My first full week with Global Green’s Coalition for Resource Recovery (CoRR) included a June 8 trip to Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where we had the first in our series of “Follow that Box” field trips. Our mission is simple but challenging: most cardboard boxes used to ship produce to restaurants and stores cannot be recycled because of the coating on the boxes–and we need to find a way to change that. These visits are meant to bring coating manufacturers, box makers, and farmers together with the purpose of allowing each representative of the box lifecycle to see first-hand how the farmers utilize the coated cardboard boxes. The goal of the trip was to further spark innovation and communication for future product development in recyclable-coated cardboard boxes, ultimately making the lifecycle of this product more sustainable.
Transfer packaging is what we call an invisible environmental problem. The coating on cardboard boxes makes them water-resistant and strengthens them, but it makes them non-recyclable. Because these non-recyclable boxes are discarded by the grocery store after transporting food from the farm, the problem is invisible to most consumers. But it’s a big issue for farmers and grocers, who end up paying large landfilling fees to dispose of the boxes.
The farmers we met with were excited to have us visit and eager to share their experiences with us. Best of all, they were open to our idea of making boxes with coatings that would be recyclable. Seeing first-hand how they use boxes for shipping of their produce helped us understand how important this is for their business. A very significant fraction of a farmer’s overall costs goes to paying for these boxes–and for landfilling fees to dispose of them.
When a farmer chooses a box supplier, durability is their number one priority. Most produce is packed in the field, which is first irrigated so the produce will appear fresher when picked. As the produce is packed, ice is placed inside the boxes to keep greens from going limp in the extreme heat. Once packed, the boxes are quickly removed from the fields and brought to the coolers. The coolers provide a very harsh environment for the boxes, as they tend to be damp and extremely cold. We saw many different types of coolers and variations on how produce is stored. One of the toughest tests of box endurance came was when ice was placed in the boxes and also on top of the boxes, adding an incredible amount of weight and moisture. The boxes that we followed were moved an average of five times–with the produce remaining in the same box it was originally packaged in until it is made available to the consumer. Because the farmer guarantees a product up to delivery, the box must maintain its structure and protect its contents up until that point.
During our tour of the farms, we saw two examples of produce being boxed. First up: beets. We witnessed a car wash-type mechanism for beets that were power-washed and completely drenched before being placed in boxes for shipment. You could clearly see how much water was inside the box to maintain the freshness of the vegetable. The inside of the cardboard box was even hosed down before the beets were placed inside, highlighting the need for a water-resistant coating. Next, we watched a dandelion field being harvested. Beside the field was a pickup truck full of five-pound bags of ice. As the harvesters bundled the dandelion, a worker would gather the bundles and box them up and place a five-pound bag of ice in the center of the box, which would rapidly melt in the extreme heat of the day. As soon as there were enough boxes in the field, the boxes would be quickly stacked on a trailer and driven to the cooler.
This trip was incredibly educational for both the Global Green team and its CoRR members and will help us achieve our goal of redesigning and closing the loop on the 1.36 million tons of transfer packaging landfilled every year in the U.S. Our next “Follow That Box” trip is to the Salinas Valley…