Plastics and the Food Supply Chain – How Reusable Plastics Keep Your Food Fresh and Costs Down

Sustainability in the Journey of a Tomato — Reusable Plastic Solutions to Keep Food Fresh and Costs Down

When the words “plastic” and “sustainability” are used together in a sentence, often, there is a negative sentiment regarding plastics. Single-use plastics such as straws, cling wrap, and resealable bags are not considered sustainable because it is a waste of materials to use something only one time then throw it away. However, reusable plastics can promote sustainability efforts, and one place where this is especially true is in the food supply chain.

The journey that a tomato takes from farm to table is more affordable and easier to complete thanks to reusable plastics. Consumers regularly shop for tomatoes. In fact, 72% of consumers surveyed purchase tomatoes weekly or more often. Nearly half purchase three or four tomatoes at a time. 

Today’s consumers are growing more concerned about the journey their food takes before it reaches their table, which is why farm-to-table restaurants have grown in popularity. Without reusable plastics, the journey a tomato takes could take longer and would undoubtedly be more costly, resulting in a higher price for the consumer.

Let’s take a look at the supply chain of a tomato and how reusable plastics make the production possible and reduce waste, both economic and environmental.

Growing

Tomato Supply Chain Packaging for Tomato Farms

The tomatoes we know and buy would be nonexistent without the use of reusable plastics. From the initial planting of a tomato seed, farmers now rely on carefully sourced plastic systems to help them grow safely and naturally.

Old systems of tomato farming required tremendous amounts of non-eco-friendly products. Those containers and other products were often metal, wood or paper-based. In addition to requiring the felling of many trees and the waste of mining operations, metal, wood, and paper products typically weigh much more than plastic alternatives. The excess weight, from the forest or mine to the field, raised shipping costs, required more fuel for transport, and added to the carbon footprint of the tomato industry. 

To grow tomatoes, modern farmers use plastic seedling trays, fiberglass hydroponic trays, plastic irrigation systems to water the tomato plants. And, plastic greenhouse covers allow farmers to grow fruits and vegetables in all kinds of weather, yielding more abundant crops and more supply. These practices of growing more produce in a smaller area with better utilization of water and other resources is just the beginning of the sustainability story. 

Harvesting

Plastic Pallets and Bulk Containers used for fresh produce harvesting

When farmers harvest tomatoes, they are placed in containers to transport them off the field. Plastic harvest bins are the preferred method for gathering not just thousands of tomatoes but also many other types of produce. “The harvest bins are the foundation of our farming operation, they’re reusable to the point of five to six years,” says Louis DeMaso, Sustainability and Operations Analyst for Lipman Family Farms located in Immokalee, Florida. “They hold about 5,000 pounds [so we use them] anytime we transport our bins from farm to packinghouse.”

One reason so many farmers have turned to these plastic bins for gathering their harvests is that these bins can come equipped with features that make harvesting easier depending on the type of produce. For example, some bins are built with ventilation, while other bins have solid walls that are made to hold very small or liquid items. These features can reduce the amount of damage done to the produce and food products, which means they may not have to charge as much per piece.

Many harvest bins are also collapsible, making them easier to store when they are not being used and reducing the cost of return freight by as much as 3:1 when they’re empty. Another option is to rent agricultural containers only for the harvest season. By renting, the farmer has enough plastic containers for his entire crop but does not need to invest resources in storage or maintenance of the containers for the full year. Plus, the same rented containers can be used by multiple farmers throughout the year, increasing their green impact. All of this leads to reduced costs for the consumer.

But perhaps the most crucial reason that plastic harvest bins have become preferable in agriculture explains DeMaso is that “from the food safety perspective, plastic is much cleaner.” 

Michael Schadler, Executive Vice President of the Florida Tomato Exchange and Manager of the Florida Tomato Committee, agrees. “Plastic is easy to clean and sanitize. It is easy to assure food safety for the end-user.” 

Plastic is safer for food storage due to its nonporous nature. It does not absorb moisture, so it is not a hospitable place for bacteria to grow. Washing plastic with sanitizer virtually guarantees a clean surface because substances cannot become trapped within the plastic, unlike cardboard, which very readily absorbs moisture, dirt, and germs. So, consumers should feel at ease knowing their tomatoes were contained in plastic as opposed to cheaper products like wood or cardboard.

And from an environmental perspective, there is nothing less sustainable than losing an entire crop or shipment due to contamination. The natural resources and carbon required in even the most efficient growing, picking, and moving processes are all a net loss when products are recalled or destroyed due to contamination.  

Processing

Bulk Containers and IBCs used for Tomato and Produce Processing

After harvest, the tomatoes are then shipped to a packinghouse where they get washed, treated, and packed for shipping to different types of customers. Processors are able to use specially designed reusable plastic crates and trays to ensure everything from proper ventilation to automated sorting — all steps to reduce waste. Some are sent for further processing into products such as canned tomatoes, tomato paste, or pizza sauces. Other tomatoes are shipped whole to clients such as grocery stores and restaurants, and these are packaged individually before delivery.

 “Plastic packaging is an important part of transporting because of the nature of our product; they’re wet, and they tend to decay,” says DeMaso of Lipman Family Farms. DeMaso has consulted with packaging experts and determined that cardboard would result in too much lost and increased costs. “The problem [with cardboard boxes] is they fall apart when wet. With the humidity in Florida, the change in temperature with cold storage from a truck… it isn’t conducive. Plastic holds up well in a variety of conditions.”

