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PEF Returnable Plastic Crate Systems 2013 White paper


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The Postharvest Education Foundation White Paper 13-01 April 2013
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The Postharvest Education Foundation April 2013
Returnable Plastic Crate (RPC) systems can
reduce postharvest losses and improve earnings
for fresh produce operations
PEF White Paper No. 13-01
Dr. Lisa Kitinoja
The Postharvest Education Foundation (PEF)
April 2013
The Postharvest Education Foundation April 2013
The Postharvest Education Foundation
2013-2014 Board of Directors
Lisa Kitinoja, President
Patrick D. Brown, Secretary
Devon Zagory
Diane M. Barrett
Hala Chahine-Tsouvalakis
Deirdre Holcroft
Chase DuBois
Copyright 2013 © The Postharvest Education Foundation
ISBN 978-1-62027-001-1
PO Box 38, La Pine, Oregon 97739, USA
The Postharvest Education Foundation April 2013
PEF White Paper No. 13-01: Returnable Plastic Crate (RPC) systems can reduce
postharvest losses and improve earnings for fresh produce operations
PEF White Paper No. 13-01 based upon a Desk Study by Dr. Lisa Kitinoja
The Postharvest Education Foundation (PEF)
April 2013
Table of contents (pdf version)
Typical uses of Returnable Plastic Crates (RPCs)
Types and sizes of RPCs
Costs and Benefits of the use of RPCs
Costs of RPC systems
Types of RPC utilization and distribution systems
Business models and approaches
1) grower/shipper owned
2) plastic crate manufacturer owned/rented or leased to users
3) deposit system
4) produce buyer owned/managed/provided to users
Policies affecting the use of RPCs
Appendix A: Cost and benefit calculator worksheet (available for download)
Appendix B: Examples of RPC sizes and styles suitable for horticultural crops
Appendix C: Sources of RPCs
The Postharvest Education Foundation April 2013
PEF White Paper No. 13-01: Returnable Plastic Crate (RPC) systems can reduce
postharvest losses and improve earnings for fresh produce operations
Lisa Kitinoja
The Postharvest Education Foundation
April 2013
Several decades of postharvest research studies, consulting on development projects
and observations made during fieldwork in many areas of postharvest technology in
more than 20 developing countries have consistently pointed toward enormous
problems with perishable food losses and high levels of damage to fresh produce during
the postharvest period due to the use of poor quality packages and containers. The
members of the board of directors of The Postharvest Education Foundation have
concluded that improved containers would be one of the more practical and cost
effective changes that could be made on an incremental basis by smallholder food
producers, handlers and marketers.
The World Packaging Organization (WPO) General Secretary Carl Olsmats and the
International Packaging Press Organization (IPPO) President Bo Wallteg, published a
joint position paper in 2009 that highlighted the key contributions of packaging to
agricultural sustainability and the fight against hunger in the world. WPO and IPPO are
promoting improved packaging and logistics systems, and say that the forecasted
increased global demand for food does not necessarily require increased production,
but better packaging usage to ensure less food is wasted (WPO, 2009).
The use of returnable plastic crates (RPCs) for harvest, packing, transport and storage
of fresh produce has repeatedly been shown to reduce damage and postharvest losses.
In 2011, the SAVE FOOD! Interpack2011 Congress produced a report on the use of
appropriate packaging for developing countries, in which RPCs are included in the
category of innovative packages, since they reduce damage and better allow produce to
withstand transport over rough roads, and are reusable many times (FAO, 2011).
Returnable, reusable plastic containers are designed to be durable containers and have
become common in the agri-food industry (Vigneault et al, 2009). UNFAO regional
offices are currently introducing and promoting RPCs in Greater Mekong Sub-region
(GMS) countries for selected vegetables and fruits (Rapusas, 2013). RPCs are ideal for
handling fresh horticultural produce and other food since they were specifically
designed for maintaining the quality of the produce (Vigneault et al, 2009).
One recent study, reviewing the use of RPCs for 10 fresh produce commodities,
concluded that RPCs required 39 percent less total energy, created 95 percent less
solid waste, and generated 29 percent less total greenhouse gas emissions than
The Postharvest Education Foundation April 2013
corrugated display ready containers (Source: white paper,
Use of RPCs in many countries for handling and storage of many types of fruits and
vegetables can be highly cost effective, since overall RPC costs are often lower than
the savings that can result from reduced food losses. While there are many factors to
consider before making any large investment, a simple cost and benefit calculator
worksheet developed by PEF can be used to plug in estimated local costs and expected
economic benefits for small scale operators to check the numbers before making any
investments. A sample spreadsheet is provided in Appendix A, and an Excel file
spreadsheet is available for download from the PEF website.
