Innovative solutions send supply-chain problems packing
Customer reaction to Polymer Logistics' wood-grain effect Marketplace crates is "amazing"

Innovative solutions send supply-chain problems packing

Jim Butler
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Andy Barnetson, Confed Paper Industries
Andy Barnetson

Packaging might not be the sexiest part of the supply chain, but without adequate solutions that work up and down the chain produce will never arrive for presentation at stores. A multitude of companies are exploring innovative methods to boost sustainability, reduce costs and improve packaging as a marketing medium. Produce Business UK speaks to a few of the sector’s key figures

Packaging is the unsung hero of the fresh produce industry. And for a sector that might be perceived – wrongly – as a less than glamorous component of the supply chain there exists a wealth of innovation and dynamism within fresh-produce packaging.

At a time when issues such as sustainability figure high on consumers’, and thus retailers’, minds, this is being mirrored in companies’ R&D departments.

Arie Barendregt, commercial director at the Dutch company, De Jong Packaging, says concepts such as efficiency and sustainability are at the forefront of the industry.

“It’s certainly one of the major things we’re focusing on right now,” he confirms. “Whereas three years ago most people were thinking about the bottom line, retailers are now much more interested in sustainability and thinking about the environment.”

Andy Barnetson, director of packaging affairs for the Confederation of Paper Industries (CPI), the trade association for the UK’s paper-based industries, is in full agreement.

“Sustainability is a key driver,” he states, “and we are very proud of our environmental credentials.  We have widespread and extensive use (an average of 75%) of recycled fibres to make new boxes – the fibres are reused – and many boxes contain 100% recycled fibre.”

When virgin fibres are used, Barnetson explains, these come from sustainable sources, accredited by FSC or PEFC. Where trees are used, three trees are planted for every one used.

“We also bring significant environmental benefits throughout the supply chain during use,” Barnetson says. “The versatility in size and shape means unlimited design opportunities, which can increase productivity on packing lines and provides space efficiency in warehouse and in transport.”

As an industry, therefore, packaging companies have to be conscious of emerging market, technical and social changes. Their customers want a continuous drive for increased efficiency and commercial advantage in their facilities and through the supply chain; they are seeking clear ethical and environmental credentials. 

And as Barnetson points out, society is moving towards a “circular economy”, reducing our carbon footprint and seeking to minimise use of resources.  Consumer opinions too are changing with the recognition of the importance of food waste. 

Supply chain solutions

As a pivotal part of the supply chain, packaging companies have to be mindful of solutions all the way down the chain. This is why Smurfit Kappa has a dedicated produce team. David Bickley, the company’s retail and sales development director, says they live, breathe and drink produce, prepared produce and horticulture and that includes retail, food service, catering and export.

“You’re talking about solutions all the way along the supply chain,” he says. “You’re talking about a solution for the grower, the packer, for the retailer, for the logistics… right the way through the supply chain you have to think about solutions and responsibly trying to take costs out. It’s not just about the packer and it’s not just about the retailer, it’s about the whole supply chain.”

And in agreement with Barendregt and Barnetson, Bickley too recognises that the industry is changing rapidly.

“The customer is becoming more aware of the variety and the availability of produce on offer all year round. They therefore want the choice of product/variety but the retailers only have so much competing space on the shelves. That’s where packaging is increasingly playing a key role moving forwards.”

This is where Smurfit Kappa comes in, Bickley says. In his estimation the drive to corrugated packaging has far more flexibility to improve the range and variety of the produce offer in store than plastic. Another benefit of corrugated packaging is the perception in the minds of the shopper that the product housed in the packaging is fresher.

Barnetson is another to extol the virtues of corrugated packaging. Moves within corrugated have driven the environmental debate with the light-weighting of papers.

He enthuses: “A constant process has seen a 7% reduction in weight (2006–2013) with no loss of strength. This, and reductions in energy use, have contributed to a 16% reduction in carbon footprint (2005-2014).”

At the London Produce Show and Conference on June 9 Barnetson presented the results of new research from a leading international university demonstrating that corrugated packaging is naturally hygienic, leading to a greater shelf life for fresh produce in paper packaging compared to other materials.

“More than 80% of UK corrugated is already being recycled,” Barnetson notes.  “This is equivalent to an area of board the size of Greater London avoiding landfill every four months.” Another boon for the environmental argument.