The packaging containing whole tomatoes for grocers, such as clamshell containers or shrink wrap, is often one-time use plastic, because you will throw the packaging away after you get the tomatoes home. But, the truth is that plastic packaging for this purpose is not just extremely cost-effective but also safer. “Single-use plastic is hard to get rid of when sending to consumers in the produce industry,” says DeMaso. “We need to make sure food safety and sanitation are on-point, so we’re not trading contaminants. Disposable plastic is a problem, [so] it’s a matter of making sure we are using as little as possible.”

But most tomatoes aren’t sent whole to grocers. Rather, they’re processed into the sauces, soups, and meals we all enjoy. For this purpose, many packinghouses rely on intermediate bulk containers. These containers, known as IBCs, are essentially large, plastic boxes on pallet bases. They’re designed for liquid-based products and able to hold over 300 gallons of tomato juices, slurries, sauces, soups, and pastes. Their square designs, high load capacities, and multi-year reusability make IBCs far superior to traditional barrels and tanks for large quantities of tomato products. Today, they’re used for everything from salsas to juices. 

Plastic food packaging can keep costs down for the consumer while ensuring the food stays fresh and protected, which reduces food waste. Plastic packaging is also better for addressing food safety concerns because it provides a protective barrier against germs and UV light. And again, as plastic is nonporous, it is far less likely for mold or bacteria to grow within the packaging while being shipped. 

Distribution 

Distribution Packaging Solutions for Fresh Produce Tomatoes

Separate from consumer packaging, however, are the pallets and large containers into which the consumer products are placed, stored, and shipped. It’s an arena that often is unseen on the consumer side but bears tremendous environmental and financial implications. Fortunately, there are a lot of green products at play. 

Many grocers now rely on reusable plastic containers (known as “RPCs” in the industry) to distribute and display loose produce or large quantities of smaller packages. These lightweight, foldable containers often comprise the “shelves” of produce displays. They’re easily stacked and shipped on equally reusable plastic pallets — a far safer and less wasteful alternative to single-use cardboard boxes and wooden pallets. 

Schadler of the Florida Tomato Exchange and Florida Tomato Committee explains how important RPCs are in this stage of the tomato lifecycle. “Once they come in from the field bins, they get delivered to the packinghouse, cleaned and sorted, [then] the tomatoes get packed into RPCs and sent directly to customers. The RPC is used directly in the grocery store or restaurant level.” Once emptied, RPCs are designed to fold flat, stack neatly, and be sent back to their original point of origin — whether it be a farm, factory, or distributor.

Many tomato farmers and distributors also use plastic shipping pallets that are far lighter and take up much less vertical space than traditional pallets. These plastic pallets can weigh as little as 10 pounds and many styles are designed to “nest” into one another when they’re empty and stacked. It’s an ideal cost-savings measure for when pallets are sent back to be reused.

“It’s a closed-loop system, and they’re cost-effective,” says Ed Treacy, Vice President of Supply Chain and Sustainability at the Produce Marketing Association. A closed-looped system means that all the materials, from pallets to RPCs, used to ship the products are sent back to their source to be reused. This means no materials are wasted in the process. This method of using plastic to ship is very cost-effective, helping to keep overall costs down.

Again, the strength and durability of plastic make this a preferable material. With plastic’s nonporous nature, it does not absorb bacteria, awarding it a safer bet against its cardboard or wooden cousin.

For international transit, especially, plastic is preferable because the supply chain is longer. The durability of plastic, as opposed to wood, means the containers are better suited for a long journey, even with hundreds of pounds of produce stacked on top of them. Plastic is often also easier to pass through international customs, as they’re naturally less likely to harbor dangerous germs, molds, or other contaminants.

A Sustainable Option

Reusable Retail Supply Chain Packaging

Now the tomato has made it to from the retail store to your kitchen or onto your dinner plate at a restaurant. The process repeats itself throughout the country. 

All the plastics used to grow, harvest, ship, store, process, and sell the tomatoes are reusable, but eventually, these containers will break down and need replacing. Fortunately, plastics can be recycled and made into other products, instead of being tossed in a landfill.

Meanwhile, wood pallets and treated cardboard boxes are not as easily recycled. Some softwood pallets can be ground down into mulch, but many end up in landfills. As for hardwood pallets, they are even less sustainable because the trees needed to create these pallets do not grow as quickly as the pallets break down. And the treated cardboard boxes? Many are destined for landfills.

“You’ve got to look at the impact to the environment to using these bins versus using the alternative packaging,” says Treacy of the Produce Marketing Association.

Throughout the lifecycle of a tomato, reusable plastics help to:

  • Keep costs down for both the farmers and the consumers
  • Yield bigger, higher-quality crops
  • Ensure food safety
  • Maintain food freshness
  • Cut down on food waste
  • Reduce the carbon footprint caused by the agriculture industry 
  • Reduce the number of wood pallets and cardboard boxes that end up in landfills

Looking at all of these advantages, it becomes clear why reusable plastics have become a staple not just for agricultural supply chains but also for supply chains in nearly every industry. Of course, agricultural shipping has additional concerns when it comes to maintaining food safety. Luckily, plastics are also the ideal solution for these concerns, while also being the sustainable option.

Food Packaging Supply Chain for Tomatoes Infographic

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