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“The biggest impact we can have as an industry is to reduce the amount of plastic we put in the system to begin with”

While the horticultural industry has long used plastics for trays and pots, the consumer push towards environmental sustainability has some companies rethinking their business models to reduce their carbon footprint. Ahead of their time, Blackmore Company, a commercial horticultural systems and equipment supplier based in Michigan, embarked on recycling and reusing its plastic over a decade ago. Established in 1966, this family-owned and operated company has consistently sought to devise and implement smart, simple solutions for their customers.

When tackling the challenge of recycling plastic, Scott Blackmore, third generation owner, knew he needed to create a channel for customers to recycle their trays, however, to make it financially sustainable, he also needed to devise a way to reuse that plastic and reduce the amount of virgin plastic they used. He was successful. Today Blackmore recycles used trays from participating customers and reuses them in their manufacturing processes. Combining this post-consumer plastic with post-industrial plastics, their trays are now composed of up to 90% recycled plastics.

“More work on recycling and reusing plastics is still needed to make it a viable option for customers no matter where they are located,” says Lars Jensen, National Sales Director for Blackmore Company. “While some companies, our competitors included, are also making strides here, in order to maximize accessibility and minimize additional carbon costs in the recovery process, everyone needs to be involved.”

Lars acknowledges recycling and reusing plastics is only part of the path to net zero and their next step at Blackmore is to focus on reducing the total amount of plastic put into the system. Interested in developing a comprehensive solution for this, they are working with Dr. Kate Santos, a botanical expert and consultant in the horticulture industry. “What excites me about working with the Blackmore team is the opportunity to be part of an important evolution for their company and our industry,” explains Kate. “Blackmore has chosen to take a holistic approach to the plastic challenge by improving upon the circularity of the system and its products. The strides they made over 10 years ago have positioned them well for where to go next.”

What does Blackmore want to focus on next? A more circular alternative to the plastic pot. A study conducted in 2019 found only 9% of plastic waste produced was recycled. Kate emphasizes that the recycling infrastructure today cannot adequately handle both the volume and diversity of products that consumers try to recycle, therefore the majority is still ending up in landfills. “The biggest impact we can have as an industry is to reduce the amount of plastic we put in the system to begin with,” says Kate.

Blackmore is proposing an integrated solution called Air Tray® Technologies that reduces the amount of plastic in the wholesale production system, increases the circularity of their products by keeping them within the wholesale stream, brings manufacturing local, and optimizes production efficiencies for growers. Air Tray® Technologies combines Blackmore’s recent Air Tray® advancements with innovations like the Ellepot to provide a plantable alternative to the plastic pot. Blackmore plans to offer a complimentary retail packaging solution that reduces the amount of plastic going to retail by 95%. Look for the first prototypes at Cultivate this summer.

Air Tray® Racks elevate plants to increase air flow to the roots, minimize risk of disease transmission, and improve transport efficiencies.

Air Tray® by Blackmore Company with a boxwood rooted in a 100mm Ellepot. The well branched roots are a result of the air root pruning achieved through the patented tray design.

Environmentally sustainable
“We invite the industry to come and see what we are working on. Our strategy to reduce plastic waste is more than an environmentally sustainable one, but also financially sustainable. By reducing waste, you can also reduce costs,” says Lars, “Ask us how.”

Does Blackmore see plastics staying in the wholesale stream forever? Not necessarily. There are several developments they are watching in biopolymers that could be the material of the future. But before they make that leap, it will be about understanding the full life cycle of the material and the infrastructure available to support processing it. For now, Blackmore will continue to do what they do best. “Focus on developing smart, simple and sustainable solutions for our customers and the industry.”

For more information:
Blackmore Company

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Japanese tomato harvest robot in action in Tomatoworld

A new tomato harvesting robot has recently been driving through the paths of Tomatoworld. It is the latest product of inaho Europe, a subsidiary of the Japanese company inaho.  “The purpose of launching the demonstration at Tomatoworld is to allow more interested people to see the robot in operation,” says Takahito Shimizo, managing director of inaho Europe. “We want to demonstrate the robot and receive more feedback from growers, in order to develop and increase the value of the robot.”

Snack tomato robot
Tomatoworld is a horticultural information and education center in Westland, Netherlands. In the greenhouse, snack tomatoes are grown.

Takahito Shimizo shows how the robot is a fully automatic harvesting device for snack tomatoes. “The AI algorithm identifies the ripe fruits by color and size and then harvests the ripe snack tomatoes.”

inaho has already conducted field trials with growers in Japan and demonstrated a reduction in human working hours of around 16% by setting up a workflow in which robots harvest during the nighttime before humans do.

Meanwhile, inaho also found that there are differences between Japanese and Dutch growers in terms of harvest and post-harvest operations. “For example, the standards for the picking appropriate color of the fruits and the frequency of harvesting are different,” says Takahito.

In order to develop a solution that is more suitable for Dutch growers, inaho is keen to get a better understanding of the Dutch growers’ practices and receive more operational feedback from them. In this context, inaho is also actively seeking a grower partner who would be able to carry out a field trial of the harvesting robot.

Growers welcome
The demonstration in Tomatoworld also contributes to this: growers are invited to come and see and assess the robot. “We are happy to discuss details about the robot, such as its functions and expected future updates. We can also provide simulations to calculate the labor and cost savings, based on the results of the trials in Japan,” Takahito says.

