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Combating waste

New cardboard boxes cut down fruit and vegetable losses

A new set of cardboard packages is now available for the whole productive chain of fruit and vegetables. They are boxes that are more suited to the fragility of these products, reducing the losses caused by storage and transport problems. The objective is to avoid the fruit and vegetable losses, which ranges from 10% to 30%, according to the product.

The novelty has been developed in partnership between Cetea, the Technological Packaging Center, of Ital, the Institute of the Technology of Foodstuffs, of Campinas, and the ABPO, the Brazilian Association of Corrugated Board, with the support of Fapesp. The project, the Development of Systems of Packaging of Corrugated Cardboard for Fruit and Vegetables, is part of the PITE program, of Partnership for Technological Innovation. It has received R$ 41,000 from the ABPO and US$ 52,000 from the Foundation. The ABPO has collaborated actively on the technical discussions and made the various prototypes of cardboard boxes that were assessed in the course of the project.

The study that came out from he partnership, which began in 1998 and ended last year, drew up and approved three models of cardboard boxes to meet the needs of the market (the first 596 millimeters long, 396 mm wide, and 160 mm high, the second measuring 495x295x160 mm, and the third, 397x294x146 mm). The three new packages were designed to hold seven products: tomatoes, oranges, grapes, eggplants, cucumbers, peaches and carrots. They were chosen by the ABPO in partnership with Cetea, according to the main consumer demand. In principle, these boxes may be used for other products, like strawberries and papaya, but this possibility has not yet been assessed.

In Brazil, the system of packaging for fruit and vegetable is currently dominated by the old type K wooden box, made of low quality material. The use of this product goes back to the days when there was no electricity in the country, and the source of energy for lighting was kerosene. The boxes used for transporting this fuel were reused for fruit, vegetables and greens packaging. Kerosene has practically been retired from Brazilians’ lives, but the boxes continued to be made, and can be found easily in street, retail, and wholesale markets.

The problem with the K box is the damage it causes the products. A stall holder who sells tomatoes, for example, loses up to 30% of the product, due to the damage caused by unsuitable packaging, which squashes the products transported making them useless.  This makes the consumers pay higher prices, with the cost of the losses added to prices. The corrugated cardboard boxes developed in the study can also be used by retailers, as they have a good appearance, are easy to carry, and to put on the shelves in the shops and in consumers homes.

Less aggressive
“Corrugated cardboard is the most suitable packaging for fruit, as it minimizes losses”, says ABPO’s president, Sérgio Peres.   He thinks that the cardboard box has a number of important characteristics that preserve fruit quality. “They are disposable, which inhibits disease and fungus propagation, and the boxes are easier to handle, minimizing the costs of the system with storage, freight and labor.”

Although more hygienic and less aggressive to the fruit, vegetables and greens, the cardboard box, it seems, loses to the K box under the heading of costs. The two kinds of box, when able to carry 15 kilos of fruit, for example, cost R$ 1.20 each. So this gives the K box an advantage, since it is not thrown away and can be used several times. But this difference should not be taken into consideration, according to Luís Fernando Ceribelli Madi, coordinator of the research and now Ital’s managing director. “The cost/benefit offered by the cardboard box, which avoids losses and diseases, is incomparably better than the K box”, he reckons.

A modern packaging system, according to specialists in the area, should use materials that are disposable, or that can be sanitized.  “The K box, besides damaging the products, is an important focus for the disease transmission and is in breach of the plant health requirements”, explains Gerardo Galvez, a consultant for the ABPO and the regional sales manager of Klabin, Brazil’s largest manufacturer of corrugated cardboard, and one of the nine companies that are taking part in the project.

For Madi, the work carried out by Cetea is part of a wide-ranging effort by the productive chain to modernize the sector’s distribution in Brazil. “The improvement in the packaging should be accompanied by a change in the behavior of all the sector involved in production and distribution, from the field to the end consumer”, he says.

