Field Report: Follow That Box to South Florida

Stacked wooden boxes of corn ready to be cooled. When I was taking history classes as a kid growing up in Florida, the rich farmland just to the south of Lake Okeechobee figured prominently - this incredibly fertile farming region played a significant role in turning Florida from a frontier into one of the most populous states in the country. This past Tuesday, I and members of Global Green USA's Coalition for Resource Recovery (CoRR) saw firsthand some of this historically significant dirt and the plentiful crops it produces. However, the purpose of this field trip wasn't a history lesson. We are out to find out if these farms in South Florida are good candidates for recyclable boxes for shipping their produce.

For the third installment of our “Follow That Box” tour series, we brought seven members of the CoRR team to Belle Glade, a small farming city about an hour inland from West Palm Beach. The trip brought together farmers, box makers, and cooling facility managers and discuss how to replace the unrecyclable wax-coated boxes, and wooden crates, currently used on these farms.

Florida Box Tour from Lily Kelly on Vimeo.

Every year, 1.45 million tons of cardboard are buried in landfills because their wax coating renders them unrecyclable (source: the EPA’s 2010 Municipal Solid Waste Facts and Figures and the Fibre Box Association’s estimate that 5% of corrugated boxes disposed in the U.S. are wax-coated.) If all these boxes were recycled instead, the greenhouse gas emissions reduction would be equivalent to shutting down an entire coal-fired power plant. The big challenge is to find a recyclable coating that is strong enough to keep the box intact, even when it is full of melting ice and under hundreds of pounds of weight for days while it is being shipped across the country. They key is the cooling method - the more water and ice they use, the tougher the box has to be.

During the trip, we visited three major farm locations in the Belle Glade area. Every farming region is unique, and the cooling methods we had seen in New Jersey and California were somewhat different from what we saw in these places. Belle Glade growers use more wooden crates than many other growers we've visited, and the cooling processes are a bit different. Crates of corn and beans are stacked onto pallets and run through large hydro-coolers, which pour extremely cold water over the boxes, for up to an hour. However, the farmers' interest is the same - all the growers want to be able to purchase a strong, recyclable produce box for their products, but since they purchase millions of boxes each year, they can't handle any additional cost to the boxes.

The CoRR members we brought along manufacture recyclable boxes that can survive most cooling methods. Now that they've seen firsthand how cooling works in South Florida, they just might be able to replace the unrecyclable boxes used down here too. Stay tuned for more updates.