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The use of plastic trays are integral to the distribution and maintained food safety of baked goods, dairy products, beverages, and other food items. Given their durability and ease of cleaning, food companies invest substantially in their own stock of trays to be circulated between their plants, depots, and commercial customers. These trays are then collected by the company and begin the process again.

However, the theft of plastic trays is a major issue within the food industry. While tray theft is often at the hands of criminal organizations engaged in regrinding operations, corporate theft is also problematic as some companies try to evade capital expenditure costs. Left unchecked, the replacement costs associated with these crimes can lead to decreased capital investment and more expensive products. Companies within the baking industry alone often spend well over $10 Million annually in replacement costs.

The Coalition for Returnable Plastic Container Theft Prevention serves as a source of materials and guidance for companies struggling to combat the issue of tray loss. While there is no single law or ordinance that can solve the issue outright, accurate and detailed reporting, use of signage, and advocacy can be utilized together to bring relief to our industries.

What is reusable packaging?

In general, consumer goods packaging can be categorized into two basic groups:
  1. primary packaging that directly contains and protects an individual product and
  2. secondary packaging that typically unitizes the primary packaging into a case, carton or multipack for more efficient order selection and distribution.

For example, one-gallon plastic milk jugs are a common primary package in the fluid milk industry and rigid plastic milk crates are considered the secondary package that holds the milk jugs. Multiple milk crates are stacked or loaded onto pallets for refrigerated retail distribution. After the milk jugs are removed from the milk crate for retail display, the empty milk crates are collected and returned to the fluid milk manufacturer in what is referred to as “closed-loop” distribution. Full crates go out, empty crates come back in, and the closed-loop is established.

The milk jug is considered a one-way, disposable item that is either discarded or recycled depending on the specific residential waste or recycling service available to the end consumer.

In comparison, the plastic milk crate is returned to be reused in its original form. Reusable packaging, like plastic milk crates, require manufacturers to carefully monitor the supply chain to ensure that their returnable assets are properly used and returned in a timely manner.

Reusable packaging, in a wide variety of sizes, types, and materials, is used globally for applications in the agriculture, automotive, bakery, beer, beverage, c-store, dairy, grocery, material handling, pharmaceutical, protein, and waste management industries.

Why is reusable packaging important to your bottom line and the environment?

Major university life-cycle studies indicate that returnable, reusable and recyclable rigid transport packaging is a more effective alternative to one-way disposable packaging systems in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, energy consumed, and landfill use. Given the rising cost of fossil fuels alone, the key to sustainable packaging is reuse. The more the reusable asset is used, the greater the ROI and overall supply chain savings.

Sustainability refers to our ability to protect the environment and our natural resources. Corporate initiatives to reduce waste, landfills, greenhouse gases, and carbon footprint are measurable and carefully considered by shareholders. Companies strive to be good stewards of the environment not only for ethical reasons but also to enhance their image and bottom line whenever possible.

Supply chains come in all shapes and sizes. However, manufacturers that can identify a closed-loop distribution model as the fluid milk industry cited above, typically uncover a long list of operational benefits. Reusable packaging can positively impact production, warehousing, distribution, quality, safety, order selection, and retail delivery costs.

Using this example, a rigid plastic milk crate loads and stacks efficiently protects the primary product from damage and functions between -10F and +130F either wet or dry. In addition, milk crates are washable to address new FSMA compliance requirements and, if broken, plastic milk crates can be recycled to recoup a portion of the material cost.

Why is theft of plastic reusable packaging such a costly problem?

Illegal plastics recycling, theft, and misuse of returnable plastic packaging assets continue to plague the reusable packaging industry and no vertical segment seems to be immune from costly loss rates. The most common victims are obvious; high-volume bakery, beverage, dairy and grocery customers in North America estimate annual tray, crate and pallet losses to exceed $500 million. No one can be exactly sure but anytime the flow of assets in a closed-loop distribution model is interrupted, more likely than not, the owner of the reusable assets will be burdened by unnecessary costs.

Manufacturers in closed-loop distribution models need a steady flow of empty returns to meet daily production requirements. If reusable packaging is depleted, production will be compromised. Raw materials will be wasted or disposed of. Hourly labor will sit idle. Electricity will be consumed. Alternate one-way packaging will be procured. Orders may be missed. Revenue will likely be lost.

The cost of replacing any reusable asset combined with the residual impact on everyday operations is significant. In addition, the widespread popularity of reusable packaging makes illegal possession and theft too tempting.

Without proper awareness, internal leadership, education, technology, law enforcement, and state legislation, all working together simultaneously, the problem of illegal plastic packaging theft and misuse will continue to burden these supply chains and increase prices for consumer goods.