Plastic is a ‘dirty word’ in the consumer world. Many associate it with one-time-use bottles, trash, and other unnecessary waste that clogs up landfills and pollutes our environment.
Despite these connotations, plastic can actually play an important role in building more sustainable fresh food distribution operations for grocery chains and supermarkets.
How? Most groceries especially in North America still ship produce in cardboard containers, which are often thrown out after a single-use. But some savvy grocers utilize reusable plastic crates (RPCs). RPCs can be reused thousands of times, replacing cardboard boxes as the method of transport for fresh produce, from the farm to the store shelf. RPC’s have a cyclical lifecycle since they can be used over-and-over again from field to warehouse.
These plastic crates are easy to handle, easy to clean, and easy to integrate with automated solutions—which is particularly crucial as more grocers automate to provide high-quality fresh food and fast, low-cost services.
Let’s look in detail at a few key benefits of RPCs for the fresh food industry:
1. Improving product quality with gentle handling
As mentioned above, grocers around the world are beginning to implement automation in their distribution centers to streamline operations, reduce costs, boost speed, and fill labor gaps.
RPCs are a logical match for automation! Form factors for RPCs are standardized, making it simple to set up any automated solution to move with no slowdowns. The rigid plastic makes handling easy once automated systems are configured to match their specifications, and it also protects produce from damage.
Grocery automation is already popular in Europe, where some grocers have installed complete automation systems in their logistics centers, with climate-controlled zones for perishable foods—which are all carried to the customer with RPCs! Spanish supermarket giant Mercadona, for example, has matched automation and RPCs for excellent results.
Mercadona first invested in fresh food automation when building a new distribution center in Guadix, Granada. Mercadona’s system automates the picking of full crates of fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat—safely handling around 300 different SKUs in up to 30,000 plastic crates each day.
Through automation, the distribution center prepares orders for 82 stores in just six hours, keeping shelves stocked with the freshest products for consumers. After experiencing these benefits in Guadix, Mercadona has begun implementing automation in four of its newest distribution centers.
Francisco López, Mercadona’s Managing Director of Logistics and Fruit and Vegetables Purchasing, said
“Perishable food has to be treated differently in the handling process—from the field to the shelf—in order to guarantee its freshness. This requires a fundamental change to our supply chain. The new robotic systems we are implementing guarantee minimal handling time and therefore optimum product freshness.”
Managing any tote shape and model
2. Reduced food waste
It’s no secret that an enormous amount of food is wasted every year along the supply chain (and maybe even in your fridge!). Much of this waste is generated due to product damage before food ever even reaches consumers.
Cardboard containers—and the fresh food inside of them—can be easily damaged by pressure and impacts during the distribution process. On top of that, cardboard is vulnerable to moisture and humidity, which can degrade the quality and shelf life of fresh produce.
RPCs, on the other hand, are much more durable and unaffected by moisture. They better protect fresh food from physical impacts and environmental factors as crates are stored, picked, packed, and shipped. Less damage, of course, means less waste and higher-quality products for consumers.
High quality fresh food – no food waste
3. More sustainable supply chains
RPCs can also help grocers and fresh food distributors minimize their environmental impact, beyond food waste. This is particularly important for today’s environmentally conscious businesses, that are looking to take steps to reduce their carbon footprints and working towards a circular supply chain strategy.
Corrugated cardboard boxes used to transport produce are thrown away after use, generating a significant amount of waste over time. But RPCs can travel the entire journey from when produce is picked, to when it is purchased—and then sent back to do it over and over again. Overall, grocers can reduce their CO2 emissions by adopting an automated solution based on a circular RPC chain model.
In addition, RPCs result in less water usage. Water-recycling technology is used to wash the plastic crates between uses, reducing environmental impact. The production of single-use packing systems uses 80% more water during their lifecycle due to heavy water use during production and in the recycling and disposal phases, regardless of their recycled content.
With RPCs, grocers can reduce packaging waste and resource consumption across their supply chains, becoming true community members that place an emphasis on sustainability.
Mix of plastic totes and cardboard boxes
Overhead gantry with mixed case handling
4. Improved safety & hygiene
Safety is paramount for warehouse workers and staff in the grocery distribution chain. But cardboard boxes can vary in size and shape, as well as lose their shape as they warp over time. This makes for precariously stacked loads that are difficult to move or transport safely.
Since RPCs come in standardized sizes and have a rigid structure, they are much easier to store and stack securely. They can also be broken down to be shipped safely back to suppliers. And when coupled with automation, ergonomic risks and safety hazards are further reduced. The result is safer working environments where staff no longer have to keep a constant eye out for falling loads or spend their days bending and lifting heavy boxes. Safer conditions, in turn, lead to higher employee retention.
The combination of RPCs and modular automation systems also helps improve another aspect of safety—food safety. Individual automation modules can be emptied for cleaning, without interrupting the flow of operations.
As Jarno Honkanen, our Director of Solution Development has explained,
“Overhead gantry robots handle food crates that are stacked on the floor—there is no need for an expensive shelving system. This is also essential for food safety. During cleaning, crates can be moved to another module or stacked under the gantry robot to clear the floor. An empty floor is easy to clean, which ensures a high standard of hygiene.”
High tote stacks
Move piles to clean the area
Recycling rewards everyone, so make a sustainable choice!
The modern consumer keeps sustainability in mind when choosing how and where they shop. Businesses that work towards safe, sustainable practices and start reducing their environmental impact today, will win the loyalty of tomorrow’s grocery shoppers.
At Cimcorp we are committed to designing innovative solutions that are driven by sustainable practices across the fresh grocery supply chain. The incorporation of RPCs with Cimcorp’s solutions can truly make an impact on sustainability, while streamlining operations even further to offer only the freshest produce across all storefronts.
Now is the time for grocers to make the sustainable choice. When planning for an automation implementation or upgrade, ask Cimcorp how they can keep your operations fresher than ever.
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