Madi is passionate about the theme. He has been involved with the subject since he graduated in 1973. A member of the class of food engineers at Unicamp, the State University of Campinas, he presented a thesis for his master’s degree on the theme Cardboard Boxes for Packing Tomatoes. From then on, he has not stopped doing research. “In 23 years, plenty has changed except the way of wrapping fruit and vegetables ”, he says. He thinks that the opening of the market, at the beginning of the 90s, boosted attitude changed by the Brazilian consumer, and even of the market itself.  “The arrival of imported products was essential for the Brazilian consumer to get to know the new technologies that existed, and to demand products with better quality”, explains Madi.

To achieve excellence in the three kinds of box, the team coordinated by Madi carried out a number of resistance tests, with several prototypes. They were tested with boxes piled up, full of fruit and vegetables, subjected to vibrating tables that reproduce the movements of being transported in a truck. After periods of up to three hours, the boxes are examined to check possible damage from compression and buckling of the bottom, when it jeopardizes the products that are in the lowermost boxes.  Cetea has developed the new packaging using the most modern equipment and laboratories available in Latin America. Finance under the PITE allowed Cetea to purchase vanguard equipment, used to develop this study. This is the case of the apparatus that measures rigidity, when corrugated cardboard is bent, which was bought for R$ 35,000.

Market share
“The productive chain is waking up to the problem of waste”, explains  Cetea’s director, Assis Euzébio Garcia. “Many producers are discovering that the use of new techniques for improving merchandise can increase the product’s market share”, he says. “In the countries where the use of more suitable packaging predominates, losses are minimal”, says ABPO’s president, Paulo Sérgio Peres.

For Peres, the partnership between Ital and the ABPO was fundamental for the successful conclusion of the models of box. “We are uniting our experience in the cardboard sector with the technology and the backing that Ital offers”, Peres states. For him, the result of this partnership is a real essay on how to handle fruit and vegetables after they have been harvested.

The improvement to the quality of the products through new techniques and materials reaches the Brazilian market at a critical moment for the fresh products sector.  Competition with industrialized products has made the sector lose ground on the Brazilian table. Figures from the IBGE, the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, show a drop of 25% in fruit consumption in São Paulo, the richest state in the country, which fell from 59.6 kg in 1987 to 44.6 kg per capita in 1997, except in the range from 20 to 30 minimum salaries. Home consumption in Brazil shrank from 47.98 kg to 40.39 kg per capita, a reduction of 16%, in the same period.  In the United States, on the contrary, there has been a 22% growth over the last ten years.

The results of this process were felt in particular by the supermarkets, which, at the same time as they became the main agents for distribution, they have also become the targets for consumers unsatisfied with the product quality. Today, 10% of supermarket sales come from the fruit and vegetable sector.  “Improving the quality of the products offered by the sector is a vital issue for expanding the number of consumers”, explains Omar Assaf, the president of Apas, the Brazilian Association of Supermarkets. Along with several other sectors, this entity takes part in the modernization program for agricultural processes.

New standards
According to Assaf, adopting modern techniques can bring down the losses carried by supermarkets from the current 23% to 8%. “This is the international standard accepted by those countries that have taken steps like the ones that Brazil is starting to take”, he tells. Assaf states that the supermarkets are also fighting to implement the new standards used in countries with more modern packaging systems, with boxes made of corrugated paper, plastic, and wood.

“The producers have to be made aware of the importance of the new techniques as an instrument for winning the customer back”, says Anita de Souza Dias Gutierrez, director of the Horticultural Quality Center, connected with Ceagesp – The Company of Deposits and General Warehouses of the State of São Paulo. The Center leads a group that is to draw up standards for the sector. The works comprises everything from the classification of the product to its sale to the consumer.  “The standards define the characteristics of identification, quality, packing, labeling and presentation of the product”, Anita explains.

The classified products become part of the São Paulo Program for the Improvement of Commercial Standards and Packaging of Fruit and Vegetables. Nine products have already had their standards for classification approved by the Sector Chambers, including the use of cardboard boxes.  They are: lettuce, bananas, potatoes, eggplants, persimmons, guavas, nectarines/peaches, peppers and tomatoes.