Typical uses of RPCs
This desk study begins with the assumption that returnable plastic crates will be used to
replace the typical poor quality containers currently in use in most developing countries.
Boyette et al (1996) reported that a significant percentage of produce buyer and
consumer complaints are traced to container failure because of poor design or
inappropriate selection and use. These poor quality containers include cloth bundles,
jute or polypropylene sacks, woven baskets, and flimsy low quality crates made of thin
plastic or Styrofoam. RPCs can also be used to replace expensive single use fiberboard
cartons, as well as locally made crates that are constructed from rough wooden planks
or palm ribs. Many of these packages use natural resources to manufacture and wind
up either being transported to landfills or decomposing underfoot as debris in
marketplaces after one or two uses.
The illustrations provided in Figures 1 through 9 are examples of the many types of poor
quality packages and containers currently in use in developing countries.
Figure 1a and 1b: Enlarged sacks for cabbages in Ghana and India (Photo credits: Adel A
Kader (1a) and Amity University (1b), both 2009)
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Figure 2: Woven baskets of fruits and vegetables waiting for transport in Nepal
(Photo credit: Lisa Kitinoja, 1999)
Figure 3: Mixed lot of poor quality containers in use for produce transport in Cape Verde
(Photo credit: Lizanne Wheeler, 2008)
Figure 4: Single use lightweight plastic crates for citrus fruits in Lebanon
(Photo credit: Hala Chahine, 2007)
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Figure 5: Styrofoam crates used for vegetable marketing in Jordan (Fintrac, 2012)
Figure 6: Low quality fiberboard cartons of pineapples collapse during high humidity cool
storage (McGregor, 1987)
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Figure 7: Huge wooden crates of 50 to
60 kg of tomatoes in northern Ghana
(Photo credit: Adel A. Kader, 2009)
Figure 8: Overloaded palm rib crates
of vegetables in Egypt (Photo credit:
Awad M. Hussein, 2011)
Figure 9: Cloth bundle of leafy vegetables
ready for transport in Benin
(Photo credit: Hala Chahine, 2009)
The Postharvest Education Foundation April 2013
Recently, RPCs have been promoted by national governments and international
development projects, and are being used more often during field packing, for transport,
or in cold storage. Rapusas and Rolle (2009; p.12) state, “In many developing countries,
there has been the rapid adoption of plastic crates for bulk packaging of selected fresh
produce items and this growth has offered new business opportunities for service
providers such as farmers groups or clusters, cooperatives, traders, commercial farmers
and foreign agribusiness firms, and even the plastic crate manufacturers who are
engaged in rental services to farmers.”
Rapusas and Rolle (2009) also report: “Increasing adoption of plastic crates for the bulk
packaging of fresh produce in developing countries is stimulated by their reusability,
their contribution to post-harvest loss reduction and the alleviation of human drudgery,
buyer preferences and government support.
Four recent examples of RPC use include 1) a USAID project in Afghanistan where
RPCs were provided by CNFA to tomato farmers for use during transport to market
(CNFA, 2006), 2) the Government of India’s subsidy program for postharvest
investments, where 50% subsidies are provided for the purchase of RPCs, 3) Sri
Lankan governmental efforts to promote the use of RPCs for fresh produce marketing
and 4) USAID Hort CRSP sponsored demonstrations of the use of RPCs for cold
storage in Tanzania (AVRDC, 2012).
Sri Jayewardenepura University Institute of Postharvest Technology in Sri Lanka,
introduced plastic crates to farmers, collectors and wholesale traders for transportation
of fruits and vegetables under the “Fresh Produce Chain” concept that was initiated in
2001. The crates cost about US$5.00 and the government provides a 50% subsidy to
the buyers. An exchange system has been developed wherein the farmer or trader who
delivers a full crate of produce to the buyer gets an empty crate in return. In a study on
RPC use conducted in Sri Lanka, the quality and safety of vegetables reaching the
consumer were improved appreciably. In the case of mangoes and avocados, the use
of plastic crates for handling and transportation resulted in a reduction of losses from
30% to 6% (Fernando, 2006).
The illustrations in Figures 10 through 12 are indicative of current and increasing use of
RPCs in various developing countries.
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Figure 10: RPCs in the markets of northern India (2012)
Figure 12: RPCs in cool
storage in a Zero Energy
Cool Chamber in India
(Photo credit: Amity
University, 2009)
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Types and sizes of RPCs
An important factor to consider when making an investment in RPCs is the many
shapes and sizes of plastic crates and matching these characteristics properly to the
intended use. Use of containers for packing fresh produce is intended to serve two
primary purposes: to ease bulk handling by providing a convenient sized load for the
handlers, and to provide protection for the produce during handling. In addition, RPCs
can help to facilitate cooling and to prevent condensation which can promote decay.
