First it was the wirebound box. Now it might be the wax-cascaded box's time to start the slow walk toward the museum of outdated fresh produce shipping containers.
The environmentally unfriendly waxed corrugated box may start moving to the fringes of acceptability this year as the stars begin to align against its continued use.
Essential to bringing many wet commodities like fresh broccoli, peppers and celery to market, but incapable of being recycled along with other corrugated cartons, the waxed corrugated box is posing increasingly untenable waste-disposal problems for supermarkets. Now, however, as the supply of more viable recyclable wax-alternative packaging grows, some of the nation's larger retailers are ratcheting up pressure on produce shippers to start edging away from waxed corrugated.
With leading retailers like Albertsons LLC and Publix Super Markets in the lead, more grocers are tallying up the financial and public relations costs of using the waxed corrugated box and are dropping more hints to produce suppliers that its days are numbered. Although the produce industry isn't the only perishables industry that has relied on waxed corrugated, it is among its biggest users. And, because of its highly fragmented supplier base, it may prove the hardest to rally en masse to a new shipping container concept.
Still, Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix has opened a dialogue with key suppliers of produce, as well as other perishables shippers, about the implications of continuing to handle waxed containers. The company, said spokeswoman Maria Brous, is focused on educating suppliers about all of the costs it incurs in disposing of the material and the pressing need to consider different packaging.
“We're having conversations with suppliers to help them understand the alternatives that may be available and their benefits,” she said. “Our preference is for them to use non-waxed containers, but we know that anything we do related to sustainability is a long-term thing and won't happen quickly. However, we'd like to see a transition start this year as suppliers work through their existing carton inventories.”
Ted Brown, an environmental consultant to grocers, and former environmental affairs director for Hannaford Bros., a Portland, Maine, chain, said he sees larger supermarket chains — especially those on the coasts, where solid-waste disposal is growing more costly — pushing back harder on waxed corrugated this year as part of a broader effort to begin shedding all types of packaging that can't be recycled or reused.
“Most retailers are still throwing most of the waxed corrugated they receive away, but as more alternatives become available, they're going to begin to encourage suppliers to switch,” he said. “In the immediate future, though, I see this as a year of continued education about the issue for everyone involved, from retailers to growers to packaging suppliers.”
In a recent conversation with SN, Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Thornton noted that the drive toward recyclable wax-alternative packaging fit well with the company's existing supply-chain sustainability efforts.
“I've seen some great examples in the produce department,” he noted. “Some suppliers are developing a different formula that doesn't include wax. In some cases, [the coatings] are vegetable oil-based, so it can be recycled in the current machines. That immediately impacts waste and immediately means we can recycle more … It's a snowball effect.”
Supermarkets are more emboldened to confront the problems of waxed corrugated partly because alternative types of packaging look increasingly viable. Anticipating its eventual fall from favor because of environmental concerns, suppliers of waxed corrugated boxes have been working for years to develop corrugated that performs like the wax-cascaded type, but without the wax.
One such supplier, Weyerhaeuser, Federal Way, Wash., has begun aggressively promoting its ClimaSeries recyclable wax replacement products. Employing multiple moisture-barrier technologies specific to different product applications, ClimaSeries products are now in varying states of commercial availability and usage.
So far, Weyerhaeuser's biggest market for the packaging is in perishables shipping applications in the protein industry. A ClimaSeries product developed for the specific type of moisture resistance that packers need to ship poultry is being used by shippers supplying leading grocers such as Minneapolis-based Supervalu and retailers it supplies, including Boise-based Albertsons LLC, according to Dan Bunker, a member of Weyerhaeuser's ClimaSeries commercialization team.
“We're very deep into the protein world with our alternative packaging — some 70 million leg-quarter cartons that use wax-alternative technology [have been] shipped,” Bunker said. “In produce applications, however, even though our packaging technologies can cover the majority of uses that are now handled by waxed corrugated, we're still at the beginning of change.”
But as Weyerhaeuser steadily ramps up commercial availability of the ClimaSeries line, some produce shippers are beginning to investigate the feasibility of switching to such waxed corrugated alternatives.
In February, Deardorff Family Farms, an Oxnard, Calif., grower-shipper, began shipping fresh celery in ClimaSeries boxes specially designed for the demands of that product. While the company has no immediate plans to completely replace traditional waxed corrugated, it is interested in learning more about waxed corrugated alternatives as part of its mission to be environmentally friendly.
