Traditionally, perishable goods have been shipped in single-use boxes or wooden crates – but these are nearly impossible to reuse. To reduce packaging waste and food damage, IFCO’s Reusable Plastic Containers were developed. When making new RPC models, we rely on superior material and engineering know-how to protect the products they contain.
Product developers and detectives have nothing in common, except at IFCO. Our development team, under the guidance of Technical and Product Manager Kim Hugow, meticulously investigates every detail of IFCO’s Reusable Plastic Containers (RPCs) to uncover how we could improve the next model or generation. Launching IFCO RPCs was the answer to a big packaging problem. Traditionally, growers and retailers have used corrugated boxes or wooden crates to transport perishable goods. However, these boxes can get soft and collapse due to moisture, and crates can break or become contaminated. And even if the packaging survives intact, it is virtually impossible to clean it sufficiently for reuse. The result is mountains of food and solid waste.
Primarily in response to environmental concerns about packaging waste, IFCO Reusable Plastic Containers were born. In 1992, the International Food Container Organization (IFCO) was the first company to introduce and manage a pooling system for RPCs. Now there are over 70 different models. "Our packaging might not seem exciting at first glance," says Hugow, "yet something new is always coming through."
"In truth, most people underestimate the importance of even small features," Hugow says. "When developing RPCs, you must consider even things which could potentially affect the supply chain." For example, customer may require side slots, so food inspectors can view the fresh produce inside. Other customers require a stable-yet-removable front panel or an active closure instead of a passive one. To solve such practical challenges, you need to begin with proven material. Then our customer-driven development is supported by know-how, technology – and detective work.
To start with, a robust material defines the IFCO RPC. "We use polypropylene for several reasons," Hugow explains. "Most significantly, it is a reasonably priced food grade approved Polymer with the mechanical properties we need to succeed in our Industry." However, this is not the only reason. Polypropylene has further material features that are essential for fresh and perishable goods.
The surface must be impermeable to minimize migration of waxes and fragrances into the RPC walls.
"The scent of lemons, for example, can actually penetrate some plastics. So, you need material that doesn’t take up this taint." More importantly, polypropylene does not absorb moisture, and it resists mold as well as other microbes, insects and rodents.
"Mold can actually take root in paper, but the fungus can’t adhere to polypropylene – it forms patches which can be easily wiped off the surface."
IFCO containers are meant for reuse, so a material is needed that can be washed and disinfected effectively. "IFCO RPCs are cleaned stringently after every use," says Hugow.
Our wash processes guarantee that IFCO RPCs are as safe and hygienic as unused packaging. Regular swab tests are part of our quality control procedures.
Our food packaging must also brace for extreme temperature swings. Hugow gives an example. "In California, black IFCO RPCs sit in direct sunlight while the lettuce is harvested. For broccoli, growers pour slush ice onto the produce to cool it down and keep it cooled during transport." Specially engineered drainage holes let water flow out, while side openings quickly dissipate heat. Using another example, brown IFCO Lift Lock RPCs ventilate bread loaves still warm from baking ovens – whereas in other cases, parbaked products are shock frozen down to minus 23°C within the container and stored at this temperature.
Now comes the tricky part: design and development. To outsiders, the highly engineered IFCO RPC design looks standard. However, industry insiders know that specific colors and sizes are predestined for certain types of produce. Most IFCO RPC development is customer-driven – for example, to meet the handling needs of a specific crop, ensure functional details for automation or accommodate display preferences of large retailers. "When we have a customer request to develop a new RPC, we get a list of requirements," says Hugow. He names a few examples:
Eggs present a conundrum. There is a 10-egg carton size in Europe versus the 12-egg size in the US and UK. Further, some retailers prefer a removable front for display. In some countries, egg shipments are refrigerated, but not in others.
Black or green IFCO Lift Lock RPCs for fresh produce need to allow water to flow out. Red IFCO Lift Lock RPCs for meat must be able prevent leakage from one RPC Into the RPC lower down in the pallet stack. The brown bread crates have a different polymer grade in order to accommodate the large temperature variances required in the bread market.
IFCO RPCs are designed to operate on automated handling equipment.
Our product developers also make small changes. "A customer may need modifications to make the RPCs best fit their needs," he adds. "For example, one customer required tiny hooks near the top corners of RPCs where plastic covers could be attached. We work with customers, so the RPCs fulfill their specific production process."
When developing IFCO RPCs, such as the recent Lift Lock generation, our engineers combine the customers’ list of requirements with our product offerings. Our teams analyze customer feedback along with any perceived design weakness of the previous generation. The detective work continues.
Overall, when evaluating features and requirements, being able to decipher what people really want is critical. Usually the engineering team presents a 3D-printed model to the customers, because "people have a hard time visualizing the new model from the CAD drawing and tend to need something in their hands." At this stage, our engineers can readily adapt the design.
We then produce a small batch of prototype RPCs, anything from tens to a few thousand, for field testing. "Clients can use these in their daily business, test the handling, evaluate how well automation can handle the RPCs or how they look on display shelves," says Hugow. At the same time, during field testing, our product developers make sure that the RPCs offer uniform capacity and precise dimensions. They subject the prototypes to dozens of extensive quality tests.
When all tests are successful, the high-performance mold for the plastics injection process is created, requiring substantial investment and taking several months to produce. Hugow explains why this emphasis on quality manufacturing is so important: "Our molds have to last a long time. Some have made over eight million parts."
Fresh from the service center, the IFCO RPC is now on its first journey to the customer. But its lifecycle has just begun, because IFCO RPCs are designed and made for reuse. Should they need repair, we can swap out a side wall, for example, so that IFCO RPCs provide their same reliable function for up to 10 years. Through our IFCO SmartCycle™ pooling services – ordering, delivery, recollection, stringent wash processes and recycling – we save our customers time and money. When the IFCO RPC service life has ended, the polymer is ground up, and reused through an injection molding machine to make a new container.
What really sets us apart are these service strengths, our worldwide reach and local service centers in 50 countries," adds Hugow. IFCO RPCs are 100% recycled , with no waste and no downgrading of material. Once IFCO RPCs are born, we guarantee that they have a long, well-traveled and useful life, until they are reborn through recycling and do it all over again.