Different sizes are available for different types of produce; for example, use of a shallow
style RPC is best suited for delicate produce such as okra, herbs or snow peas.
Appendix B provides illustrations of just a few examples of the many types and sizes of
RPCs available for produce handling.
Medium size RPCs are suitable for field packing and handling most horticultural
commodities during transport. Crate capacity is a key factor in reducing losses as a
result of compression. A transport trial conducted by the Post Harvest Training and
Research Center (PHTRC) in 2004 in the Philippines which compared compression
damage for eggplant packed in 10 kg capacity polyethylene sacks and plastic crates of
10 kg and 13 kg capacity respectively, showed a reduction in compression damage
from 54% for eggplants transported in polyethylene sacks to 4.4% for eggplants
transported in 13 kg crates and 2.8% for eggplants transported in 10 kg crates
(Rapusas and Rolle, 2009).
Large crates that can hold higher weights of produce (15kg to 25kg or more) are
considered to be more suitable for packing more sturdy crops such as onions, potatoes
or carrots. These larger crates are also suitable for longer term storage uses as
opposed to every day handling since lifting and carrying such heavy crates can be
difficult for most individuals.
Most plastic crates are manufactured from high density polyethylene (HDPE).
Polyethylene offers good strength against impact (preventing breakage) and provides a
high level of protection against degradation by ultraviolet radiation from sunlight
(Rupasas and Rolle 2009).
There are three typical designs for RPCs, and all three provide for ease of handling and
protection of the produce. The first type is stackable, but not nestable”, so empty crates
take up the same amount of space as full crates. This type of design may increase the
costs of returning empty crates, and so is used mostly for storage in systems where the
RPCs remain within one facility and are reused each season (Figure 13).
The second type is made to be nestable when empty (Figures 14-15), and the third type
is designed to be collapsible when empty (Figures 16 and 17). Both of these designs
will help reduce the transport costs associated with empty RPC returns.
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Nestable crates are available in a variety of sizes and shapes, and are slightly sloped
with a narrower bottom so they can fit “nested” down inside one another when empty
and stacked. Typically the RPCs will be of a shape that is slightly different on one end
than the other, so reversing one crate’s direction will make it stackable, and keeping all
the crates lined up in the same orientation will make them nestable. It is also possible
to find stackable/nestable crates that have moveable (swing bar) metal handles, where
moving the handles to the inner position makes the crates stackable, while moving the
handles to the outer edge makes the crates nestable (Figure 15).
Collapsible crates takes up much less space when empty and folded up (typically 1/5th
of the space required for a full crate), but can be more difficult to find, more expensive to
purchase, and have hinges that can break with repeated use.
Regardless of which size and type of RPC is used, the crates must have adequate but
not excessive venting (5% is optimum since it provides for both strength and adequate
airflow) and the quality of plastic must be high enough to with stand stacking. The
interior of the RPCs should be smooth to prevent damage to any fresh produce packed
inside. If the interior is rough or there is too much venting, a low cost paper or
lightweight fiberboard liner can be added to the RPC (Figure 18). Fiberboard liners for
RPCs can reduce abrasions and physical damage during transport, and/or can be used
to block some of the container’s vent holes in order to help reduce water loss during
transport, but may impede cooling.
Figure 13: Stackable RPCs,
shallow style
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Figure 14: Two designs for stackable/nestable RPCs
Figure 15: RPCs nested for return transport (Rupasas and Rolle, 2009)
Figure 17: Collapsible RPCs in use in Sri Lanka (photo is showing how the volume of 5 folded
crates = 1 open crate). Visit TranPak Inc’s website to watch a short video of collapsible RPCs:
Figure 16: Collapsible
(foldable) style RPCs (Photo
source: GD Wholesale, 2013)
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Costs and Benefits of the use of RPCs
Plastic crates are designed to be stackable, due to their uniformity in size and shape
and are very strong. Therefore they are able to prevent damage to the produce being
handled in the crates. RPCs are designed to be sturdy, easy to clean, capable of
retaining their full strength while wet, and to be reusable for many years.
RPCs have the potential to replace single-use containers and reduce waste and costs.
IFCO-USA (2013) and Singh et al (2006) report that RPCs use 39% less energy to
produce as compared to single use containers, and produce 95% less solid waste than
do corrugated fiberboard containers when used for handling fresh produce.
RPCs are designed to include wall openings (vents) that facilitate ripening, cooling and
air circulation (Vigneault et al, 2009). Users report that they reuse RPCs 150 times or
more before having to replace the crates. When properly used (not overloaded or
packed above the top edge), RPCs can greatly reduce physical damage, thereby
reducing fresh produce losses from the typically reported average of 30% to 5% or less.
