How purposeful innovation impacts the banana supply chain of Système U

written by IFCO SYSTEMS, 22nd March 2022, in Success Stories

Système U is crystal clear about their ambitious commitments to sustainability and supply chain efficiency across all areas of their highly automated operations. This is especially true of bananas. With the support of IFCO expertise, the cooperative of independent retailers and logistic operations is hitting targets on multiple levels. The fourth largest food distribution in France relies on IFCO’s purposeful innovations in Reusable Packaging Containers (RPCs) and pooling system to ensure the logistics flow of fresh produce is always safe, smooth and sustainable – from plantation through to point of sale!

Innovating to ensure smooth and sustainable logistics

The turnaround of bananas is fast, finely coordinated and highly automated. Thierry Thebaud, Logistics Manager at U LOG, is responsible for ensuring it stays that way. As the person in charge of stock management and automation, his goal is to get the ripened bananas in and out of the warehouses and into the stores within 24 hours with the least possible impact on the environment or the quality of the produce. With the support of IFCO expertise, the handling of heavy and complex banana deliveries from the country of origin through to retail outlets across France has been turned into a safe, smooth and sustainable logistics operation.

U LOG is the logistics arm of Système U, the fourth largest food distribution group in France and in the French Overseas Territories. A cooperative of independent retailers, Système U brings together Hyper U, Super U, U Express and Utile brands, from hypermarkets over 10,000m2 to local convenience stores with 400m2. The group also includes U Enseigne, which focuses on sales.

“Our experience with IFCO has been so positive that we are looking into using IFCO RPCs for other fresh produce”

Thierry Thebaud

Logistics Manager at U LOG

Despite the diversity of operations, the separate entities are united in a common mission. Their overriding sustainability strategy is to reduce food loss and waste along the fresh grocery supply chain, limit single-use packaging and reduce food miles. As such, this focus perfectly aligns with the overall ESG (Environmental, Society, Governance) strategy of IFCO. This mutual commitment is also crucial for the successful long-term partnership and a reason why Système U views IFCO as a key partner to achieving those goals.

Bananas: more automated, more sustainable supply chain

In the case of bananas, Système U is mainly focused on preserving product quality, which requires improved control of the ripening process, as well as on minimizing rejections and maximizing automation. Limiting single-use packaging in the banana supply chain plays an increasingly important role in meeting the cooperative’s overall sustainability goals. All aspects are covered by the innovative design and share-and-reuse SmartCycle™ pooling system with the state-of-the-art IFCO Banana Lift Lock.

Each year, hundreds of millions of crates pass through the many warehouses operated by U LOG for Système U, delivering produce to thousands of retail outlets of various shapes and sizes, from huge hypermarkets to local convenience stores. Much of the logistics processes is fully automated and designed to handle a full range of fresh fruit and vegetables in IFCO RPCs, as well as vacuum-packed meat.

As bananas are among the biggest selling items on the fruit and vegetable aisles in the stores under Système U, it’s essential for the business that the logistics flow of this particular product is kept on track, delivering high-quality produce to the standards expected by the consumers at every point of sales.

How purposeful innovation improves standards

Thebaud is convinced the success of the partnership lies very much in the innovative technology and solid expertise of both parties that combine to ensure the just-in-time sourcing process is maintained. Much like IFCO, Système U has made it a priority to invest in technology that safeguards the continuity of the logistics and the safety of the personnel.

What makes the benefits of IFCO’s unique all-round solution particularly compelling for Système U? "The IFCO Banana Lift Lock improves the quality of pallet storage and boosts automation efficiency in the logistics operations," explains Thebaud. "Most importantly, the IFCO team supported the U LOG team throughout the trials and beyond, but especially during the preparatory phase, namely in the configuration of the robots," he adds. Given the scale of the operations and the geographical coverage, Thebaud highlights that getting this stage right is a crucial factor in the long-term success of automated warehouse logistics.

Franck Tatibouët, Head of National Purchases Fruit and Vegetables at U Enseigne, the sales arm under Système U, is in full agreement. In his view, the complete packaging solutions from IFCO tick all the right boxes. "Thanks to their reusability, the IFCO RPCs improve our carbon footprint and reduce our solid waste. It is also important for us to work with IFCO from an environmental perspective, but also because IFCO RPCs support automated processes," he adds.

