Right now, it’s hip to be square or, better yet, rectangular. Reusable plastic containers (RPCs) and other suitably shaped transport packaging are poised for dynamic growth in the years ahead, thanks to the industry’s heightened focus on sustainability, along with a number of other trends pointing toward the need for more resilient supply chains.
- Reusable transport packaging is growing in popularity, thanks to higher interest in sustainability and, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic, sanitation, among other trends.
- Design functionality and technology are driving supply-chain innovations in transport packaging.
- A huge growth area for reusable packaging providers is in e-commerce, particularly in regard to transporting orders for curbside pickup.
The Reusable Packaging Association (RPA), based in Tampa, Florida, recently released its first-ever “State of the Industry” report to get a better handle on the growth and potential of the market. The report estimates that global reusable transport packaging is currently an approximately $100 billion business. Pallets represent 62% of the market, with rigid containers, crates, totes, boxes and RPCs (as a group) accounting for 30%
A vast majority of respondents to the survey — 85% — said that they expect the demand for reusable packaging products and services to increase in the next 12 months. It should be noted that the survey was conducted early in 2020, before COVID-19 had reached pandemic proportions. However, experts say that the novel coronavirus’s impact on grocery retailing has only accelerated the movement.
“The grocery retail industry is really being inundated, or shaken up, and changing rapidly as a result of the pandemic,” notes Tim Debus, president and CEO of RPA. “This is accelerating trends that were already there, including a focus on long-term supply-chain strategies, as well as words like ‘resiliency,’ ‘digitalization’ and ‘visibility.’ Then you’ve got this acceleration in the use of technology for e-commerce. I think reusable packaging will play a solid role in all this.”
Reusable transport packaging has long been appreciated for its sturdy features and precise measurements, which make it an ideal supply-chain tool, along with the obvious fact that reusing materials can save money and precious resources in the long term.
Today, design functionality and technology are fueling supply-chain innovations in transport packaging, observes Debus. “One example is the design of an RPC that looks like a wooden crate, like what Walmart is using,” he says.
Another example of functional design is a crate for fresh eggs in which one side folds down to allow direct access into the container, says Debus. “That replaces a system in which workers were taking a knife and cutting into the cardboard box to rip off the side,” he explains, “so not only does it save labor and create a better interface with the consumer, but it’s also protecting the egg cartons better.”
Rigid and Ready for Use
Two leading RPC providers, IFCO and Tosca, are on the cutting edge of packaging innovation, as they work with grocery suppliers and retailers to solve some of the industry’s most nagging problems, ranging from shrink to labor costs.
Tampa-based IFCO Systems U.S. manages the pooling of RPCs for about 30 North American retail chains, including Walmart, Kroger, Loblaws, Harris Teeter, H-E-B, Raley’s, Stater Bros. and Wegmans, according to Bryan Tate, VP of product and category development at IFCO Systems U.S.
Like Debus, Tate says that he has seen renewed interest in reusable packaging since COVID-19 began.
“Then, with more consumers eating at home and buying fresh foods — produce in particular — we saw an uptick almost immediately. Another thing we saw with retailers trying to keep people fed and keep food on their shelves, is that the sight of damaged products, or boxes busted up, with food spilled on the ground, hits at a different heartstring now. So we’re starting to see more grocery companies really pay attention to their food waste numbers and what specifically can be done within their supply chains to help eliminate that. Rigid, strong containers have definitely solved that problem at their stores.”
Another area related to technology and e-commerce — automation — will likely be another growth driver for RPCs, especially since the containers are durable and highly precise in specifications, predicts Tate.