“We've always tried to be at the forefront of developing new forms of packaging, sustainable growing methods and more environmentally friendly energy utilization, and so over the last several years we've been banging on the doors of various box suppliers to come up with an alternative to waxed corrugated,” said company president Tom Deardorff II. “We think this box can prove to be beneficial to the way our customers do business.”
Those benefits, however, will have to extend beyond the ability to recycle the boxes along with other types of corrugated packaging. The cartons will have to perform well, meaning that they must be able to hold up and protect the product under normal shipping and handling conditions, which can include hydro-cooling, top-icing, slush ice injection and storage in high-humidity environments.
On the basis of extensive real-world tests, Weyerhaeuser said it is confident that its ClimaSeries packaging performs as well as or better than waxed corrugated. In recent tests with field-packed broccoli crowns and bell peppers, as well as fresh peaches, the company said packers using different ClimaSeries barrier technologies had “good arrivals.” And Deardorff said the packaging he's using with celery is delivering “performance at or above what we get from traditional waxed corrugated.”
Raw packaging costs, of course, are another issue that both shippers and receivers will have to navigate. While the waxed alternative packaging may end up costing more than traditional waxed corrugated, that added cost will have to be factored into a cost-benefit equation that considers both savings and revenues that will flow to receivers who use the new packaging.
If large supermarket chains can ultimately cut back on the amount of waxed corrugated packaging they receive, their waxed corrugated segregation labor costs and waste disposal costs will shrink. On the flip side, the more recyclable corrugated packaging they handle, the more offsetting revenue they can earn from sending corrugated to recyclers. Understanding that equation, packaging suppliers like Weyerhaeuser have been working to tune manufacturing processes to yield an optimal price point, depending on the application.
“One of the goals of the ClimaSeries initiative was to provide packaging that was cost-effective, not necessarily cost-neutral, for everyone involved,” said Weyerhaeuser's Bunker.
Brown, the consultant, said packaging costs — and determining who will bear them — will be an important part of the calculation that both shippers and retailers make as the pressure builds to adopt recyclable alternatives.
“The cost of recyclable alternative packaging has been a barrier to adoption, because they have cost more to produce,” he said. “But as more receivers switch to specifying non-waxed alternatives, its cost should come down, and we could see more competitive pricing. Packers, though, are going to try to factor any extra packaging costs into the prices of their products.”
As it starts to encourage suppliers to move away from waxed corrugated, Publix is emphasizing that more cost-effective alternative packaging solutions are available.
“We're coming to the table with the knowledge we have about possible solutions, but it's too early to say whether we'd be in a position to share in the costs of any alternative packaging,” Brous said. “We have a responsibility to the community and to our customers to offer products that are environmentally safe, and we think suppliers have a responsibility to do their part as well.”
Costs Cut Deeper Into Waxed Corrugated's Benefits
Waxed corrugated containers may play an essential role in getting many produce commodities to market, but they're an increasingly costly burden on grocers.
Thought to account for between 3% and 5% of all OCC (old corrugated containers) generated by supermarkets, and up to 20% of all corrugated used to ship fresh produce, waxed corrugated is costly to segregate from recyclable corrugated and expensive to send to landfills.
Ted Brown, an environmental consultant to the supermarket industry and a former environmental affairs director for a major chain, says grocers in major metro areas on the coasts pay between $75 and $100 per ton in tipping fees to dispose of waste, and another $20 to $25 per ton to haul waste to a landfill. At the same time, recyclers pay between $60 and $80 per ton for OCC. Lately, prices have been in the $125 range, he says.
In the case of a grocer generating what Brown says might be an average amount of OCC — 20 bales weekly, each weighing about 800 pounds — the total amount of annual OCC would top 830,000 pounds, or some 415 tons. If 4% of that OCC is waxed corrugated, that same grocer could be generating almost 17 tons of it annually that has to be sent to a landfill.
Paying $100 per ton to dispose of that waxed corrugated — tipping fees and hauling fees combined — the annual disposal cost would top $1,700. At the same time, the grocer, by continuing to use waxed corrugated instead of a recyclable corrugated alternative, might forgo some $2,100 in recycling revenue.
“There are some real savings to be had by adopting alternatives to waxed corrugated — enough to possibly change behavior,” Brown said, adding that another, less tangible benefit would be the ability to demonstrate environmental awareness to the public.