From the Field: Follow That Box to the Salinas Valley

blog_broccoli_fieldStanding in a windy field of broccoli, on a pancake-flat valley with greens stretching all the way to the hazy mountains in the distance, it was abundantly clear to me why they call the Salinas Valley the "Salad Bowl of the World.” Located two hours south and inland from San Francisco, Salinas is the heart of leafy green production in the United States. If it just so happens that you’re looking for produce that has to be packed cold in a water-resistant box before being shipped thousands of miles, this is the place to be. For the second installment of our “Follow That Box” tour series, we brought eight members of our Global Green USA Coalition for Resource Recovery (CoRR) team to this small farming city to meet with farmers, box makers, and cooling facility managers and discuss how to replace the wax-coated box. Every year, 1.36 million tons of cardboard are buried in landfills because their wax coating renders them unrecyclable (source: the EPA's 2009 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.) One of our key goals with this CoRR project is to help find replacement coatings that can be recycled with normal, uncoated boxes. 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 at a time during shipping. As you can imagine, this is no simple task.

blog_ice_injectionDuring the trip, we visited eight locations in two days, including four farms, two box manufacturing facilities, and a commercial cooling operation. Everywhere we went, we spoke with people who were excited to see the wax coating replaced with a low-cost replacement that's just as strong. For growers who purchase millions of boxes each year, even a penny more in the price is too much. And given the distance traveled -- from a Salinas field to a New York deli , for instance -- the boxes need to be robust.

Here are a few of the key facts we gathered from our conversations in the Salad Bowl:

1) Wax is expensive. Both growers and box makers said that they were interested in wax alternatives for recycling purposes, but also because they would like a cheaper alternative. One box maker said that the price of the wax coating fluctuates extensively and currently costs the company about 90 cents per pound. Some of the boxes we saw contained about a pound of wax each, which means that about 90 cents of the price of each of those boxes went to pay for the coating alone. For a box that sells for only a couple of dollars, that is a major cost to the manufacturer.

2) Shortening the “cut-to-cool” time can reduce the need for ice-packing the produce. Simply put, getting freshly cut vegetables into a cooler faster will prevent the need to ice and re-ice the produce, which would help maintain box strength. One cooling facility developed a portable cooling trailer to take out to the field for cooling the freshly harvested produce via “forced air,” which doesn’t wet the boxes. This method increases shelf life, saves energy, and could potentially reduce the need to ice produce at all.

3) Grocery stores and food distributors make a lot of the key decisions related to cooling and transporting produce. Farmers want to meet the needs of customers; if the grocery store wants the produce packed in ice, or in a plastic carton, or in a recyclable box, the farmers do their best to make it happen. For us, this means that one of our next steps will be to reach out to retailers and get them excited about replacing wax boxes with recyclable alternatives.

The good news here is our CoRR members are making incredible progress developing recyclable wax alternatives. In particular, we got to see International Paper’s wax alternative box for broccoli as it went through the ice injection facility -- having a frigid, watery slurry forced into every nook and cranny and surviving the process with as much aplomb as a box can muster. But that’s another story for another post. Stay tuned...