The 4 big benefits gained

In outlining the key advantages of the IFCO Banana Lift Lock, both Tatibouët and Thebaud zoom in on four main areas.

Optimized automation and safety

Since banana pallets and crates are among the heaviest in the fresh produce sector, Thebaud believes the unique features of the IFCO Banana Lift Lock have considerably improved the safety of work and reduced the physical burden of the logistics processes. "It’s in the interest of everyone to automate the warehouse operations and let the robots take the strain of the heavy crates," he continues. "IFCO reusable containers are sturdy, durable and have standardized dimensions, which improves pallet stability. The standardized 60×40 footprint ensures that other IFCO RPCs can be securely stacked together, which simplifies order processing and reverse logistics," he says, adding: "Our warehouse operators seldom intervene in the automated processing of IFCO RPCs."

Improved sea and road transport and reverse logistics

Studies and real-world experience consistently show that pallets with IFCO RPCs are more stable, simply because they are designed to be sturdy and moisture-resistant under the toughest of conditions and fluctuations in temperature and humidity. "Single-use packaging get crushed in humid conditions, which affects stability and produce quality," notes Thebaud. "With IFCO RPCs there’s no crushing of the produce – it’s protected. And we don’t see any IFCO pallets toppling over during transportation." While Tatibouët highlights the improved operations. "What’s more, the pallets are easier to load into the limited space on refrigerated trucks, unlike one-way packaging," he says. "The narrow height of the folded Banana Lift Lock and its compatibility with other IFCO RPCs improves the flow of reverse logistics."

Sustainable banana supply chain overall

Getting to zero waste is another major topic of concern for Système U. Finding sustainable alternatives to single-use packaging is therefore a priority. The cooperative values how IFCO attacks waste on multiple fronts with their purposeful innovations. The unique reusable design of the IFCO Banana Lift Lock cuts down on solid waste – as they are infinitely recycled into new IFCO crates within the closed pool. Most notably, as IFCO RPCs are reused up to 120 times, they reduce CO2 emissions by up to 60%, produce 86% less solid waste, consume 64% less energy and 80% less water than single-use packaging over their lifecycle. On top, the protective nature of the crates cuts down on food waste, as Tatibouët is able to confirm: "Our bananas are better protected from turbulence and thermal shocks during transportation in IFCO RPCs."

Superior quality and longer shelf life

When it comes to bananas, consumers have high expectations and expect premium quality. But this fruit is prone to post-harvest damage, bruising and neck injuries, which makes rejects and food waste a major cause of concern for the retail industry. Not any longer for Système U. "Since we started using the IFCO Banana Lift Lock, rejection rates have gone down," highlights Thebaud, something that Tatibouët has also noticed. "Bananas are a delicate fruit and there’s a positive impact on their quality when they are transported in the IFCO Banana Lift Lock," he adds. The reason for this lies in the superior, innovative design of the Banana Lift Lock, as Michael Meierhöfer, Vice President Sales, New Market Verticals at IFCO explains. "It is no secret that faster cooling at the moment of packaging bananas reduces premature ripening and increases shelf life.

This has a positive impact on the quality of the banana," he continues. "The unique IFCO design ensures better ventilation so that cooling bananas becomes a far more efficient process." As the in-depth white paper How to transform the banana supply chain sustainably makes clear, the IFCO Banana Lift Lock design minimizes damage and premature ripening. By ensuring superior ventilation and secure stacking, this reusable packaging provides enhanced protection from plantation to point of sale. Customers using IFCO RPCs in general have reduced product damage by over 96%. …..

A positive experience

Not only are Thebaud and Tatibouët happy to be meeting their sustainability goals, they both believe the IFCO innovative solutions have led to considerable improvements in their operations overall. "Our experience with IFCO has been so positive that we are looking into using IFCO RPCs for other fresh produce," says Thebaud. "In my opinion, there are still far too many fresh fruits and vegetables in the fresh supply chain that are transported in packaging of a poor quality that is harmful for the environment."

The French government would agree. Since January 2022, around 30 fruits and vegetables can no longer be sold in single-use plastic packaging in France. Even though the law does not currently apply to bananas that have been processed or ripened, Système U has nevertheless taken the decision to implement more sustainable banana packaging from plantation through to display. With the support of IFCO expertise and purposeful innovation, Système U is therefore helping to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. 

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