Ian Booth, Technical Director at fresh produce supplier Reynolds, tells Footprint that getting the amount of packaging right for transporting goods of all varieties is a delicate balancing act. However, the company has found the introduction of re- usable plastic crates has made a major contribution to cutting back on unnecessary wrappings.
At a recent Footprint Forum we heard that when it comes to packaging less is more in terms of sustainability, but according to Ian Booth, Tachnical Director at Reynolds, this statement is perhaps a tad simplistic.
Theres no doubt that appropriate packaging is vital to ensure that fruit, vegetables and other delicate produce is able to travel around the world without being damaged, so it meets the quality expectations of the customer. The distribution chain can sometimes be complex and the packaging needs to reflect the potential stresses and handling that the product will undergo, he says.
A good example of this would be top-and-tailed beans. These are commonly grown in Kenya, where they will firstly be transported by road for trimming, washing and packing. A further road journey will then be needed for transportation to the airport, after which the product will be flown to the UK using chill packs. The beans are then decanted at a holding warehouse, transported by road to ourselves, stored, picked and further distributed to the customer.
He agrees that on the surface less packaging is better for the environment, but explains however, a reduction in the strength of packaging may result in more wasted produce. In short it must be fit for its purpose, so finding a balance is important.
Packaging also needs to be considered in terms of primary, secondary and tertiary. All of these play a different function along the supply chain and thus need treating separately.
Of course, most of our fresh produce contains no primary packaging as such the single pieces of fruit, vegetables or salad we provide simply dont require it. Consider an item such as a bag of fresh salad leaves though, where shelf life is important to the customer and the contents are fragile. Here the packaging is vital in ensuring minimal product wastage for our customers, says Booth.
Another example is the cucumber; dependant on seasons, this may be wrapped or naked. The aim of the plastic wrap is to reduce moisture loss and maintain shelf life. This will depend on the country of origin at any time of year and the duration of transit.
Secondary packaging (that which contains a number of individual sealed units) tends to be cardboard outer cases. Reducing the gauge of a cardboard outer has to be considered alongside the time it may be held in a chilled environment, which may weaken the cardboard through exposure to humidity as could handing and stacking during distribution. Working with suppliers to utilise reusable crates is one area in which Reynolds has been able to implement improvements.
With regard to tertiary packaging (used to group products for storage and transportation), our objective is to ensure that everything is re-used or recycled. Firstly all shrink wrap and cardboard is compacted and recycled. We have a range of pallets types delivered into Reynolds, dependant on the country of origin. These can either be part of a pallet scheme such as CHEP, returned to the supplier or recycled at a local facility. Regardless of the outcome, there is no wastage here.
The material used to construct the packaging is very important, including of course the source of the material. Cardboard and plastic have their own unique benefits and properties and each has its place. Probably our biggest achievement has been made with our returnable plastic crate option, says Booth.
The foodservice industry uses millions of cardboard and wooden boxes, for receiving and delivering fresh produce to customers. To minimise the environmental impact of Reynolds work, the company implemented a returnable crate scheme to replace cardboard boxes used to transport loose produce to its customers. Plastic crates are re-used time after time, simply requiring a wash between use with a state of the art system designed to ensure efficient and environmentally friendly use of water. Many of our customers have now changed over to returnable crates. This reduces waste both for Reynolds and our customers. Put simply, if packaging doesnt go in to the customer, they dont need to get rid of it, says Booth.
Using the plastic crates to deliver to customers over the last year means Reynolds has sent three quarters of a million fewer cardboard and wooden boxes to customers and consequently made a saving of hundreds of tonnes of cardboard and paper.
The move has helped Reynolds customers reduce their waste disposal bill, is better for the environment, and has no real adverse cost implications for Reynolds. Booth explains: Once the crate has been used 12 times, it covers the cost of the alternative cardboard boxes. On average, the crate is reused 78 times before it reaches the end of its life. Of course there are some additional costs attached to the scheme, including the washing and storage, but the overall effect is a positive one.
Reynolds is committed to segregating waste and ensuring that where this cannot be reduced, that it is recycled. There are approximately 40 waste streams across the business and the company is currently working with a local company with the aim to progress to zero landfill.
One of the initiatives currently being trialed is a computer-based monitoring system which shows types and volumes of waste recycled as well as percentages of waste produced from different areas of the business. Measuring wastage accurately is so important if youre to tackle the issue effectively, advises Booth. In some instances, we also collect cardboard from our customers facilities, notably where they are not able to use plastic crates due to space constraints, he says.
However, Reynolds doesnt plan to sit back complacently, even though these achievements are considerable as Booth believes there is always room for improvement, such as identifying additional packaging which may be separated and recycled, further training to raise awareness of staff, as well as investigating emerging technology. Focusing on minimising waste should be regarded as a way of life rather than a short term initiative, he says.
As part of Reynolds Environmental Management System we formally review current and possible future environmental initiatives once a month. This meeting, which we call internally project WOW (War on Waste) is held by the board of directors, ensuring that the initiatives are led from the top down.
Most caterers are aware that they have to change their ways re packaging and waste, but Booth believes it all depends how a company uses its CSR policy. Some companies, especially those who are smaller or with limited resources, may not have a structured system with plans and policies but most, if not all, will be aware that they have a responsibility to reduce waste.
Key for me, says Booth, is to raise awareness that environmental practices can also lead to cost reduction. As a simple for instance, closer monitoring of ingredient ordering and use will not only reduce waste but also save costs. Given the current economic climate in particular, any business must surely be focused on costs and reducing waste is an easy win financially and ethically.