Avoiding plastic waste with IFCO RPCs

written by IFCO SYSTEMS, 23rd August 2019, in Stories

Single-use plastic waste has become a serious threat to the environment, particularly to our oceans. But there are alternatives – IFCO’s pooling system, for example. By sharing and reusing food packaging solutions, we prove our commitment to the circular economy. In addition, key features of IFCO reusable packaging containers (RPCs) reduce the need for single-use packaging.

Consumers have become more conscious about plastic waste

Almost every day, consumers are confronted with images of islands of plastic floating in the oceans, or of sea life tangled up in these plastics. More than eight million tons of plastic debris enter the oceans every year, threatening marine life and birds, and even people – who ingest microparticles of plastic from the fish they eat. The problem has reached catastrophic proportions. In response, consumers have become more conscious about problems caused by plastic waste, while companies and governments have begun pushing to reduce plastic usage and plastic waste.

As one example, major companies publicly disclose their annual plastic packaging volumes, taking an important step towards greater transparency in today’s plastic system. And at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi in March 2019, 170 countries pledged to significantly reduce the use of plastics by 2030.

Such measures are needed to reduce the nearly 300 million tons of plastic produced every year, half of which is for single use . This means that more and more plastic is discarded, harming the environment, overfilling landfills or creating air pollution when burned. In this context, cutting down single-use packaging for fruits and vegetables can have a considerable effect. IFCO positively contributes to global efforts to reduce single-use packaging and plastic waste. Our reusable packaging containers (RPCs) help avoid packaging waste along the supply chain – from growers to retailers. We are advocates for reusable packaging that is also optimal for loose products.

Packaging in the produce department

Fruit and vegetables have their own natural wrapping – most have a peel or skin that can be washed or removed. Nevertheless, more and more fruit and vegetables are sold in single-use plastic packaging. For example, in Germany since the year 2000, the amount of plastic packaging in fresh produce departments in retail stores has increased by 94 percent for fruit and 186 percent for vegetables. Today, about 60 percent of fruits and vegetables are packaged. "I think nowadays consumers want convenience," remarks Christoph Trixl, Vice President North and Central Europe at IFCO. "This is one of the reasons why single-use plastic packaging is used. One apple wrapped in plastic might look more convenient than a bunch of loose apples. Primary packaging is very important for marketing and sales reasons. Yet, often it is not necessary."

To combat the problem of plastic pollution, more than 60 countries have introduced bans and fees on single-use packaging. However, one measure that is even more effective than bans is avoiding plastic waste in the first place. The most commonly cited reasons for wrapping fresh produce in plastic include convenience, food safety and hygiene, less damage and waste, freshness and shelf life, and identification. However, in each of these areas, IFCO RPCs can help roll back the need for single-use packaging.

Ensuring food safety and hygiene

Sometimes national food safety guidelines require packaging to safeguard food hygiene. According to EU regulations, for example, hygiene must be guaranteed "from farm to fork." To support this objective, by practically eliminating the need to manually handle produce, whether directly following harvest, sorting in distribution centers or being placed in retail displays. "Our RPCs are also very rigorously controlled for safety and to prevent infections," explains Thomas Albrecht, Vice President Service Operations at IFCO. "Once the containers have been used at the retail store, we collect them and bring them to our wash centers to be cleaned and sanitized. They go through a very stringent quality check before being reissued to the grower or the producer to be reused again."

Reducing damage and waste

Ideally, fruits and vegetables are harvested into IFCO RPCs at the farm and delivered to supermarkets without additional handling. This means that once the producer places the produce in a container, no one touches it again until a shopper selects it at the point of sale. This "one-touch" system saves time and labor, and it helps reduce packaging waste along the way. With their standardized footprint, IFCO RPCs are also optimal for automated systems. The food industry also recognizes the advantages of such versatile transport containers for fresh produce.

"Grapes from Bari or Puglia, Italy, are packed directly from harvest in IFCO RPCs," says Patrick Mueller-Sarmiento, CEO at the German hypermarket chain Real, in Germany. "Because RPCs are reusable, we can place them directly on market shelves. We don’t need any additional packaging." Also, the increased ventilation provided by IFCO RPCs is key to keeping food products fresh longer.

In addition, with its sturdy design and secure stacking capability, IFCO RPCs reduce damage to produce during all stages by up to 96% compared to less stable packaging – so less individual protective wrapping is needed, such as single-use plastic boxes, cups or bags to keep smaller items together. As well, each IFCO RPC fits securely on the corners of the one below it. The RPCs do not touch the delicate produce inside, and the pallet’s stability is not affected by moisture. Should small items such as berries need additional protection in prepackaged units, primary packaging – ideally made of biodegradable material – can fit into an RPC.

Aiming for Zero Waste

According to the definition of the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZIWA), "Zero Waste is the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning, and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health."

The IFCO RPCs life cycle is designed to reach the maximal reduction of waste, as RPCs:

  • can be reused again and again – between 30 and 120 times – with many of the containers lasting more than a decade,
  • are granulated and 100% recycled at the end of their product life,
  • cut solid waste by 86%, and
  • produce up to 60% less CO2 emissions, consume 64% less energy and use 80% less water than single-use packaging.

Contributing to the circular economy

Even if single-use plastic makes handling, transporting and marketing fresh produce more convenient, IFCO reusable packaging containers address the same concerns at much lower cost to producers, distributors and retailers – and the environment. Overall, IFCO RPCs can protect food from damage and spoilage and lessen food waste with a much lower environmental impact than single-use packaging, and play a significant role in the circular economy, which aims to remove waste through sharing and reuse.

"IFCO RPCs make a great contribution to reducing the environmental impact of the food supply chain," concludes IFCO CEO Wolfgang Orgeldinger. "They reduce product damage and product waste without requiring any additional packaging. Feeding people instead of landfills is crucial. Join us in reducing waste."

Reduce environmental impact by using IFCO RPCs

Our products use fewer natural resources than disposable alternatives throughout their lifecycle, from the energy and materials used in their manufacture through cleaning and repair to eventual recycling. And because they perform better in transit – stacking securely and maintaining their structural rigidity – they offer indirect environmental benefits, too.

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