Plastic vs. Corrugated

By Lisa White

Both plastic and corrugated containers offer a number of benefits in the meat and poultry processing industry.

For meat and poultry processors who are looking to determine whether plastic or corrugated containers will best meet their needs, there are many aspects to consider and questions to ask before making a decision.
First, companies need to consider how these containers will be used. Some materials are more suitable than others for certain applications. Also, processors want to consider pricing of these containers. Many container suppliers will put together a cost analysis that breaks down the financial commitment of their products.
Other things to consider when deciding on container material are space requirements, sanitation, durability, recycling and environmental factors as well as flexibility in use.
Both plastic and corrugated containers offer a number of benefits for meat and poultry processors.
Plastic positives
For processors looking for a sturdy, continuous-use container, plastic should be considered.
“Processors need to meet the demands of their large retail clients and improve their razor-thin bottom lines. Reusable Plastic Containers, or RPCs, are becoming a driver to both of these issues,” says Dennis Williams, national sales manager for Norseman Plastics, based in Osage City, Kan. Williams says the U.S. meat industry has been slow to accept the benefits of RPCs.
“This is, in large part, due to fears of loss and control of RPCs,” he says. “Canada has converted 95 percent of the proteins to RPC over the past 10 years, while the U.S. has, until recently, only one large retail chain, Kroger, following the trend for case-ready meat.”
However, Wal-Mart’s commitment to Environmental Sustainability has helped bring RPCs to the forefront in the meat-processing industry.
“RPCs control and reduce costs, while improving plant, distribution-center and store efficiency,” Williams says. “Coupled with the proliferation of RFID, RPCs are the paradigm shift for cost control.”
Norseman offers several models of WIP (Work In Process) bins and lids, along with case-ready RPCs in several models with multiple heights. Williams says these containers offer product protection to help reduce product damage, in addition to cold-chain dwell reduction.
“For further processing, quick freezing in RPCs will reduce freezer dwell by 75 percent, resulting in significant energy costs and increased throughput,” he says.
FiberTech in Huntingburg, Ind., has been in the plastic container business for almost two decades. According to Bill Scott, president, the company designs plastic containers for the poultry and red-meat industries.
“For bulk product, we offer fold-down containers and also one-piece designs that can be easily washed,” he says. “Our lines are ergonomically designed and have lids. They also offer nesting capabilities.”
The company also recycles plastic and offers custom-designed material-handling products.
Depending on the operation, plastic containers can provide a lower cost per use than corrugated. To determine if this material is a good fit for processors, FiberTech will provide spreadsheets for customers outlining the cost breakdowns. These charts also break out freight on a cost-per-use basis, showing how long it will take processors to retain their original investment.
“When we do cost an analysis, it provides the details of the return on their investment,” says Blair Rohleder, sales manager. “In some instances, it’s amazing. For example, if a processor purchases thousands of containers, the initial cost may be high, but the return on investment can be 90 days. I’ve seen cases where a $600,000 investment is paid for in 60 days.”
Scott concurs that, when looking at containers on a per-use basis, plastic typically ends up being less costly for many processors. For example, if a company is spending $15 a unit to package meat in bulk for pallets, plastic combination containers will cost $1 per use, or just $300 when used 300 times. “Corrugated containers have additional costs for the bag liner and assembly, so the price would be higher per use.”
When preparing cost-outs for companies, Scott says sometimes the numbers justify using plastic containers, and sometimes they do not. It depends on the product the container will be used with and the type of container that is needed.
“Because plastic containers are sold by the pound, larger containers that weigh more will be more costly,” Scott says. “We will let our customers know if they won’t see a huge payback with plastic.”
Some plastic container suppliers offer leasing programs for their products, which can help offset costs.
“We have a lease program where we prorate out costs,” Scott says. “So, if a customer needs 1,000 containers, we can put together a lease program that includes maintenance. In most cases, leases on the container payment are less than what processors are paying for one week of using corrugated containers.”
As sturdy as plastic is, these containers are not indestructible. Thus, many suppliers offer repair programs for their products.
“We can do repairs on our containers if it is damaged with a forklift truck or during use,” Scott says. “The containers can be fixed for a third of the price of purchasing a new one.”
Along with cost, another factor to consider is mileage and location of the plants.
“Most of the time when we compare corrugated to plastic, we take a look at the mileage to see if it is too high to be feasible to return the plastic containers. If plants are 1,000 miles apart, plastic is cost-prohibitive to return,” Scott says.
According to Williams, cost-per-trip packaging proposals that include lease/rental and supply-chain management services will accelerate conversion to these containers. “A cost per-trip price allows retailers and processors to easily quantify cost savings and justify the conversion to returnables,” he says.
The return ratio for FiberTech’s plastic containers is 40 percent. “This means that if I have two containers going out, depending on the size, I can stack [full containers] two-high inside of a full truck. … When the containers are empty, I can accommodate five containers high, because they will be nesting one inside of the other,” Scott says.
Different forms and sizes also have a bearing on container and equipment costs. The Returnable Pallet and Container Coalition (RPCC) has brought retailers, processors and packaging providers together to develop a consensus on product form and size. Williams says the meat sub-committee has settled on a 2420 footprint and nesting design.
