Last month, Commissary Insider wrote an article about the advantages of using corrugated packaging (cardboard) over reusable plastic containers (RPCs) for shipping your product, in regard to both cost and sanitation. This month we spoke with Tim Debus, president and CEO of the Reusable Packaging Association, who presents the other side of this issue and outlines the advantages of using RPCs in light of the same.

First and foremost comes food safety, and the study on sanitation sponsored by the Corrugated Packaging Alliance (that Part 1 of this story centered around) has propagated an issue where there is none, Debus says. Because there has never been a case of foodborne illness resulting from RPCs, nor cardboard, there is no need for a commissary to make a choice between the two packaging methods based upon sanitation alone. “The corrugated manufacturing process kills bacteria,” he says. “The RPC cleaning and sanitization process does too.”

The process Debus is referring to is found in the RPA Guidelines and Best Practices for the Safe Use of Returnable Containers in Food Supply Chains, released eight months prior to the November 2015 CPA study that argued cardboard’s superiority in regard to preventing foodborne illness. However, that superiority in sanitation was based upon lab settings, he says, and not real-world practice. And while cardboard may be cheaper to buy, Debus argues that the advantages largely lie within the RPC camp, and over the long haul, RPCs save more money.

In regard to spoilage and shrink, Debus says that by design RPCs outperform cardboard boxes, which can shift according to weight and stacking, exposing unintended holes in corners and between flaps. RPCs, however, are designed with airflow, temperature regulation and ventilation control in mind.

“That’s why many have converted to us,” he says. “The benefits have become obvious in their own operations; otherwise they wouldn't be using them.

“It’s all about how boxes are stacked on a pallet and put on the truck, so you must consider how much you can get into an area. Because RPCs are stronger, more stable, rigid and often interconnecting, shippers can often build taller, stronger palates with RPCs over corrugated. Cardboard boxes slant and become unstable with height. So with transportation efficiencies, you’re shipping more products in RPCs than in corrugated, making it better financially.”

The greatest reasons to employ RPCs, Debus says, include “superior product protection, lower supply chain costs, and reduced environmental footprint. In food applications, particularly with perishable food items, RPCs deliver higher-quality and fresher foods through improved product protection and temperature management; they generate efficiencies in supply chains from better cube and unit load distribution and labor savings; and reduce the environmental impact by eliminating waste and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and energy use.”

RPCs in some form or another have been used for generations. From milk crates to bread trays and harvest bins, “billions of RPCs are used each year to pack and ship food just in North America alone,” he says.

“An analysis of the commissary packaging process, warehouse operation, transportation network, and customer receipt practices can uncover many opportunities where RPCs will outperform cardboard shipping boxes. For a commissary business, ensuring the quality and freshness of foods is essential, and RPCs can offer better ventilation, airflow and temperature control to preserve the cold chain and increase shelf life of perishable food items.”

While corrugated packaging may be recycled over 90 percent of the time, and manufactured using over 50 percent of recycled material, Debus says that still doesn’t change the fact that it is waste-generating and not waste-preventing.

“Cardboard is single-use or one-way packaging that is ‘thrown away’ after each use,” he says, “and labor, energy and expense is deployed to retrieve and recycle as much as possible.  Why design, extract natural resources and manufacture a product to be used one time before it goes to waste or is recycled back to its raw material form, only to manufacture it again into the same product? By definition, that is wasteful. There is a reason why the US Environmental Protection Agency classifies ‘reuse’ as a preferred approach to waste management versus ‘recycling.’ The corrugated industry will promote their recycling programs, but experts will agree that reuse is a better, more sustainable approach.”

While one could argue that guidelines are only guidelines, the cardboard packaging industry also self-governs with its own set, and depends upon the people manufacturing and handling their packaging to follow them. Acknowledging the human element himself, Debus wrote (a year after the RPA guidelines were published) that “the safe use of reusable containers depends upon the diligent efforts and food safety commitment of all parties throughout the distribution chain. RPA encourages all members of the supply chain involved to implement the recommendations and guidelines in order to continue the safe production and handling of foods in reusable containers.”

Debus is confident that the employment of RPCs by commissaries will continue to rise as the focus on going green shifts further toward reuse and potentially even eclipses that of recycling. “As noted before, reusable plastic containers are ubiquitous throughout food production and supply, and have been for generations. For the future, due to global resource constraints and environmental pressures, which are only increasing, governments and corporations are already pursuing initiatives to encourage reuse of materials in order to conserve resources and reduce environmental burdens. The future is about reuse.”

So while cardboard’s industrial recycling may be at record-high numbers, not all agree that’s entirely a good thing. And it’s not just Debus that thinks so — according to the marketing intelligence agency Mintel, “Despite brands’ best efforts, package recycling is well below its potential. Going forward, when product price and perceived product quality are equal, consumers will increasingly turn to eco- and alternative-use attributes as the deciding purchasing factor, and brands cannot afford to ignore this as they develop their brand positioning and marketing strategies.”