Improved performance
“Concrete results have already been achieved by the members of the Holambra Agricultural Cooperative, in the Paranapanema region, in the west of the state of São Paulo; they improved their economic performance by 21% by adopting, for two crops in row, the quality standards for peaches and nectarines”, says Anita. She also says that, last year, the first quality campaign in persimmons, which proved the efficiency of the standardization programs. When the classification standards were adopted by the producers and the wholesalers, the fruit became more attractive, and there was an increase in consumption.  In addition, the consumers started to receive better guidance about the product, and tasting sessions were set up. In one of the supermarkets where the campaign took place, there was a 150% increase in persimmon consumption. “The improvement in the packaging was one ingredient in this campaign, and it is part of a wider project of the Department  for Agriculture and Supply of the State of São Paulo”, says Anita. She thinks that the improvement in the quality of the sector’s products involves, necessarily, packaging .

With all this movement in the fruit and vegetable industry and in the distribution of these products, Cetea has been sounded out by plastic wood residue manufacturers to develop boxes that are in accord with the needs for conserving products and with the standards that are being laid down. Cetea, however, is continuing to study cardboard boxes to pack fruit and vegetables, even after the end of the project with the ABPO. “Now we need to research new models of boxes to hold the average quantity of each product that the end consumer usually takes home”, declares Anna Lúcia Mourad, a scientific researcher with Cetea, and one of those taking part in the project for corrugated cardboard packaging.  This completes the defenses against losses, all the way from the producer in the field to the refrigerator of every one of us.

Packaging for exports

The use of corrugated cardboard for packing fruit and vegetables grew 58.4% in 1999, compared with the previous year. 55,400 tons of this product were marketed to the agricultural area.  In total, the corrugated cardboard sector grew 3.74% last year, and sold 1,676,000 tons. The sector’s sales rose 18.1% in 1999, compared with 1998, and reached R$ 1.852 billion. These figures, and all those referring to packaging, are regarded as real veritable signposts for the economy of a country, because they indicate the movement of its industrial and commercial activities.

As it accounts for only 4% of the total of the sector’s sales, cardboard boxes still have plenty of room for growth in the area of fruit and vegetables.  According to Paulo Peres, who is president of the ABPO, the Brazilian Association for Corrugated Board, the results of the study and the increase in sales are a reflection of the great efforts that the entity has made for cardboard to be adopted by the sectors involved with the production and marketing of fruit.

The improvement in the packaging of fruit and vegetables is fundamental for the expansion of business in the sector, in particular as far as exports are concerned.  Brazil is the third largest fruit producer in the world. The average annual production is over 31 million tons. Of this total, only 1% is exported. The main reason for the poor performance of Brazilian fruit is the lack of quality standards, which the international standards require, including precautions with packaging. Argentina, for example, prohibits the packaging reuse for citric products, and does not permit the entry of fruit and vegetable products in boxes that are not disposable.

Last year, Brazil’s earnings from the export of fruit were US$ 180 million. The European Union, the main purchaser of Brazilian produce, spent some US$ 130 million. From 2003 onwards, the countries of the European Union will only be accepting fruit and greens produced in an integrated manner, with minimal levels of pesticide residue and a quality seal. Integrated production involves monitoring the fruit right from its planting up to its distribution, marketing, and consumption, on the basis of respect for the environment and for the consumers.

Luís Fernando Ceribelli Madi is a graduate in Food Engineering, from Unicamp’s Food Engineering School.  He took a master’s degree at the Packaging School of the University of Michigan, in the United States.  He is managing director of Ital, the Food Technology Institute.

Development of Systems of Packaging of Corrugated Cardboard for Fruit and Vegetables (nº 98/01283-4); Modality Research Partnership for Technological Innovation – PITE; Coordinator Luís Fernando Ceribelli Madi; Investment US$ 52,520.00, from FAPESP, and R$ 41,040.00, from the ABPO.