“A consistent product size and form will allow meat processors to develop processing equipment standards for their operations [to better automate their operations],” he says.
Corrugated conveniences
Like plastic, corrugated containers offer many advantages. This material offers additional flexibility because it can be more easily custom-designed for a company’s specific needs. It also is environmentally friendly, since many manufacturers construct these containers out of recycled materials. Cheryl Gregson, marketing director, protein, at Weyerhaeuser Containerboard says her company’s primary product is corrugated packaging.
“In some cases, you see it used in club stores as the primary retail packaging,” she says.
The containers are manufactured in Weyerhaeuser’s facilities and glued together but shipped to its customers flat and bundled on a pallet. The pallets and bundles are placed at different ends of the meat processor’s finishing line and fed into the mechanical packaging system (MPS) or set up by hand. Then they are filled, taped and shipped out of the plant to their destination. Many of Weyerhaeuser’s products can be used with MPSs.
“The MPS could be variable,” Gregson says. “For instance, if a retailer requires RFID tags, we can support this.”
Corrugated container suppliers also may assist companies in putting machinery in place and servicing it. In addition, Weyerhaeuser provides services to make sure boxes will be set up, glued or closed.
These container suppliers offer certain standard styles, but even regular slotted containers, or RSCs, can be custom-designed to fit customers’ specific product size. Gregson says the benefits offered by these containers can be seen at different points in the supply chain.
“For meat processors, this packaging can be custom-designed for every use. It is not a one-size-fits-all product. We look at the facility, supply chain or cold chain and how the product will be moved to consumers. We then custom-design the package so it works with the product and within the company,” she says.
Secondly, because corrugated containers are custom-designed, they provide added flexibility. “We can easily change the container and do different things with print, based on where the product is going. This allows for manufacturing flexibility within an organization,” Gregson explains. This also creates an opportunity for a nice billboard effect, she says.
“It is another way for processors and retailers to convey their products to the end consumer,” Gregson says. “The retail side of our business provides corrugated tray designs that can be used in freezer cases to hold pouches, or in club stores for displaying. Consumers also can take product home in these containers. They can provide a marketing tool in the retail environment.”
In many cases, because of their custom design, corrugated containers can be more cost-effective through the supply chain. This is because they are more lightweight than their plastic counterparts, so companies can pack more in trucks for transporting. This also saves on energy and gas.
Although these types of containers are typically used once, they can be reused within plants when container liners are added. Several industries reuse corrugated containers in closed-loop distribution systems such as spare parts, inter-store movements, snack foods and beverages. Many bulk containers for frozen food and resin are reused multiple times.
When the containers are deemed single-use in processing plants, container manufacturers like Weyerhaeuser will provide bailers and pay companies for the waste coming out that gets re-used. “We provide bailers for their facilities for container recycling,” Gregson says.
Recycling has become a big issue with both the public and retailers. It is being driven by Wal-Mart, which has been publicizing the fact that they are doing what they can to have a sustainable business.
“Because Wal-Mart is making this an issue with their suppliers, many meat processors are responding by using recyclable packaging from a renewable resource,” Gregson says.
Because corrugated containers are recyclable and made from recycled materials, they score points as being environmentally friendly. It is estimated that approximately 93 percent of all corrugated boxes in the U.S. get recycled.
According to the American Forest and Paper Association, a national trade association of forest, paper and wood products, while there are many uses for OCC (old corrugated containers), its industry puts 61 percent of all recovered OCC back into new corrugated containers. The average corrugated box is comprised of about 43 percent recovered fibers.
“This is the hot topic of the year,” Gregson says. “This is a product that helps our customers and processors do something that makes sense from an environmental standpoint.”
Weyerhaeuser’s containers are produced from recycled fiber. “We don’t make boxes out of trees, but these containers are a byproduct of the lumber used for houses and other projects. Consequently, these containers are derived from a renewable source,” Gregson says.
Another hot button with using these containers in the meat-processing industry is, because the items they contain are wet and processed in a humid environment, some corrugated containers must contain wax for added durability. This is either impregnated as part of the paper process or is sprayed on the box after it is manufactured. The problem is, once wax is added, the container cannot be recycled.
“Fortunately, boxes with wax encompass only five percent of the corrugated containers used in the U.S.,” Gregson says.
Still, she says corrugated container companies are responding to the needs of meat-processing plants by developing new technologies and innovations to suit their environments. Coatings are now being marketed that are recyclable, and the industry has developed a test protocol that, when passed, allows them to be labeled as such and placed into the OCC recycle stream.
“In some cases, it is the coatings [we can adapt]. We also can encapsulate boxes with removable liners so the container can still be recycled,” Gregson explains.
Weyerhaeuser created its Clima Series, a wax-free line of containers designed to withstand the cold chain, refrigerated temperatures and humidity.
Outlining all of the variables when deciding on whether plastic or corrugated containers will be best for an operation will help determine which is the most cost-effective and sensible option.