NEWARK, Del. -- The Produce Marketing Association here is spearheading an industrywide effort to put the returnable packaging issue under the microscope.
PMA officials said the integration of returnable packaging into the industry's distribution system was one of the hottest issues to come out of the trade group's board of directors meeting at this year's convention in Atlanta.
"The board discussed this and decided that this was a priority for the association," said Kathy Means, vice president for membership and public affairs for the PMA.
The development and use of returnable packaging would foster an almost standardized packaging industry, which proponents hope will in turn bring about a greater efficiency in the distribution chain.
Packaging from the supplier to the retailer has typically been treated as throw-away material, usually prone to destruction during shipping and discarded after the product has been unloaded.
But returnable packaging, which has been implemented in the health and beauty aids and fast foods industries, is creeping into the produce industry.
"It's something that a lot of people are looking at," Means said. "It's coming to our industry, and in some cases it's here, and it will be better to get a handle on it right up front as it's happening."
Several growers of California table grapes, as well as a number of supermarket chains, began using returnable packaging recently, working with Rehrig Pacific, a Philadelphia-based case manufacturer best known for its plastic milk crates.
Before the industry is able to make a move toward efficient full-scale distribution, there are many concerns that must be addressed, however, the PMA said.
Officials will have to take into consideration what the packaging will look like, the different sizes needed, how it fits with existing pallets, how it handles ice, how it will be carried and lifted, how it will protect the commodity, and how it will stand up to the different environments in which it is used.
To that end, the PMA plans to create two industry organs that will address the issue.
A steering committee, made up of representatives from several associations within the industry, will collect a broad overview of information that it will then disseminate to association members.
A separate working committee will hammer out some of the concerns enumerated by the steering committee.
While the idea of returnable packaging offers potential benefits to the industry, produce players up and down the distribution chain must be wary not to let the meetings become finger-pointing sessions, said one knowledgeable source.
"Canada has been trying to do this for the past year," said John Hagan, marketing manager at Rehrig Pacific. "They invited 10 major molders to a room, and it was a shouting match."
Means said the PMA will not attempt to mandate the logistics of the packaging, or require any organizations in the industry to follow industry standards.
"Everybody may not be ready for returnable packaging, and that's all right as long as we get it right the first time," Means said. "Then those who want to use it can use it."
Such a progression would be similar to the movement toward industrywide conformity with pallets that started several years back, brought about by the industry's frustration with the lack of uniformity between pallets and cases, she added.
"There were just so many different sizes of containers, so they required different sized pallets," she said. "You'd have different sized pallets coming into retail. And the retailers were trying to rack this stuff."
Means said the industry took it upon itself to develop a standard pallet size.
Officials hope early attention to this issue will lead to eliminating the current lack of uniformity in produce packaging and, at the same time, increase efficiency in distribution.
"I think it will catch on," Means said. "It's not to force anybody into returnable packaging or tell people exactly how to do it. But if we can take a look at the best ways for [this] to happen for produce that might help down the road."