In the CNFA project in Afghanistan, tomatoes were being handled in plastic bags during
a 22 mile trip to the Herat market, resulting in up to 50% losses. The investment in
1500 RPCs for use during transport helped farmers to reduce these losses to less than
5%. While the benefits of using improved containers such as RPCs can be obvious, the
cost of packaging is dependent on: a) the type of packaging; b) the size of the package;
c) the design of the package; d) the number of packages purchased; e) transport and
import costs and duties where applicable; f) assembly cost in the case of carton boxes;
and g) the need for packaging accessories such as liners, pads and dividers (Schuur,
In Sri Lanka, Jayathunge et al (no date) studied the effects of different kinds of
packages on vegetable crops during handling and transport. The economic feasibility of
each package type for handling and transportation of each commodity was calculated
using a cost-benefit analysis. Losses using the traditional packages (sacks) ranged
from 10 to 30% for a variety of vegetable crops, while losses when using improved
packages were generally reduced to 5% or less. For green beans, postharvest losses
Figure 18: Fiberboard liners for RPCs
(Photo credit: Amity University, Noida,
UP, India, 2009)
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when handled in sacks was measured to average 22%, while the same crop handled
during the same time over the same route suffered only 4.6% losses when handled and
transported in nestable plastic crates.
According to Jayathunge et al,
“Ten types of packages, selected from those available in the market and also
those developed by various institutions were used for evaluation. The types of packages
selected were: nestable plastic crate (large and small size), collapsible plastic crate
(large and small), steel collapsible crate, wooden box designed by ITI, wooden boxes
designed by IPHT, fiber board box and wax coated fiberboard box. The evaluation study
was conducted by transporting the fresh produce from farmer’s field to Keppetipola
Economic Center and then to Manning market, Colombo. The smaller nestable plastic
crate of dimensions 52.5x35x30 cm was identified as the most suitable package for
handling and transportation of tomatoes and the large nestable plastic crate of
dimensions 60x42.5x30 cm was identified as the most suitable package for other
vegetables such as beans, cabbage, brinjals (eggplants) and curry chilies, and the
distance the produce traveled during the trials was approximately 230km.
The example in Table 1 is a cost-benefit analysis of the use of packages from farm gate
to market and was modified from the analyses provided in Jayathunge et al (no date).
The weight of produce handled in each type of package is consistent with global norms,
where sacks are usually large and when filled can be very heavy, while RPCs are
generally limited to a capacity of 20kg or less. The original study assumed that the
selling price would be the same across all types of packages, but often the market price
per kg will be slightly higher since physical damage is lower. Even though improved
reusable containers initially cost more per unit than traditional packages or fiberboard
cartons, the use of nestable plastic crates results in higher profits (Rs 2800 or US$28
per load) due to a combination of reduced postharvest losses and long term reusability
(longest container life span).
Table 1: Cost benefit analysis for chilies packed in polysacks and rigid containers packed at the
farm gate (1000 kg of chili peppers)
Wax coated
Nestable plastic
crate (large)
plastic crate
Production cost
Average weight /unit
Number needed
Capital cost
Unit cost of packages
Cost for packages
Fixed cost
Rs. 35000
38.0 kg
Rs. 15.00
Rs. 405.00
Rs. 35000
11.0 kg
Rs. 150.00
Rs. 35000
16.0 kg
Rs. 35000
12 kg
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Table 1 continued
Wax coated
fiberboard carton
Nestable plastic
crate (large)
plastic crate
Life span of a
package (# of uses)
Depreciation of
Variable cost
Handling charge/unit
Handling charges
Total revenue
Losses/1000 kg load
Selling price/kg
Total revenue
Gross profit
Rs. 202.50
Rs. 405.00
88.0 kg
Rs. 4520.50
Rs. 3412.50
Rs. 15.00
Rs. 1365.00
4.0 kg
Rs. 43824.00
Rs. 4046.50
13.0 kg
Rs. 7319.20
Rs. 15.00
Rs. 1260.00
15.0 kg
Rs. 43340.00
Rs. 6817.50
100 rupees = US $1 (exchange rate in 2006)
During 2009 through 2011, the Sri Lankan government attempted to make the use of
plastic crates compulsory for handling fruits and vegetables, but the return system was
not fully established and the promised subsidies for the purchase of RPCs were not yet
in place. After a series of public protests by vendors and produce traders the policy was
RPCs are useful for handling many types of fresh produce and can be used during field
packing, for transport, in temporary or long term cold storage, and even during pre-
cooling or in retail marketing displays (Figures 19 through 24).
Figure 19: Use of IFCO’s RPC
system during field packing of
strawberries for Kroger’s
supermarket (Photo source: IFCO
website, 2013)
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(Photo credit: Amity Univ., Noida, UP, India)
Figure 21: Use of RPCs in temporary cool storage of vegetables in a ZECC in India (2009)
Figure 22: Use of RPCs for long term cold storage (Source: Jindal Mectec Pvt. Ltd.)
