What Are RPCs (Reusable Plastic Containers)

RPCs Provide Emerging Option for the Shipment of Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

Polymer Logistics

Reusable Plastic Crates (RPCs) are reusable plastic shipping containers used for the distribution of food products from the producer to the retail point of sale. These containers are typically standardized to a 600 x 400 mm (roughly 16-inch by 24-inch) footprint, or half-size variations. They come in a variety of heights to meet the needs of specific products. When shipped from the supplier to the retailer, containers of this size are stacked in a 5-down or 5 RPCs per pallet layer pattern atop a shipping pallet.

 

RPCs are durable and designed for repeated reuse. In many applications, they provide an attractive alternative to the use of single-use corrugated cardboard containers, offering a range of benefits as outlined below. RPCs are typically used in the fresh food industry, especially by fresh produce and vegetable suppliers, as well as increasingly for egg, deli, and protein (fresh meat and fish) sectors. More typically in Europe than North America, they are also used for the distribution of dry grocery products. RPCs typically are either collapsible or nestable when empty, to take up less space in empty container storage and transportation.

Benefits of RPCs

Aside from the benefit of collapsibility, mentioned above, other features of the RPC are highly prized by users. Such attributes include ergonomic handholds, which allows safer material handling options at the supplier, distribution center, and the store.

Additionally, container openings promote ventilation and drainage to better enhance product quality. With perishable products, quickly cooling and maintaining refrigeration are key variables which RPCs are designed to meet. Also, the strength of RPCs allows better protection of merchandise when stacked.

Unlike corrugated cardboard containers, RPCs are not susceptible to moisture which can compromise carton performance.

RPCs were designed with merchandising in mind. The stocking of fresh produce is very labor intensive work. When shelving is designed to accommodate direct placement of RPCs, they can be placed directly on the shelf, negating the time to remove products from boxes and build displays. This is known as "one touch" merchandising. While this was seen for a time as an advantage of RPCs versus corrugated packaging, it should be noted that the tray pack is now commonly offered in corrugated containers for many fresh produce items as well, resulting in a similar one touch opportunity.

Carbon footprint has emerged as another important consideration. One major North American grocery retailer cited the following advantages of using RPCs in a press release:

  • Eliminated the use of over 17 million pounds of corrugated boxes
  • Avoided the harvesting of approximately 114,000 trees
  • Reduced emissions of 37,518 metric tons of green¬house gas emissions (CO2E) from the environment, equivalent to removing 6,872 pas¬senger cars off the road

Purchase or Rental

RPCs can be purchased for internal use.

Suppliers of RPCs include companies such as Rehrig Pacific, Schoeller Allibert and Orbis Corporation. In addition to choosing the correct size, other product considerations include durability, ease of use, compatibility with automation, drainage, ventilation, and empty return ratio. 

RPCs can also be rented by shippers for domestic and international deliveries. The leading international provider of such rental services in the US is IFCO Systems. Polymer Logistics and Tosca also offer RPC rental sergices. IFCO and Polymer Logistics are also active in Europe, along with Euro Pool System, Svenska Retursystem and others. Specialized RPCs have been designed to meet the needs of shipping such commodities as bananas, eggs, and fresh berries. Wood grain RPCs have been recently adopted by Walmart in a hope that they will help boost retail sales.

 

Challenges

Key challenges for the widespread adoption of RPCs in North America have been participant acceptance and the cost of reverse logistics. Another challenge has been the transactional nature of the fresh produce market. RPC usage is better suited to the packaging of produce where the buyer has already been determined and is a supporter of RPC usage. Increasingly, these hurdles have been overcome as participants come to enjoy the benefits of RPCs. Growing RPC volumes and improved transportation management technologies have helped reduce dwell time of containers and identify more cost effective transportation options. 

Going Forward

While the North American market share for RPCs still lags that of Europe, it continues to grow in popularity, as the benefits become more widely appreciated. 

Research

Brambles 2015 Sustainability Review

IFCO freshIMPACT™ Economic Modeling Tool

The role of packaging in minimising food waste in the supply chain of the future

RPCs Found to Deliver a Range of Benefits