Aiming to reduce waste and increase the shelf life of fruits, a team of designers developed the Reusable packaging for the storage of fruits and vegetables project. The result was a system that combines a recyclable tray with a reusable hinged base.
The structure of the base is airy, light, resistant and the perfect size, which minimizes damage to the fruits and reduces waste throughout the sales and distribution chain.
See how the designer/project coordinator, Luiz Carlos C. Motta, and the director of the INT, Domingos Manfredi Naveiro, developed the ideal packaging for this purpose.
The National Institute of Technology (INT) is a company with nearly 680 employees that is located in Rio de Janeiro. Founded in 1921, it is a polytechnic institute that works in more than 20 different areas of expertise.
Worldwide, 1.3 billion tons of fruit are annually lost in the transportation from the field to the final consumer. That amounts to one third of the total amount of food used for human consumption, according to data published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). In Brazil, nearly 40% of the fruits and vegetables produced do not reach consumers, and inadequate packaging has been identified as an important factor in this ongoing situation. Thus, the INT, in a partnership with the Food Technology Center at Embrapa and the Macromolecule Institute at UFRG, submitted a project to develop sustainable packaging. After a long negotiation period, BNDES authorized the funds for developing sustainable packaging for persimmons, mangos, strawberries, papayas and peach-palms.
The Brazilian fruit and vegetable market is dominated by reusable wooden boxes, though legislation restricts their use. One of the major wholesale markets (CEASA) receives products in this packaging. The market also has an increasing demand for cardboard packaging. In some cases, plastic boxes are also used, including with hinged formats. Nevertheless, these packages are generic. In other words, they can store a number of different fruits and vegetables. This generic packaging allows for fruits to be piled in multiple layers and does not favor good ventilation or refrigeration for the load.
Another serious situation is that this generic packaging does not have standard sizes, which makes transportation in large quantities very difficult. This damages the products being transported and causes a large number of post-harvest losses. Internationally, the solutions are very similar to the national ones; however, wooden boxes cannot be used. One large challenge was creating new packaging models for each type of fruit in order to reduce the post-harvest losses. Since natural food producers are very conservative, the packaging could not be too different from the current models, in order to avoid the risk of being rejected by the important agricultural players.
To overcome these challenges, a team of seven designers from the National Institute of Technology received funding from the Technological Fund (Funtec) and the National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES) to develop a project with reusable packaging for storing fruits and vegetables.
The INT’s partners in the development of this project were the Food Technology Center at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Company (Embrapa), which gave information about fruit physiologies and performed analyses to validate the packaging. The other partner was the Macromolecule Institute at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, which developed a vegetable and plastic fiber composite used in part of the packages. In addition, there were important collaborations with dozens of companies, associations, agricultural cooperatives and technical assistance from a number of extension agencies. Companies that import Brazilian fruits to the Netherlands and the United States also participated in evaluating the packaging.
Identifying and solving the problem
“Based on observation of the entire chain, from producer to final consumer, we identified recurring problems with fruit damage caused by inadequate storage and the influence on premature ripening,” explains INT researcher Luiz Carlos Motta. The packaging was evaluated and its weak points were verified. The team went to the production fields and monitored the products’ transportation until their arrival to the CEASAs and retail markets. They analyzed the distribution and sales logistics. Then, they took the fruits that were considered benchmarks to the laboratory. “Basically, we were the first people in the world to use image capturing technology to calculate the exact sizes (dimensions, quotas), formats and textures of fruits for the project,” he says.
The image files created with the scans were converted into 3D files, which yielded enormous gains for the project. Perfect replicas of the fruits were used, without having to take them from nature, or deal with the restrictions of harvests and the purchase and waste of so many fruits. The result was a system that combines a recyclable tray with a hinged and reusable base. It is very easy to assemble, and takes up much less space than the packaging currently used.
The trays can be produced with transparent PET and give a 360° view of the fruits, making them ideal for use at retail locations. The shapes of the trays include a number of cavities to accommodate a large variety of fruits according to their sizes. These cavities separate the fruits from each other and help prevent cross-contamination.
The base, which folds and assembles in one simple movement, facilitates logistics, as well as reduces assembly time when compared to the conventional boxes. The sizes available are perfectly suitable for both Brazilian and European pallets, validating the product for use in the internal market, as well as for exportation. Though the bases have different dimensions, they still fit into each other, allowing for unified and precise piles (unitization).