Figure 20: Use of RPCs for transport of tomatoes
in Afghanistan (CNFA, 2006)
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Figure 23: Use of RPCs during forced air pre-cooling in Bali, Indonesia
(Photo credit: Lisa Kitinoja, 2007)
Figure 24: Use of RPCs for retail display in Rwanda (Photo credit: Dan McLean, 2011)
Several recent studies have documented the technical benefits of the use of RPCs in
developing countries for handling fresh produce. During 2009-10, UC Davis and WFLO
collaborated on a postharvest research study for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,
and reported that the use of RPCs in Cape Verde for field packing during a Millennium
Challenge Corporation (MCC) funded project reduced losses in tomatoes from 30% to
10%. Two sizes of plastic crates were field tested in Cape Verde a full size crate to
be used for field packing and temporary storage of carrots, potatoes and cabbages, and
a shallow crate to be used for tomatoes, peppers, squash and more delicate crops. The
length and width of both crates were of the same dimensions so they could be stacked
together when transporting or storing a mixed load. The cost of purchasing plastic
crates in Cape Verde was very high compared to other countries ($10 to $18 each,
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depending upon size and source) because the crates must be transported to the islands
via air or ship, yet the return on investment is still positive for farmers.
RPCs may not be cost effective for handling and transport of all types of produce in all
countries, but in general, RPCs are often cost effective when fresh produce market
prices are relatively high, such as for higher value vegetable or fruit crops, or for any
crop if sold during the off-season or can be supplied early in the season when the first
harvests are coming to the market.
Costs of RPC systems
According to Vigneault et al (2009), a 2006 survey of California table grape containers
showed that RPCs were the least expensive box type to use for handling and transport.
A corrugated fiberboard container cost about 20% more than the cost of leasing an
RPC. Expanded polystyrene (EPS) and wood boxes cost about 50% more than RPCs.
Leasing RPCs is a way to reduce the initial costs as compared to outright purchase,
however a leased RPC by contract typically must be used quickly and therefore cannot
be used for long term produce storage.
It is recommended to purchase or lease at least two to three times the estimated
number that will be needed at the farm or packinghouse per day, since typically up to
two thirds of the RPCs will be in transit and/or at the market at any given time. The
costs to consider when investing in the use of RPCs include:
1) initial cost of RPCs (if purchased) or annual fees for use (if RPCs are leased)
2) costs for full RPC transport from farm or packinghouse to market (transport costs
may be higher than for traditional containers such as sacks, since more loads
may be needed to transport the same volume of produce in RPCs)
3) any extra labor costs associated with RPC handling/packing/storage (i.e. smaller
sized containers may require more labor for packing and loading; empties may
need to be moved in and out of a storage area as needed)
4) replacement cost (losses due to breakage or pilferage)
5) costs for cleaning and sanitizing (labor, water and supplies)
6) costs for return transport of empty RPCs from market to farm or packinghouse
Carney et al (2000) provides the following diagram to illustrate how the costs contribute
to the feasibility of using RPCs for any given type of produce. The diagram is based
upon findings of a research study done for Alameda County (California) on baby carrots
and red grapes.
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Figure 25: Major factors to consider when assessing feasibility of the use of RPCs
(Source: Carney et al, 2000)
Food safety considerations require the use of Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs)
whenever using RPCs, including proper hygiene of workers, approved cleaning and
sanitation practices in the packinghouse and during RPC storage, and appropriate pest
management practices. Reuse of any container introduces the possibility of cross
contamination from the container. Decay organisms and human pathogens can move
from a dirty container to the product held within the container. A program of regular
cleaning and sanitation of the RPCs is important to maintaining the quality and safety of
the contents. Rapusas and Rolle (2009) provide detailed guidelines for RPC
management and logistics, including temporary storage, cleaning and sanitation
practices. In the Philippines, annual pilferage can reach 20%, and the estimated cost of
cleaning and sanitizing after each use is $0.05 per crate.
Keeping good records on the ordering, accounting, invoicing, and monitoring of
containers must be part of any successful RPC use system. Since all these costs can
add up to a substantial investment, the initial use of RPCs will often make economic
sense only for higher value crops. Once an RPC system is in place, using the existing
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RPCs for handling and transport of additional crops during the off-season for the
primary crop can increase the return on investment.
Types of RPC utilization and distribution systems
Globally there are many different types of RPC management systems. Each one deals
with the logistics of transport, cleaning/repairs, getting empties back to growers, etc. in
different ways. The choice of which of the many options is most suitable for your own
operation will depend upon which services are available locally and what the costs are
for purchase versus rental or lease, fuel for transport, labor for cleaning, etc.
