Since the middle of the 20th century, plastic containers have emerged as the preferred handling system for agriculture. Plastic containers were an easy replacement for their wood, paper, cardboard, and metal predecessors. Plastics are lightweight, durable, waterproof, and won’t rust, rot, dust, or splinter. Today, they’re used in farms, greenhouses, orchards, vineyards, and fields worldwide.
While plastic containers have become commonplace in agriculture, their styles are endless and always evolving. We sell and have worked with every type of plastic container imaginable — from highly specialized, produce-specific lugs to generic, carry-all bulk bins — so we know what works best. To introduce you to the world of reusable agricultural containers, here’s a complete rundown of their major differences.
Agricultural bulk containers do the heavy-lifting on farms. They’re used in the field and throughout storage and processing. Bulk containers are generally defined by their large capacities and fork-compatible, “pallet-style” bases.
Harvest totes fall into a broad category that encompasses many overlapping and interchangeable container styles, including lugs, picking baskets, bins, flats, trays, and more. In general, these reusable containers are small enough to be handheld and they are used directly at the point-of harvest.
Harvest totes are often designed with specific types or sizes of produce in mind. There are flats for delicate berries, mid-sized totes for tomatoes, mushrooms, and asparagus, and deep lugs that work perfectly for melons and squash. There are even trays used for harvesting, washing, and drying herbs.
Within the world of agricultural totes, RPCs deserve their own distinction. Technically, RPCs could fall in the harvest totes category (as they’re often used to harvest fruits and vegetables), but they tend to be considered to be a class all their own.
Depending on who you talk to, the initials RPC are thought to stand for “reusable plastic container” or “returnable plastic container.” Regardless of the phrasing, the defining feature of RPCs are their collapsible sidewalls. By having hinged walls that easily snap into place for use or fold flat when empty, RPCs save a ton of space and money, both in storage and transport.
RPCs were designed primarily to provide efficiency in closed-loop distribution systems (such as grocery produce deliveries). As such, they come in a lot of retail-friendly designs. Nevertheless, due to their ease of use and durability, RPCs have quickly gained traction as a field harvest bin — making them a true farm-to-store packaging solution.
Agricultural Container Features
Fixed or Collapsible Walls
Agricultural containers with fixed walls maximize simplicity and are often the most durable options available. They’re perfect for tough environments. They tend to have fewer crevices, making them easier to clean.
The other option is collapsible containers. These plastic agricultural workhorses feature walls that lock into place when in use and fold inward when unused. This provides maximum storage and freight optimization, with the trade-off being a few additional moving parts.
Vented or Solid
The walls (and bottoms) of agricultural containers are available as either solid surfaces or with various ventilation/drainage holes. Most fruit and vegetable growers prefer vented bins, as they enable better temperature regulation, drainage, and exposure management for ethylene, nitrogen, etc. Solid wall containers, however, help retain juices, granules, and other small items, making them ideal for produce such as grapes, berries, grains, seeds, and nuts.
Nearly every type of agricultural container has some sort of stacking feature. Whether they have interlocking rims and bottoms, staggered stack-and-nest columns built into the sidewalls, or peg-and-socket corners, agricultural containers are made to maximize field performance, tuck loads, and storage. Many of the collapsible bulk containers and RPCs even offer secure stacking while fully collapsed, which keeps return trips and storage safe, secure, and tidy.
Agricultural containers are required to be made from FDA approved plastics. They’re free from many of the inorganic treatments and contaminants found in some wood and paper-based packaging options. Most plastic agriculture containers are treated with UV stabilizers to ensure their performance and beauty in the field.
Most agricultural containers are made from one of two types of plastic. The differences outlined here will not be noticeable for most users, but they may be a factor for those seeking to push the performance limits of various pallets. For those seeking highly specialized needs, there is also an alternative to the two leading materials.
High Density Polypropylene (HDPP) Containers
High Density Polypropylene (HDPP) is lightweight, durable, widely available, and used in everything from milk jugs to furniture. HDPP is slightly less rigid than HDPE (see below), which gives it better impact resistance. HDPP tends to be more cost-effective than HDPE. HDPP containers are ideal for high volume, fast paced, and tough work environments. The majority of the leading agricultural containers are made from HDPP.
High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) Containers
High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) is the most common plastic in the United States. As a chemical compound, it is slightly more rigid than HDPP, which makes it stronger but also less impact resistant. It is a popular material for handheld agricultural containers.
Fiberglass containers are popular with vertical farmers and others. The hyper-rigid strength of this material keeps it from bending or sagging under heavy loads. Some models can exceed the stacking height of plastic alternatives. The smooth, nonporous composite material is exceptionally easy to clean, resists contaminants, as is temperature stable from -60° to 250° F (-51° to 121° C).