The base structure is airy, light, resistant and the perfect fit to allow perfect air circulation for all of the air conditioned fruits, and facilitates the release of ethylene gas. Since it allows for perfect respiration and aeration of the fruits, it minimizes the impact of transportation and handling, and consequently extends the life cycle of products and reduces waste throughout the chain, from the producer to the final consumer. Therefore, even when the packages are piled together on pallets, the system allows the appropriate ventilation and cooling of each type of fruit, preventing their ripening. The use of composites in the base reduces the use of non-renewable raw materials and discourages its sale to the parallel recycling market, stimulating reuse.
Tools and software used
In addition to the information provided by Embrapa about the physiology of the fruits, field studies were vital to identifying the production, harvest and post-harvest processes, how losses and damages to fruits occurred and which points were the most critical. During this research, samples were taken from different types and sizes of fruits included in the project (persimmons, mangoes and papayas) in order to identify benchmarks. The fruits chosen were scanned, and a data bank about them was created. These virtual files were used for studies of packaging layouts and for creating milled volumetric models of fruits. Since they are seasonal, the fruits are not available in every shape throughout the year.
The quick and traditional prototypes were also essential for creating and discussing ideas with producers and merchants and conferring with industrial representatives about the shapes of the packaging. They also helped test the fittings and locks. The packaging was tested in laboratories, in the field and at wholesale and retail locations.
The software used in these procedures was: Rhinoceros/VRay 4.0, Solidworks 2012, Solidworks Simulation and Handyscan imaging software.
Project duration from initial concept to final presentation:
Initial survey: 6 to 12 months, depending on the fruit.
Creation of alternatives and tests: 12 to 18 months.
Pilot Production: 6 months.
Technological transfer: 6 months.
Many activities took place simultaneously, since the project included five different types of fruits, three of which involved developing hinged packaging. Since the packaging evaluations from the field from producers, transporters, intermediaries, markets and final consumers depended on the timing of the harvest; priorities were given based on these limitations.
The first important result for the project was considerably extending the shelf life of the products, as well as the life cycle as a whole. It also greatly reduced post-harvest losses, for example, persimmon losses were reduced by 70%.
The second important result for the project is reflected in the markets’ acceptance of the packaging, at levels which are somewhat surprising to INT. Though the project is still in its final stages, with the last experimental batches being delivered to producers and the technology transfer phase taking place, there is already a list of packaging manufacturers, distributors and agricultural producers who are interested in manufacturing or using these packages nationally and internationally (the Netherlands and the United States).
The third important result was in the field of innovation. Up to this point, this project has generated a total of one invention patent and 14 utility models and industrial designs.
The fourth result, certainly a consequence of the first three, was international recognition obtained from the IF Design Award 2013, in the Packaging category. In addition to this important prize, the project was seen nationally on a report on the Jornal Nacional news program on Rede Globo, and various other media outlets (over 50 different stories).
These results and publications placed INT as a reference for packaging development. This line of research is currently considered a priority at the Institute. The total cost for this project was 7.5 million, 2.5 million of which was used for the INT design process.
As this project comes to an end, new partnerships are being solidified to expand the number of fruits handled by the system, as well as proposals for new packaging projects and products that are not only for fruits and vegetables.
Luiz Carlos C. Motta (designer and project coordinator):
“According to the FAO, by 2019 Brazil will be the largest food producer in the world. Therefore, reduction of post-harvest losses is urgently necessary. This project illustrates how important continuous research on the development of sustainable packaging (especially for fruits and vegetables) is to the country from an economic, social and environmental standpoint. The designer has a crucial role in this process, because their knowledge and research enable the production of innovative projects that work with the specific characteristics of each fruit and vegetable in order to reduce losses.”
Domingos Manfredi Naveiro (director of INT):
“The National Institute of Technology has been supporting innovation in Brazil for over 90 years, focusing on society’s real demands. This project is an excellent case study for highlighting INT’s work. It is a project that focuses an urgent societal need, and affects a very serious social problem in Brazil. Though we are one of the largest food manufacturers in the world, our country is still struggling with issues related to malnutrition and famine. The manner in which the project was conceived and executed also illustrates innovation and highlights the importance of working in a network, through the joint efforts of various organizations that aim to solve a problem. Technical teams at INT, UFRJ, EMBRAPA and BNDES worked together to make implementing and obtaining results feasible. Finally, I would like to emphasize the need for multidisciplinary technical teams to address every aspect of the project, with a design team leading the process as a whole. I am sure that this project reinforces the INT mission, which is to participate in Brazilian sustainable development through technological research, transfers of knowledge and promoting innovation.”
Design: INT – National Institute of Technology.
Luiz Carlos Motta, Gil Brito, Marcos Garamvolgyi, Welida Barbosa, Diego Costa, Karina Araújo, Marina Moreira, Luciano Gralha and Pedro Braga.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.