Business models and approaches
The following examples of business models represent the different kinds of RPC
distribution systems and the varying approaches that are in use in various parts of the
1) Grower/shipper owned
This model works best when the buyer uses the crates for operations within the control
of the RPC owner, such as for harvest, pre-cooling or temporary storage. An example
comes from India, where Euro Fruits India uses RPCs on their own farms and in their
packinghouse for the harvest, transport and postharvest handling of table grapes. Each
crate holds 5 to 6kg and costs approximately US$6. The company reports that they can
use the same crates each day for 10 to 12 years (during the 4 month grape harvest
season from January through April each year). The farms are located 50 to 70 km from
the packinghouse, and the company has found that bruising during transport can be
further reduced if they add a foam pad to the bottom of each crate before filling the RPC
with grapes.
2) Plastic crate manufacturer owned/rented or leased to users
Most small farmers will need plastic crates only during the harvesting period, and if they
don't have any other specific use for the PRCs during other periods then storage of the
crates can become a costly issue for them. Being able to rent or lease RPCs during the
harvest period is therefore a practical approach.
An example of a company in the USA utilizing this business model is BungoBox
( According to their website, “every time you use BungoBox,
environmental pressure is reduced and the planet is a little healthier. One BungoBox
can be reused up to 400 times, saving up to 3000 gallons of water, 2000 Kilowatt hours
of energy and 40 gallons (151 liters) of gasoline compared to fiberboard boxes.”
Dimensions: 27in x 17in x 12in = 2.5 Cubic Feet (0.7 Cubic Meters)
Made of durable, recyclable plastic
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Available for rent: $1.75 per week/box (pickup and delivery is included in the rental
price) or for sale: $19.99 per box
According to Ken Marsh (2012), a commonly used business model that is used for
pallets also works for crates. CHEP is a company that rents pallets and RPCs as well as
bins and other containers. A farmer or produce company can rent a crate at the origin
and return it when empty at the destination. CHEP closes the distribution loop by
handling the logistics for companies that cannot back haul crates (or pallets)
economically. The CHEP website provides a case study of how use of RPCs can
reduce damage to fresh produce (CHEP, 2013).
Rapusas and Rolle (2009) describe a lettuce operation in the Philippines in which the
plastic crates are rented from a service provider who is also a manufacturer of plastic
crates for the food industry. The crates are 52 cm long, 35 cm wide and 27 cm high,
stackable and nestable and have ventilation holes and rust-free handles for easy
handling. Each RPC is rented from the service provider at a cost of 35 pesos
(1 US$ = 54 pesos) per “use” (where one “use” covers the movement of the full RPC
from the farm to Manila market.)
3) Deposit system
In this system the user pays the owner of the RPCs a deposit for every container s/he
uses. The deposit equals at minimum the market value of the containers. The sender
debits the recipient for this deposit, who does the same with the next recipient, and so
on. The moment the RPCs reach their final destination in the marketing chain, they are
collected by the owner. At this point, the owner refunds the deposit to the party from
which the containers were collected. The deposits finance any losses and theft of the
containers, so, a tracking and tracing system to control the flow of containers is
unnecessary. Finally the high deposit cost also stimulates the quick return of the
containers, so the rate of circulation of the RPCs is expected to be high.
4) Produce buyer owned/managed/provided to users
An example of a retailer controlled RPC system comes from the UK (Twede and Clarke,
2005). Reusable crates on wheeled racks are widely used as shipping containers for
fresh grocery products in grocery stores. The RPCs are packed at the growers’
locations, transported to the retailer’s distribution center and sent out to the retail stores
where they go directly into displays. Empty containers are collected and shipped to a
retailer-controlled site where they are washed and redistributed to growers for the next
use. In most cases, a third party logistics provider controls the container returns.
According to Twede and Clarke (2005), although initial purchase and disposal costs
savings were considered by the British grocery industry, the most important justification
for implementing an RPC system was efficiency. They desired more sturdy
interchangeable interlocking modular containers to improve the productivity of produce
handling, order picking and shelf stocking. Many of the produce warehouses are now
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simple cross-dock operations that depend on the modularity of containers and mixed
loads are easier to handle and more stable during transport because of the standard
interlocking footprint of all of the RPCs. Shelf stocking is quicker because a full
container is simply swapped for an empty one. Damage has been reduced through
minimizing manual handling. The perishable nature of the fresh products, with a very
short supply cycle, minimizes the number of containers required in the system. The UK
also has geographic and demographic factors that favor reusable packaging: shipping
distances are short and landfill costs for disposable packages are high.
In India there are three approaches being followed by many produce traders and
modern retailers. In the first they maintain extra crates in their inventories. The retailers
maintain anywhere from two to five times the typical inventory of RPCs. They transport
produce from destination A to B in these crates and when a sufficient volume of empty
crates accumulates at destination B (a full truck load) then they send them back to
destination A in one backload.
