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Corrugated container reaps sweet rewards for Chilean grape grower

Prohens switches from wooden crates to corrugated boxes to pack grapes for export. Lighter box provides protection, speeds set-up and reduces labor costs for Chilean grape grower.
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FILED IN:  Applications  > Food  > Produce
     

Much of the produce exported from Chile is packed in wood boxes that capably protect the perishables in shipment. Upon arrival in the U.S. from the dockside pier to the supermarket's produce department the wood crate becomes an obstacle to easy handling and efficient disposal. G. Prohens A. Intl. a Chilean grower with U.S. offices in Washington D.C. ships 600 boxes (8.2 kilos in weight or 18 lb) of table grapes to the U.S. during the November to February harvest period. Responding to its U.S. customers' needs Prohens believes the solution is an unusual corrugated container designed by International Paper's Container Division (Memphis TN). "The Prohens family business has always used wooden crates for grape shipments" says company president Bernard Bramson. "But as more supermarkets demand corrugated rather than wood we've provided the grapes in the new boxes" he says. "And they're selling so why not continue to use them?" In 1993 Prohens tested corrugated grape boxes that were made by a supplier in South Africa. "The container was good" notes Bramson "but it had few vents and so it took a long time to drop the temperature of the grapes inside the box to just above freezing which maintains optimum grape quality. With wood there were a lot of vents that allowed air to get inside the crate." In early '94 Prohens converted to IP's box. The 8.2-kilo box's approximate setup dimensions are 19 1/2" L x 12 1/4" W x 5 3/4" D. The single-wall 300#-test C-flute corrugated box comprises 69# mottled white outer liner/36# medium/74# Pineliner(TM) (for agricultural applications). Unlike its corrugated predecessor from South Africa the IP box includes "ventilation holes" more than 25 in fact located on top bottom side and end panels. The vents allow cooled air to enter during transit on refrigerated ships and in store coolers. And while air doesn't actually circulate through the grapes themselves the air contact does benefit the fruit. Multiple benefits Bramson admits that the new boxes are a bit costlier than wood but he adds that those costs are more than offset by a variety of benefits for Prohens and end-use customers. These benefits include: * A 20% reduction in container weight which also reduces the amount of materials introduced into the waste stream. * A 15 to 20% reduction in labor costs. This is attributable to faster setup and to eliminating the use of nails or a staple gun to erect the wood crate and lid. * Improved quality control process during harvesting. This is possible by transferring workers from wood case setup to inspecting grapes in the field. * Equal to if not better protection during transit. * Easier disposal for supermarkets and improved odds of recycling. Easy to pack Prohens grows a wide variety of grapes near the northern Chile towns of Vicuna and Ovalle. Between 200 and 600 workers pick and pack grapes between late November and early February for sale to the U.S. from December through February. (Mexico is a primary supplier of U.S. grapes in the Spring; California provides grapes from June through November.) Until last year Prohens used about 30 workers to build the wooden crates. Workers hammered in nails and used rudimentary staplers during assembly. Beside the occasional splintering this process was labor-intensive. "The paper box is much easier to put together and we've been able to put people who were assembling wood crates into the vineyards where they help during harvesting" explains Bramson. "As a result the quality of the fruit we deliver is better. We didn't eliminate any labor but we lowered our packaging-related labor costs by 15 to 20 percent with this box." Quicker box setup also benefits workers who are paid by the number of boxes they erect and pack. Empack Ltd. (Santiago Chile) a packaging trading company acquires the knocked-down boxes as well as packing materials used within the box from various suppliers. To pack grapes at Chile Prohens workers manually erect the box. This is done within seconds by opening side flaps then securing end flaps into the sides with self-locking tabs. These self-locking tabs require no adhesives so the box is easier to recycle. Workers insert into the box a large 1.3- to 1.5-mil low-density polyethylene bag supplied by Empack printed with the Prohens logo. Approximately 10 bunches of grapes each packed into smaller 1.8- to 2.0-mil vented LDPE bags are loaded into the box. An absorbent paper pad is set on top to capture excess moisture. Above the paper pad workers place a sulfur dioxide pad that absorbs ethylene gas in the box. This prevents fungus growth. Finally the large LDPE bag is folded over the top. Workers then close the top flaps using locking tabs at the flap ends. The corner post design improves the container's compression strength to add crush resistance. Boxes are hand-palletized in quantities of 96 eight boxes per layer 12 layers per pallet. End-user advantages Most of Prohens' U.S. shipments (it also supplies 400 smaller boxes of grapes to Europe) go to four distributors in the Port of Philadelphia. Harold Sbrocco president of Sbrocco Intl. a Marlton N.J. distributor says the new boxes "arrive in even more satisfactory condition than wood which had minimal damage. The vast majority of fruit shipped from Chile is still in wood but more corrugated is used every year. "The corrugated makes it a little easier for us to get into when we inspect the fruit. With wood we have to use a hammer to pry open the tops which occasionally break" Sbrocco says. "Then we have to repair them and that takes more time." Sbrocco's Dave Garren adds: "We keep boxes in cold-storage facilities that have 90- to 95-percent humidity and the corrugated performs beautifully. There is no collapsing condensation or moisture buildup whereas wooden boxes tend to collapse more readily. Customers are now requesting corrugated and some will not accept anything else." Vons Companies a large California-based supermarket chain with 340 stores in that state and in Nevada orders the corrugated boxes direct from Chile. The lighter weight helps meet Los Angeles County goals which call for a 25% reduction in solid waste this year and a 50% reduction by 2000. "If we don't comply we could face fines" states Vons's Richard Spezzano. "And our tipping fees for landfilling keep going way up so we're reducing them with these boxes." Another financial incentive for Vons is that instead of paying for wood crates to be picked up for disposal Vons receives income from the sale of corrugated to recyclers. "We bale corrugated including these boxes in-store" says Spezzano. "Market prices for corrugated have gone up dramatically in the last two years so these provide income for us. Additionally the boxes are strong and we've had no problems with arriving grapes." "The Prohens family is very picky when it comes to quality produce and reducing waste" Bramson summarizes. "These boxes are about 20 percent lighter than the wood crates and can be recycled. We continue to work with International Paper to fine-tune them even further. This season we tested about 14 boxes that use less paper and yet are stronger than the wood. It's a better box that results in less waste."

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