Recycling Loses Out To Re-Use in the Food Logistics Industry

Since 2005, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has been dedicated to adhering to the Courtauld Commitment. Working alongside companies in numerous sectors including retail and manufacturing, the goal is to reduce how much food and packaging waste is produced during transit, and improve the logistical efficiency of the grocery sector. Last year, WRAP has drastically reduced food wastage by 2.9 million tonnes.

Both the industry and consumers recognise the pressure to recycle as much as possible, and recycling has become a buzzword over the years. However, making recycling the number one priority is potentially misguided. Managing director of PPS East, Joanne Moss, says that re-use is now the most effective way to make the food transit industry greener and more sustainable, but that the benefits of re-use are not limited to food transit.

The amount of food waste still produced by the food transit industry has been recognised, and so WRAP’s third phase of action focuses helping supply chains improve their processes. WRAP’s initiative aims to reduce waste production by better protecting food products and the packaging itself from damage during transit.

This approach is supported by the EU’s own ‘waste hierarchy’ model, which states that identifying the source of waste and limiting its production in the first place is the most urgently needed and most effective action companies can take to become more green. It suggests that preserving our environment requires industries to diagnose the underlying cause of waste, reducing the need to even recycle discarded materials.

The issue with packaging materials such as cardboard and polystyrene, commonly referred to as single-trip packaging, is that they are designed as such to be disposable. This has become the number one cause of waste in the transit sector, but has also been identified as a fixable one. Switching to re-usable materials eliminates issues surrounding the correct disposal of so much cardboard and plastic, which is a financial pressure on many companies. Durable materials designed for re-use also protect the food in transit resulting in less wasted produce.

The Government’s Packaging Regulations were updated in October 2013 to include regulations on re-usable packaging, stating the materials must also be recyclable when it is no longer fit for purpose, so recycling still has a part to play.

How it works, again and again

Returnable transit packaging (RTP) is designed to be used again and again in transit before it is eventually recycled. Continual testing ensures the materials used are always conforming to the latest food-safety and chemical resistance standards, and the strength and durability is constantly improved to give the equipment the longest period of use possible.

Using a cycle system ensures extra-long life, and that the packaging is fit-for-purpose each time it’s used. When it’s no longer effective, the packaging can then be recycled instead of discarded. Plastic crates require recycling less often than cardboard packaging, which reduces emissions by around 52%.

Plastic crates and pallets are most commonly manufactured from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polypropylene (PP), through the injection moulding process, as this can produce an endless variety of reasonably complex forms without losing strength. These materials also have the high chemical and corrosive resistance required, and are perfectly suited to washing with food-safe chemicals, making them some of the most hygienic materials that could be used.

The crates are also designed to withstand highs and lows in temperature, for produce that needs to be stored in freezing conditions, or heated environments such as those needed to grow citrus fruit. Ventilation slots are also a design feature that prevent the packaging from insulating the produce from the intended conditions.

The durability of HDPE and PP is also an essential quality, protecting the goods in transit and storage reduces the base amount of waste produce that would otherwise have to be discarded. Fruit producers are great examples of early adopters of re-use, having used this style of plastic crate for many years. It’s the same material that common re-usable household containers like lunchboxes and sports bottles are manufactured from.

Would RTP work for me?

Relying on single-trip packaging and recycling it afterwards means purchasing new packaging each time on top of the costs of having waste material recycled properly, so for some businesses the emphasis on recycling has formed a misconception that going green has to be expensive.

The expense involved in purchasing re-usable equipment can be a hefty investment for some businesses, so many could feel there’s no real win-win situation, but it is possible to start re-use that’s kind to your cash flow. A flexible rental model can even be an advantage for businesses that experience major seasonal peaks, as you can adjust how much equipment you rent during busy and quiet periods.

PPS has found their customers who rent RTP have seen a reduction of their overheads, working out more cost effective than purchasing new cardboard or polystyrene for each journey, and without the high initial investment.

If rental doesn’t suit your business, there are plenty more options to improve your supply chain by using RTP. Be sure to look into what services are available to you. RTP suppliers are opening up more options for returnable packaging, as the industry continually learns how its best used in different sectors, for various sized businesses.

Leasing is another option for businesses that can’t pay out for new equipment. The weekly rental cost for RTP is healthier for cash flow, like renting, but with the option to purchase the equipment when the funds are available.

Switching to re-use and cutting back on recycling is not only a viable, cost effective model for most businesses, but may just be the best way to build a more sustainable future for the environment and the industry, especially for businesses where recycling has previously been a non-feasible way of going green.

Joanne Moss is managing director of PPS, which provides re-usable packaging and container solutions.