The second approach being used is to sell the produce including the crates. In every
major produce market there is availability of used crates and a few traders have a
separate business involving the purchase/re-sale of used (second-hand) crates. In the
case of tomatoes, for example, the supplier adds the cost of crates to the produce price.
The buyer can then resell the used crates to state Agricultural Produce Marketing
Committee (APMC) registered traders, and suppliers can purchase the used crates from
dealers of the APMC markets.
The final approach is used by traders involved in reverse trade, for example, when two
different types of produce from different production areas can be transported via the
same set of RPCs. Tomatoes might be transported from destination A to B and then
carrots transported from destination B to A using the same set of crates owned by the
buyer or trader.
Policies affecting the use of RPCs
Use of plastic crates is slowly being adopted in developing countries, but many barriers
still exist. Clarke (2004), reported on the main problems associated with managing the
use of a returnable container system, which include:
• Who should own them?
• Is a deposit system workable?
• How can theft be prevented?
• How can a large number of containers be identified?
In a recent study in Nigeria, Adegbola et al (2011) found that the main reasons 150
respondents gave for why they were not using reusable plastic crates were: the crates
were considered to be expensive when available (100%), the crates are not readily
The Postharvest Education Foundation April 2013
available but palm baskets, jute and polythene bags are (91%), the crate is not a unit of
measure commensurate with the measure of traditional packages (65%), it is difficult to
change old habits (18%), there is very low knowledge about the existence of the crates
(11%), and there is a lack of contact with extension agents who promote the use of
plastic crates (9%).
Adegbola et al (2011) and others have recommended that governments should provide
heavy subsidies for the use of RPCs, since their use is a public good and will result in
protection of natural resources and in an enhanced food supply for the population as a
whole. India is an example of a government that provides 50% subsidies, plus a variety
of infrastructure development support. Other supportive policy options include providing
tax credits for investments in RPCs, or providing extension education or training for
smallholder horticultural producers, traders and marketers on costs/benefits in order to
create incentives for RPC use.
In many countries, RPC manufacturers do not yet exist, so the cost of crates is high due
to added transport and import costs. In other countries, fuel costs are extremely high,
or transport charges are set as a per unit standard fee regardless of the size of the
container, both of which provide strong disincentives for using these typically smaller
RPC containers. Any policy support that can reduce these disincentives will stimulate
interest in RPC use, and help to move us away from using cheap, non-protective
packages like sacks, bundles and baskets.
The author would like to thank the Board of Directors of The Postharvest Education
Foundation (PEF) for their support and assistance during this research project. This
desk study could not have been successfully completed without the able assistance of
Sumeet Bhatti (PEF summer intern, 2011) in the planning, interviews and reporting
related to RPC use in India, and of both Sumeet and Dan Giurleo (Rutgers University
graduate student, 2012) during the development of the cost/benefit calculator
Adegbola, A., E.I. Bamishaiye and F. Olayemi (2011). Factors Affecting the Adoption of the
Re-Usable Plastic Vegetable Crate in Three Local Government Areas of Kano State, Nigeria.
Asian Journal of Agricultural Sciences 3(4): 281-285
AVRDC (2012). Promoting best postharvest practices. Fresh: AVRDC newsletter. November 26,
Boyette, M.D., Sanders, D.C., and Rutledge, G.A. (1996). Package requirements for fresh fruits
and vegetables. The North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service. North Carolina State
University, Ralley, NC. USA. Publication no 9/96-3m-TWK-260373-AG-414-8.
The Postharvest Education Foundation April 2013
Carney, M.J., Odron, E.A. and S.J. Everett. (2000). Feasibility of reusable plastic containers
(RPCs for shipping and displaying produce.
CHEP International website. Accessed April 2013.
Clarke, B. 2004. High Hopes for Postharvest. Diversification Booklet 4. Rome: UN FAO
CNFA (2006). Afghanistan: Longer shelf life for tomatoes drastically improves incomes. CNFA
E-Newsletter Issue No. 2, July 2006
FAO (2011). Appropriate food packaging solutions for developing countries. SAVE FOOD!
InterPack2011 Congress, Dusseldorf, Germany.
Fernando, M.D. (2006). Country paper Sri Lanka (2), In: Proceedings of seminar on post-
harvest management of fruit and vegetables in the Asia-Pacific region, Asian Productivity
Organization (Tokyo) and UN FAO (Rome), pp. 264275.
Fintrac Inc., (2012) for USAID’s Enabling Agricultural Trade (EAT) Project.
IFCO-USA website. Accessed April 2013. http://www.ifco-
Jayathunge, K.G.L.R., W.M.C.B. Wasala, H.M.A.P. Rathnayake, C.R. Gunawardane, H.C.