Bulk Container Sizes
The typical tractor trailer has a cargo width of 8-feet. This is why many farmers and distributors prefer bulk containers with widths of 48 inches (or slightly less). Nearly all plastic bulk containers feature 4-way fork access. This allows them to be loaded from any side, often eliminating the need for space-wasting “chimney stacking” or “narrow:narrow” load configurations.
The most commonly used footprints are:
- 48″ x 40″
- 48″ x 45″
- 48″ x 48″
For agriculture, the depth of containers is very important. When dealing with delicate produce, it’s important that the product not crush itself during transport and storage. Bulk containers come in depths as shallow as 12 inches — perfect for transporting berries and stone fruit. Going up from there, there are many size options. Most growers prefer bins in the 26 to 32 inch depth range. Some of the taller agricultural bulk containers feature internal dimensions of up to 46 inches.
Handheld Container Sizes
Harvest totes, lugs, and RPCs typically have lengths of less than 28 inches, enabling them to be manually handled with ease. When picking the right size, there are a few things to consider.
- Too Shallow: In general, you want containers that are deep enough to hold your produce without the produce protruding above the top edges of the containers. This allows full containers to stack neatly without the lower container’s contents being damaged by the upper container’s bottom.
- Too Deep: Depending on the nature of your produce, you may also need to consider the effect of the weight of the produce within the container. For instance, strawberries tend to require shallower containers so that they are not crushed by their own weight.
- Optimized Footprints: You should select handheld containers that will maximize your load and storage capacity. It is best to buy containers that will make the most of your tucks, pallets, refrigeration, processing lines, and shelving. For instance, if your apple bins are intended to ship on 40″ x 48″ plastic pallets, you will likely want to consider containers at or less than 20″ x 24″ or even 20″ x 12″.
- Retail Preference: To make the farm-to-store experience as efficient as possible, you may want to consider containers sized according to your retailers’ or consumers’ preferences. In a perfectly sized RPC, growers can harvest, process, store, ship, and retail display — all without repackaging the produce. In closed loop supply chains, some are even able to sell the produce right in the containers and then have the empty containers returned by the consumer.
The strength of plastic containers generally exceed their traditional alternatives. Even lightweight models often exceed the load capacities of paper-based packaging, such as case boxes and gaylords. Plastic bulk container options are often rated for loads well over a half ton. Handheld harvest containers and RPCs are generally rated to hold loads ranging from 30 to 50 lbs.
Container weight can have a large impact on shipping costs, rack storage, and workplace ergonomics. Using efficiently weighted containers can save you money and labor. Our agricultural bulk containers tend to be fairly lightweight; generally well under 100 lbs. for a bulk container with a full pallet base. Some of the lighter bulk bins, such as our 48″ x 44″ x 23″ hybrid shipper bin, weigh as little as 56 lbs.
Handheld containers generally have a tare weight of less than 5 lbs. Some lightweight models, such as our “Breeze Crate,” weigh less than a pound. In general, heavier containers have higher load weight capacities and are more durable.
Additional Agriculture Container Options and Features
RFID transponders can be embedded in plastic containers to provide tracking, identification, and security. RFID transponders are an ideal addition to any closed loop supply chain or return credit distribution system.
Want the efficiency of a nestable container with the options of a straight-wall bulk container? Some plastic bulk container models are available with detachable bases. This makes them ideal for systems where they will be returned empty.
Some bulk containers feature feet and runner systems that are designed to be easily field-repairable. Accidentally crush a runner with your tractor? No big deal. With certain styles of bulk containers, you can quickly remove and replace damaged parts.
Many plastic bulk containers (and even some handheld agriculture containers) feature convent access doors. This allows product to be easily reached, even when fully stacked. When closed, these access panels lock securely in place.
Customized Imprinting, Labeling & Numbering
Plastics provide a wide range of customization options. There are many hot stamping, printing, labeling, and engraving options available for everything from your branding to the container fleet number.
Metal Reinforcement Rods
Want to make a plastic bulk container even stronger? Many styles are available with either built-in or optional metal reinforcement rods. These additional supports can increase dynamic load capacities and reduce bowing on pallets loaded with uneven weight distribution.
Most plastic agricultural containers options come with UV protection. Select styles may be able to add UV protection upon request. This protects the color and structural integrity of the containers when dealing with prolonged sun exposure.
FDA Compliant Materials
There are hundreds of styles of FDA and USDA compliant plastic containers. Built with FDA approved resins (PP, PE, or fiberglass), color dyes, and treatments, these containers are designed for harvesting and processing food. All plastic agricultural containers are also easily washed and sanitized.