters, unpacking or repacking, or cardboard waste
• Empty RPCs are quickly folded and palletized, no bailing required.

Produce Display
IFCO’s reusable containers pull double duty as display containers in supermarket.

“The use of IFCO RPCs enables efficient handling and use of space as well as a reduction in product damage and food waste,” says Herndon. “This all translates into increases in efficiency and productivity. Switching from single-use packaging to IFCO RPCs enables better efficiency and cost savings across the supply chain which saves our customers millions of dollars each year.”

Sustainability: single-use cardboard vs. closed-loop plastic

In terms of ecological stewardship, choosing to use paper or plastic involves multiple aspects. One aspect is whether cardboard containers can provide protection sufficient to prevent shrinkage during handling and transport. This can be problematic with fresh fruits and vegetables. Another is whether your containers can be recycled. Most cardboard produce containers (boxes) are waxed, thus not recyclable.

IFCO RPCs are manufactured and recycled in a closed loop. IFCO RPCs are used again and again, but their high quality means they can be repaired to keep them in use for as long as possible. And when they are no longer serviceable, they are 100-percent recycled.

“A pool of 314 million reusable plastic containers circulates continuously around the globe—rigorously washed and sanitized before each new delivery,” explains Pierre-Olivier Blanchard, vice president Southern Europe at IFCO. “Used by more than 300 retailers and 14,000 growers around the world, our RPCs help avoid packaging waste at each step of the supply chain. In contrast to single-use packaging—which generates huge amounts of waste—pooling keeps resources in use for as long as possible, extracting the maximum value from them, then recovering and regenerating products and materials at the end of their service life. IFCO RPCs are used between 30 and 120 times—with many of the containers lasting more than a decade. After being used multiple times, IFCO RPCs are granulated to create new RPCs—making the need for virgin material marginal.”

Container Sanitization
Sanitization station within IFCO closed-loop pooling system

Through this closed-loop pooling system, IFCO manages all aspects of recollection, washing, disinfection, and distribution of the RPCs. This makes sharing and reuse easier for customers, saving them time and money.

Creating smart RPCs

To further maximize the benefits of RPCs, IFCO has begun a long-term initiative to add track and trace technology to their products. The project is a first step in creating smart RPCs designed to unlock additional grower and retailer efficiencies in the fresh food supply chain while also reducing food waste and enabling additional sustainability savings.

“IFCO is committed to a culture of continuous improvement and innovation that will benefit our customers and the supply chain,” says Herndon. “The addition of this new technology is the next logical step in the evolution of IFCO RPCs. To obtain the best possible results, we have decided to partner with Real Time Intel, a proven leader in real-time intelligence technology. IFCO, along with our grower and retail customers, will undoubtedly benefit from real-time visibility and intelligence that can drive efficiency and sustainability benefits across the entire fresh food supply chain.”

Under the agreement, IFCO and Real Time Intel (RTI) will leverage the embedded RFID technology and barcodes on IFCO RPCs across North America that will allow IFCO to more easily track RPCs and their contents. The tracking technology will provide actionable data on the path of the assets within the supply chain, empowering customers to move food more quickly and efficiently, reduce food waste, increase sustainability, and allow quicker collection and processing of each RPC between trips. In addition, the tracking technology is programmed to sync with IFCO’s SmartCycle washing and sanitation process at IFCO service centers, providing another tool to ensure each RPC meets international sanitation and food safety standards.

“The combination of IFCO’s packaging and supply chain expertise coupled with RTI’s technology, data collection, and predictive analysis tools will result in immediate realization of significant operational efficiencies that will bring benefits to both IFCO and its customers,” says Herdon. “This is the first step in converting all IFCO RPC assets in North America into smart RPCs. Next generation smart RPCs and the data they provide will allow for real-time management of assets and fresh food. That will result in a more efficient and sustainable supply chain.”

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About The Author

Ryan E. Day’s picture

Ryan E. Day

Ryan E. Day is Quality Digest’s project manager and senior editor for solution-based reporting, which brings together those seeking business improvement solutions and solution providers. Day has spent the last decade researching and interviewing top business leaders and continuous improvement experts at companies like Sakor, Ford, Merchandize Liquidators, Olympus, 3D Systems, Hexagon, Intertek, InfinityQS, Johnson Controls, FARO, and Eckel Industries. Most of his reporting is done with the help of his 20-lb tabby cat at his side.