The rise and rise of differentiation

Differentiation is also key within packaging. Polymer Logistics acknowledges that as fresh produce continues to rise in importance as a destination category within retail having an aesthetic point of difference becomes important. In an attempt to create a market fresh feel Polymer has developed Marketplace – a wood-grain look crate and has successfully launched this with Wal-Mart in the US and Carrefour in parts of mainland Europe.

The results, according to managing director Adrian Dale, have been astonishing, with up to 3% growth in some areas and a complete conversion from either green or black industrial-looking crates to Marketplace. And Marks & Spencer is doing something similar with wooden shrouds to hide its green crates. Marketplace, moreover, gives all the benefits of plastic, such as hygiene, whilst providing the impression of an authentic farmers’ market and moving produce efficiently and safely through the supply chain.

“The idea came about in the R&D centre in 2012,” says Dale, “when the Polymer Logistics team started experimenting with clear trays. This material, however, proved expensive despite some impressive results. Attention then turned to creating a more natural look as research showed that the old legacy fleets were becoming tired, worn and just plain unattractive.”

After a number of iterations and extensive work with customers and mould makers, it came up with the wood-grain finish on a moulded tray.

“To our knowledge, nobody else had previously done this so it was a genuine first,” says Dale excitedly. “Customer reaction has been amazing and, in addition to the tray system, Polymer Logistics has complemented this with a dedicated display, on show at the London Produce Show this year.

“In terms of the future, we believe we have created a new standard for fresh produce. This is achieved by upgrading the quality of display at a low cost and giving all sizes of retailer access to promote the sale of fresh foods (especially fruits and vegetables) in an environment that will enable the consumer to appreciate the quality of the offering.”

Merchandising, presentation, logistics and cost

David Bickley at Smurfit Kappa agrees with the importance of differentiation. He says Smurfit Kappa put a lot of resource into looking at how it can help drive sales; differentiate the offer and improve merchandising, presentation, logistics and cost.

“We’re actively doing that,” he explains. “The two markets that are most innovative in that respect are the UK and Holland. We work very closely with our European colleagues particularly our Spanish, Dutch and Italian counterparts in developing solutions to retailers.”

Because of the flexibility of corrugated vis-à-vis plastic crates these points of difference can be explored fully. He explains how Smurfit has been working closely with a number of retailers when it comes to different tiers of the market.

“On the premium ranges we’re helping both retailers and discounters drive sales. The term premiumisation, as it is now referred to, is becoming a key added-value battleground for the produce market.”

This is a theme that De Jong Packaging is developing too. After entering the UK market last year with a stated aim of shaking things up, the company now wants to utilise its expertise in pre-print in transforming boxes from simple receptacles of produce to mediums of communication.

The main trend in using pre-print in boxes and trays has been in Germany and Holland, Barendregt explains. And it’s something that the discounters Aldi and Lidl have been quick to embrace in the UK.

“They really work,” Barendregt says. “They can help get rid of unnecessary waste in stores, it reduces cost and makes the boxes and packaging as attractive as possible. So to some extent they act as a point-of-sale instrument. That’s what we really push forward – we really want to grow the market in pre-printed liners. So much packaging is plain and doesn’t communicate anything…supermarkets are missing an opportunity, because if they could actually use the packaging with prices or discounts or anything printed on it then the packaging would no longer be just about logistics and transport but it would also be a marketing tool.”

De Jong Packaging - printable range
Retailers could be missing a trick if they aren’t using packaging to communicate

New standard for trays

The 2016 London Produce Show also saw De Jong Packaging, Polymer Logistics, Smurfit Kappa, and Excelsior Technologies, in attendance. Andy Barnetson hosted a packaging seminar, alongside Jan Gramsma, marketing director of the European association of corrugated manufacturers (FEFCO), and at the even on June 9, Barnetson announced  a new standard for fruit and vegetable trays.

“The Common Footprint with Quality (CFQ) standard will ensure that the customer gets a tray which is a ‘common footprint’ or fixed size (600x400mm large, or 300×400 small), with hole and lugs to secure boxes, ensuring stackability,” says Barnetson. “It will also meet defined requirements for compression, moisture absorption and base deflection, ensuring that it is fit for purpose.”

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