Samarakoon, M.D. Fernando and K.B. Palipane (no date). Evaluation of different types of
packages for handling and transport of vegetables.
Kitinoja, L. (2010) Identification of Appropriate Postharvest Technologies for Improving Market
Access and Incomes for Small Horticultural Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
WFLO Grant Final Report to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation 318 pp.
Kitinoja L, Saran S, Roy S K and A.A. Kader (2011). Postharvest Technology for Developing
Countries: Challenges and Opportunities in Research, Outreach and Advocacy. J of the Science
of Food and Agriculture 2011; 91: 597603
Marsh, Ken (2012). Personal communication. November 25, 2012.
McGregor, Brian M. 1987. Tropical Products Transport Handbook. U.S. Department
of Agriculture, Agriculture Handbook No. 668. p. 148. (2012) white paper: Sourced at
Rapusas, R.S. (2013). Personal communication.
The Postharvest Education Foundation April 2013
Rapusas, R.S. and Rolle, R.S. (2009). Management of reusable plastic crates in
fresh produce supply chains- A technical guide. UNFAO, Regional Office for Asia and the
Pacific. RAP Publication 2009/08. 52pp
Schuur, C.C.M. (1988). Packaging of fruits, vegetables and root crops. UNFAO, Bridgetown,
Singh, S. P., Chonhenchob, V. and Singh, J. (2006), Life cycle inventory and analysis of re-
usable plastic containers and display-ready corrugated containers used for packaging fresh
fruits and vegetables. Packaging Technol. Sci., 19: 279293
Twede, D. and R. Clarke (2005). Supply Chain Issues in Reusable Packaging. Journal of
Marketing Channels. Volume 12:1, pp 7 - 26
Vigneault, C., James Thompson and Stefanie Wu (2009). Chapter 2: Designing container for
handling fresh horticultural produce. In: Postharvest Technologies for Horticultural Crops, 2009,
Vol. 2: 25-47 (editor Noureddine Benkeblia).
WPO, World Packaging Organization (2009). Packaging is the answer to world hunger.
How to cite this paper:
Kitinoja, L. (2013) Returnable Plastic Crate (RPC) systems can reduce postharvest
losses and improve earnings for fresh produce operations. PEF White Paper No. 13-01.
The Postharvest Education Foundation: La Pine, Oregon, USA. 30 pp.
The Postharvest Education Foundation April 2013
Appendix A: RPC cost and benefit calculator worksheet
(Available on the PEF website for download as an MSExcel spreadsheet)
The Postharvest Education
Foundation 2013
Comparison of RPCs to single-use containers
Cost/Benefit Calculator Worksheet
Plastic Crates
Plastic Crates
Market price for fresh produce/kg
Initial quantity
Postharvest losses
Total quantity sold
Unit cost of container
Lifespan of container (uses)
Unit Cost/use
Total container cost/truck
Number of containers transported
Average weight per container (kg)
Total capacity of truck
Transportation fuel costs
Labor cost for container
Tracking to ensure returns
Container maintenance costs
Total Costs
Net Profit
Notes: Percentage losses for this example were estimated at 5% for RPCs or cartons,
11% for baskets and 17.5% for sacks. Fuel costs were doubled to account for return
transport for reusable containers (RPCs and baskets). Users should insert their own
local costs, if known, into the worksheet to determine the results for handling and
transporting their crop(s).
The Postharvest Education Foundation April 2013
Appendix B: Examples of RPC sizes and styles suitable for horticultural crops
Source: Phoenix Industries Ltd., Sri Lanka
Visit the provided website link for the full catalog, additional illustrations and detailed information
on RPC dimensions.
The Postharvest Education Foundation April 2013
Appendix C: Sources of RPCs
Visit these websites to view just a few examples of reusable plastic crates suitable for produce
handling, storage and transport.
Aristo Exports, Mumbai, India
CHEP, Australia (active in 50 countries)
Fold C, India
Galaxy Polymers, New Delhi, India
GD International, China Trade Online
Obal Centrum Ltd., Czech Republic
Phoenix Industries Ltd., Sri Lanka
Reusable Transport Packaging, Florida, USA
Supreme Sales and Service, Noida, India
Tulsi Extrusions, LLC, India
TranPak Inc., Fresno, California, USA
The Postharvest Education Foundation April 2013
2013-2014 Board of Directors
Lisa Kitinoja, President
Patrick D. Brown, Secretary
Devon Zagory
Diane M. Barrett
Hala Chahine-Tsouvalakis
Deirdre Holcroft
Chase DuBois
Copyright 2013 © The Postharvest Education Foundation
ISBN 978-1-62027-001-1
PO Box 38, La Pine, Oregon 97739, USA
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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