When Veg Pro International evaluated the benefits and issues that would result from replacing its corrugated containers with returnable plastic ones, it didn't take them long to do the math.
"The logic is in the cost savings," explained Anthony Fantin, part owner and treasurer of Veg Pro, a Canadian grower/shipper. "We're saving money because we're not throwing away so many boxes."
The company has traditionally used corrugated cardboard boxes to ship its various fresh garden salad produce to customers in the North and Northeast United States. The majority of the customers using the RPCS are processors. Veg-Pro began exploring the use of Returnable Produce Containers [RPCs] when it started growing and shipping spring mix and baby spinach.
"We were losing even more cardboard boxes," recalled Fantin. "Customers were sending them right to their landfills rather than sending them back to us."
As a test program, Veg Pro leased returnable crates for one season. The success of the program led them to purchase 10,000 IPL SmartCrates in December 2001. The crates are designed to withstand high volume usage while providing cost savings. Their collapsible design optimizes space when full and empty to achieve savings on shipping. The SmartCrate GP6419 being used by Veg Pro has ultra-thin collapsed height for extra space savings. Other features include interlocking tabs for compatibility with common footprint corrugated containers and patented ventilation for rapid cooling of perishables. Contoured walls provide even more cube utilization with bulk produce.
Veg Pro carefully evaluated its customers to determine who would receive the returnable crates. "We chose customers who are doing large volumes with us and who are willing to take the risk of paying for containers when they get lost," explained Fantin. "Even with the possibility of losing containers, our customers saw the cost savings right away and were willing to partner with us."
From there, it was simply a matter of determining the number of RPCs that Veg Pro required. "The logistics were not complex. We already had trucks going back and forth from our company to our customers' sites. Once you have pallet management and truck management in place, it's just a matter of adjusting the logistics. It was an adjustment, but it's no harder than what we were doing."
Veg Pro had experienced success with returnable crates in the past. The company had been using the IPL FlapNest™ 2416-14 for about a year to move produce from the field to the packaging plant. The FlapNest is a multifunctional, attached lid, nestable, plastic container. Veg Pro uses about 12,000 of the 14 totes.
"Whenever we harvested raw product in cardboard, we weren't able to clean the boxes thoroughly without wetting or damaging them. So we couldn't reuse them," said Fantin. Now, the FlapNest totes are sent directly to the packaging plant for cleaning after each use. "We're saving money by not throwing away so many boxes, and we're able to control the level of cleanliness because we do it ourselves. We don't have to worry about contamination from earlier loads."
Fantin estimates that the company recoups the cost of a FlapNest tote after five round trips in the delivery cycle. "And we have turned them around many, many more times than that."
The SmartCrate's collapsibility was the reason Veg Pro selected it rather than purchase more FlapNest totes for shipment to customers.
"We've been really satisfied with the services and products we get from IPL," said Fantin. "One thing that really sold us on IPL during the selection process was their technical support. They were really able to help me understand which product would work best for us."
Another deciding factor was IPL's willingness to compromise. "They didn't just try to sell us what they had to offer. They were willing to adapt their product where possible to meet our needs."
Although they are more than satisfied with the crates from IPL, Veg Pro does not have any plans to replace all its corrugated products. "We plan to continue using both solutions where they fit best. We will offer the SmartCrate to anyone who requests it, and will suggest it to customers when we see an opportunity where we both will benefit."
Clean SmartCrates from IPL are collapsed outside the Veg Pro packing house in Belle GladeFlorida.
Inside the packing house, workers easily set up the IPL SmartCrates. The returnable produce containers feature an advanced latching system for two-step set up and three-step knock down.
After the spring mix has been washed and dried, it is placed on a conveyor/scale that weighs out the mix and drops the correct amount into the IPL SmartCrates. The container's contoured walls provide added cube utilization. Plastic bags line the crates for food safety.
After the spring mix has been weighed into the SmartCrates, the bags are sealed and the containers are stacked 55 high, ready to be loaded on to a truck and delivered to a customer. Cross-stacking provides greater load stability and reduces secondary packaging. Special ventilation features optimize produce cooling, while minimizing damage to the produce. Also, the RPCs are inter-stackable with Fiber Box Association (FBA) compliant corrugated boxes.