Reusable packaging has long been integral to the food and beverage sector – and will continue to be as the latter industry makes its way to a digitized, automated, and more sustainable future. While many types of reusables such as harvest bins, pallets, kegs, bakery trays, and dairy crates have provided value for decades, innovation continues unabated. From smaller footprint pallets and nestable mini-tank systems to RPCs for an increasing range of perishable food categories and IoT, reusable packaging breakthroughs continue to create fresh opportunities for the food and beverage industries.
Reusables reach across the entire food and beverage supply chain
A range of reusable transport packaging is deployed across the food and beverage sector. Containers such as intermediate bulk containers, tanks, and drums are valued for the shipment of ingredients to product manufacturers. For finished goods, the use of pallets, kegs and various reusable handheld containers facilitates downstream distribution.
Reusables are prized for many reasons. Through repeated reuse, reusables help reduce solid waste and greenhouse gas emissions. Handholds provide better ergonomics, while display-ready design provides “one-touch” merchandising, eliminating the need to manually place product from the container to the shelf. Reusables also provide better product protection and allow the higher stacking of easily damaged perishable items, thereby improving cube utilization in transit and in storage. Ventilated RPCs also help growers to chill fresh produce more quickly, resulting in longer shelf life and reduced food loss.
What’s trending: e-commerce, right-sizing, expansion into new categories and IoT
The Reusable Packaging Association’s recent study, Reusable Transport Packaging, State of the Industry Report 2020, tells us that reusable transport packaging adoption continues to grow for the majority of respondents. Over the previous 12 months, 67% of survey participants reported that they experienced increased demand, while 24% found it had decreased. For the next 12 months looking forward, respondents are very optimistic about an improvement, with 90% expecting increased demand, including 38% who projected it to be significantly higher. It should be noted that the survey took place shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here are some of the trends that are driving the increased adoption of reusables in the food and beverage sector.
Growing e-commerce grocery share and adoption of automation
According to a recent survey, U.S. online grocery sales grew by 22% in 2019 and, and in the wake of high demand associated with COVID-19, could grow another 40% this year. Standardized reusables play a critical role in many automated order fulfillment solutions. Providers are also designing reusables to enhance manual e-commerce fulfillment, as well as solutions that can transition from manual to automated fulfillment as volumes grow.
Smaller footprint pallets
Smaller footprint reusable pallets, including fractional pallets such as the half pallet are becoming increasingly popular. Small pallets can help increase the speed of delivery, boost point of sale display opportunities, and eliminate stocking labor when placed beneath shelves in aisles.
Small pallets can more easily be navigated through tight aisleways and backrooms of convenience stores, reducing the need to restack merchandise. As a result, deliveries are made more quickly and the truck is back on the road sooner. Small pallets also increase opportunities for floor displays, which have been shown to boost sales. Reusable display pallets eliminate the waste generated by single-use display platforms. Additionally, when half pallets are utilized for floor level placement in-aisle, stocking labor can be greatly reduced.
Right-sizing of reusables
The food industry isn’t just finding new opportunities with small footprint pallets. The same theme holds true for containers as well. For example, The right-sizing trend is also evident in other recent innovations such as smaller beverage crates for low volume craft brewers or mini-RPCs to better meet retail needs for handling convenience foods and healthy snacks. On the inbound side, one recent innovation is a reusable 400-liter tank for inbound ingredients. Nestable when empty, it can stack to a 6:1 ratio and competes with solutions such as barrels.
Unit load handling systems
Beyond innovation to pallet and container are solutions with a unit load delivery focus. For example, one offering incorporates a custom pallet jack designed to handle narrow pallets for C-store delivery. Another approach utilizes a dolly with a detachable handle that can easily move freight off the truck and into the cooler. For jugs of milk, four plastic contoured trays are used to separate layers of jugs, which can be then placed directly into the display cooler without the need of further touches.
RPCs for more perishable categories
RPCs continue to make headway not only for fresh produce but for other categories, including eggs, case-ready meat, and seafood. By using RPCs for seafood, retailers can reduce the usage of expanded polystyrene foam packaging. Regarding eggs, a 2019 study by one RPC provider found that retailers can save 53% on stocking labor by using RPCs. A previous 2014 report determined that eggs cool 10 times faster in RPCs than in corrugated containers.
Growing concern for food safety and traceability as well as opportunities generated by data collection will increasingly make IoT enabled reusables attractive to users. Additionally, IoT tracking can help reduce the loss of reusable assets and costs associated with their replacement, a factor that has been an impediment to some potential users.
Reusable transport packaging providers continue to explore opportunities to improve product visibility and asset retention through IoT solutions. Several technology solutions are being utilized separately or in combination. RFID tracking is now employed by many participants, including pallet and container rental providers, agricultural growers, bakers, beverage producers and retailers. Other solutions such as cellular IoT can provide greater visibility and enhanced sensor data that can provide valuable information for some participants.
Increasingly, technologies are being utilized in combination to provide visibility and data at a lower overall cost, such as through hub and spoke models that see many assets on a trailer, for example, communicating by BLE to a hub asset, which transmits via cellular, thus lowering the overall cost of tracking. You can find out more about IoT and reusables in the free RPA white paper, A Smarter, Technology-Driven Supply Chain with Reusable Packaging Systems.
The food and beverage sector has long relied on reusable transport packaging, helping it to cut costs, eliminate solid waste, provide better product protection and optimize supply chains. Likewise, providers of reusables for food and beverage continue to develop new solutions, helping customers transition to a digital, automated and sustainable future.