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July/August 2009
Feature

Testing Produce Packages

Research Considers Protection and the Environment

From oranges to okra, peppers to pineapple, produce travels from far-flung farms to your local supermarket thanks to its packaging — packaging that typically consists of corrugated fiberboard boxes.

Long a staple of shipping fresh goods, among many other products, those familiar brown boxes consist of a wavy or “fluted” layer sandwiched between two smooth “liner” sheets. These durable, reusable containers also continue to be the subject of research at California Polytechnic State University’s Orfalea College of Business, San Luis Obsipo, by Jay Singh, Ph.D., associate professor of industrial technology and vice chair of Division I, ASTM International Committee D10 on Packaging.

Recently the professor, who researches many types of packaging as well as the effects of transportation and handling on it, used ASTM International standards to test some new produce box designs named for Ray Kisch, their inventor.

His plan? Check the packages’ capacity to keep fruits and vegetables in their as-picked condition and evaluate the anticipated material savings of the new designs.

Singh first met Kisch at a Cal Poly business seminar, and their acquaintance led to earlier testing of Kisch’s innovations. With this project, Singh, a former research associate and instructor at Michigan State University’s School of Packaging, where he also earned his Ph.D. and M.S. degrees, investigated two new box styles to determine if the predicted environmental and carbon footprint advantage could be quantified.

Produce, Packaging and the Environment

Consumer demand for fresh foods, resulting from declining household size and changing eating habits in the United States, has increased in recent years, as has the availability of produce in number, form and quantity. Consequently, the demand for appropriate packaging has also increased. If not destined for the local market, the produce travels from the farm through wholesalers, wholesalers-retailers, exporters and importers to its final retail or institutional destination in packaging that needs to withstand compression, shock, vibration, temperature creep and humidity.

Corrugated shippers can do that. This packaging’s popularity also comes from other factors: it’s practical, useful and economical; it also lends itself to custom designs and to graphic merchandising. Together with other retail products, according to estimates by the International Corrugated Packaging Foundation, corrugated packaging carries approximately 90 percent of goods (produce and other consumer items) in the United States.

This sort of packaging also carries another benefit given today’s growing concern for the environment. Corrugated packaging is both renewable and recyclable. According to the International Corrugated Fiberboard Foundation, corrugated boxes now on average contain 43 percent recycled content. In addition, earth-friendly inks and decreased use of formaldehyde add to the material’s attractiveness. Singh notes that organizations dealing with packaging and its substrates, whether glass, metal, plastic or paper, are all considering how to reduce their environmental impact. Within ASTM Committee D10, new Subcommittee D10.19 on Sustainability and Recycling will develop standards for package reuse, recycling and disposal. Standards for basic materials are excluded where covered by other groups.

Box Design and Tests

The seeming simplicity of a box could be deceptive. As Singh says, “Don’t just think ‘a box is a box.’ It’s a little more than a box. It’s a very highly engineered structure in both materials and design.”

Produce boxes typically fall into one of three categories:

  • Slotted styles generally made from one piece of corrugated or solid fiberboard (a style also seen packed with office supplies, for example),
  • Telescoping containers that generally consist of a separate top or a top and bottom that fit over each other or a separate body, and
  • Rigid or Bliss boxes, which include two identical end panels and a body that forms the side and bottom panels as well as the top.
Box designs

Figure 1 — Box designs evaluated in study (left to right): telescoping half slotted container, Kisch full circle tray, diagonal corner Bliss, and single V Kisch Bliss

For his recent research on the new Kisch corrugated container designs, Singh studied the Kisch full circle tray, a replacement design for the telescoping half slotted container style, and the single V Kisch Bliss box, a replacement design for the diagonal corner Bliss style.

The research compared the two Kisch designs with currently used boxes: the diagonal corner Bliss style, which features corrugated fiberboard diagonals across the inside box corners for strength, and the telescoping half slotted box, with a top that slides over the bottom and includes a central seam (Figure 1).

To determine the utility of the Kisch designs, Singh turned to ASTM D642, Test Method for Determining Compressive Resistance of Shipping Containers, Components and Unit Loads, and ASTM D4332, Practice for Conditioning Containers, Packages or Packaging Components for Testing — two essential standards in the industry developed and maintained by Committee D10.

Originally published more than 60 years ago, D642 is still the standard that is used for compression testing and is commonly used to measure a container’s ability to resist external compressive loads applied at various angles to the box. The results indicate the ability of a box to successfully survive the forces it encounters during storage and distribution.

D4332 compiles procedures that simulate field conditions encountered by containers or other packaging, particularly those made from corrugated or other cellulosic materials, during use. The standard applies both to multiple containers or unit loads as well as individual cases or components. Compression tests check the boxes’ response after standard, refrigerated and tropical conditioning — environments encountered by packed produce boxes along the way from the field to family.

Quantifiable Results

To determine just how the Kisch designs stacked up against the existing ones, Singh took the conditioning and compression test results, and information determined by using the Environmental Defense Fund Paper Calculator, a Web-based tool that provides numbers for environmental benefits based on choices for the box material. Based on publicly available averages and research about the life-cycle environmental impacts of paper production and disposal, the calculator takes into account material use, energy use, and environmental discharges and wastes.

Using the paper calculator, the research demonstrated energy savings, improved natural resource use, greenhouse gas reduction and waste reduction.

From the research, Singh concluded:

  • The Kisch FCT boxes were approximately 17 percent weaker than the existing designs while providing material savings of more than 14 percent;
  • The single V Kisch Bliss boxes were approximately 14 percent stronger while providing material savings of more than 19 percent; and
  • The diagonal corner Bliss boxes were approximately 9 percent weaker while providing material savings of almost 22 percent.

The research also demonstrated that the deflection, indicative of possible side and bottom bulging of the boxes under compression, was considerably lower for the two Kisch replacement designs and the diagonal corner Bliss style as compared to that for the telescoping HSC boxes. The lower peak deflection values are expected due to the reinforcing V columns incorporated in the new designs as well as the diagonal corner Bliss style boxes.

The study shows that the proposed alternate designs can provide adequate, if not better, stacking strength as demonstrated with ASTM D642 and D4332 while using considerably less material in their construction. A further addition of integral, interior dividers reduces the bulge in the bottom of the box, an additional source of fruit and vegetable damage.

Overall, when considering the hundreds of millions of boxes produced in the United States, the new designs offer considerable material savings potential. In turn, that savings translates to significant energy savings, relative optimization of natural resources and reductions in both greenhouse gas emissions and wastes.

As Singh says, “By making changes to the design, you can actually achieve your environmental stewardship goals.”

 

Jay Singh, Ph.D., is an associate professor of industrial technology at Orfalea College of Business, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Calif., and vice chair of Division 1 in ASTM International Committee D10 on Packaging.