The battle between the corrugated box and the plastic crate industries for market share in the fresh produce sector has traditionally been fought on both economic and environmental grounds. These arguments will continue, although it’s unlikely that any peer-reviewed life cycle analysis will ever deliver a knock-out punch to either of the combatants. The box will win on some life cycle criteria, the crate on others.
What is emerging, however, is the key issue of sanitisation. Retailers, growers and consumers are right to be concerned about the safety of the food they eat, although consumers probably don’t care too much whether it arrives by box or crate. They just want it to be safe.
There are two ways of achieving this. The traditional corrugated box system provides a fresh box for each delivery. Fresh doesn’t mean cutting down trees. In fact, most corrugated boxes made in Canada are 100% recycled content, partly made from those very same used produce boxes that Canadian retailers bale up at the back of their stores and for which they receive significant revenue.1 The boxes are recycled several times over the course of their lives, and meet rigid process control standards in their remanufacture.2
Having a fresh box every time minimises the potential for undesirable pathogens and bacteria being carried forward to the consumer. A recent independent study of corrugated produce boxes in the Northwest US, California and Florida, for example, found that every single one of the 720 corrugated boxes tested met acceptable sanitisation levels.
The crate system, on the other hand, a system based on using the same crates again and again, is clearly struggling to ensure that its crates are adequately sanitised between uses. University of Guelph food scientist, Dr Keith Warriner, recently found that a high proportion of crates arriving in Canada for re-use were in poor sanitary condition. Of particular concern was the high prevalence of food safety indicators, especially E. coli on 13% of the crates tested.
Similar conclusions were reached by Dr Trevor Suslow in a subsequent University of California-Davis study. Suslow even suggested that growers and packer/shippers protect themselves by doing rapid bacterial swab tests on the crates. Fresh produce, he told Food Safety News, shouldn’t come into direct contact with reusable containers. “If you can’t control contamination, you have to start looking for other options.”
1 “When we divert cardboard, not only do we reduce the cost and the environmental consequences of sending it to landfill, it’s all recycled and turned into revenue for us.”- Loblaw Green Team member quoted in Canadian Grocer magazine. PPEC estimates that Canadian retailers received over $50 million in revenue for their old corrugated boxes last year. 2 Paper fibres can be recycled up to nine times. In a typical mill recycling process, the temperature of the paper sheet reaches 220-240 degrees Fahrenheit, well above 100 degrees Celsius, the boiling point of water and the temperature required for sterilisation. The converting process also involves high temperatures and other hygiene controls.