It is not the Japanese company’s first robot. inaho already launched an AI-equipped asparagus harvesting robot (video) in 2019. They are also working on a robot that can phenotype plants. inaho operates according to the Robot-as-a-Service (RaaS) business model – paying per harvested product.



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BelOrta launches 100% recycled & recyclable strawberry punnet

Starting this week, the first Belgian strawberries from BelOrta will be packed in new packaging. These are Tray2Tray punnets made from recycled raw materials that are still 100% recyclable. Consumers can recognize these punnets by a special logo.

Starting this week, the first Belgian strawberries from BelOrta will be packed in new packaging. These are Tray2Tray punnets made from recycled raw materials that are still 100% recyclable. Consumers can recognize these punnets by a special logo.
BelOrta launches 100% recycled & recyclable strawberry punnet 89

Together with Fost Plus and Infia, BelOrta says it is taking ‘the next step in increasingly sustainable production and distribution’. “This step contributes to a circular economy. Not unimportant, because recent figures show that we are eating more and more home-grown strawberries,” according to the cooperative. 

Closed cycle

With the strawberry punnets, no empty strawberry tray has to end up on the waste mountain from now on, because every packaging can be processed and reused as raw material for new packaging.

Jo Lambrecht, Sales & Marketing Manager at BelOrta: “With this Tray2Tray concept, in which new punnets are made from used packaging, we contribute to a circular economy. We have been working with so-called ‘r-PET’ as a raw material for 4 years, recycled from water and soft drinks bottles and other PET packaging that consumers collect. The New Blue Bag has recently been introduced to us for the collection of all plastic packaging waste. 

By the way, Belgians are champions in sorting and collecting waste, which makes a difference to a healthier and more pleasant living environment. Thanks to new techniques, developed under the impulse of Fost Plus, we can now also sort these r-PET punnets (cf. the new blue bag) and recycle them into flakes, after which they are used again as raw material for the production of new packaging, such as for our strawberries and berries. This completes the cycle.”

450 tons less CO2 emissions per year

But what about ‘the most sustainable packaging is no packaging’? Lambrecht: “That is indeed true for many products, often including food. We try to avoid or reduce the use of packaging wherever possible. But for sensitive and perishable products, well-chosen packaging is crucial in the fight against food waste. Various tests, including with strawberries and berries, have taught us that well thought-out packaging makes all the difference. Wasting less food reduces our ecological footprint. Moreover, r-PET as a raw material has a low ecological footprint compared to many other materials.”

For BelOrta, the replacement of PET by r-PET means a reduction of 450 tons of CO2 emissions per year. 

Belgians eat an average of 1.94 kg of strawberries per year

More than 9,000 tons of strawberries were sold in 2020 via BelOrta. With over 100 different growers, the acreage of strawberries at BelOrta is about 300 hectares, an increase of 4% compared to the previous year.

Recent figures from market research agency GfK also show that the average Belgian ate 1.94 kg of strawberries in 2020. That is a growth of more than 12% compared to the previous year. Elsanta, Portola, Elegance, Malling Centenary, Sonata and Sonsation are the main varieties at BelOrta.

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Packaging system

Sustainable packaging company adds cardboard tray to its portfolio

Cascades, a North America and European based packaging company, is launching the first thermoformed cardboard tray. The product is made from 100 percent recycled and recyclable cardboard and has a recyclable water-based barrier coating which prevents moisture. “The cardboard tray makes a true alternative to plastic and foam trays,” says Jacques Bissonnette with Cascades’ Canada office. “Sustainable packaging is getting more important, enforced by retail regulations as well as consumer demand,” he added.

“In November of last year, we did a successful soft launch in Canada with the cardboard tray for mini cucumber. Just this month, a US customer started using the trays for sweet corn.” The product is available in a range of different sizes from 8 2/16 inches length, 8 11/16 inches wide to 1 11/16 inches height. However, Cascades also offers tailormade solutions. The tray is suitable for a wide range of fruits and vegetables, from Brussels sprouts to bell peppers, green beans, and much more. “The package will stand out even more if it is combined with a compostable top seal film, making it a fully sustainable solution,” Bissonnette added.

Telling the story
“We think it’s really important to tell the story how sustainable packaging can help to reduce the environmental footprint and achieve the retailer’s sustainability goals.” To support the story, Cascades has developed an LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) for all its product lines.

“This means we can tell the client exactly the amount of environmental footprint reduction they will be able to achieve with one of our sustainable solutions compared to the material they are using currently.” A lot of the current plastic packaging as well as foam packaging can be replaced by this cardboard solution and has proven to offer equivalent shelf life to plastic”. The new cardboard tray works with existing machinery and tooling for plastic trays, meaning that no extra investment is required for producers or packers looking to make the switch to cardboard.”

Cascades also invested in research on the consumer side. “It’s not only the demand for sustainability that has grown but also the willingness among consumers to put their money where their mouth is,” said Bissonnette. Most consumers are willing to pay a bit more for produce that is sustainably packaged. Also, better labeling on the packaging would encourage consumers to buy more green, sustainable packaging. “It is still a bit more expensive but both producers and retailers should not be afraid to raise their prices a bit. We are not talking about full dollars but just a few cents, ” Bissonnette noted.

For more information:
Jacques Bissonnette
Cascades Specialty Products Group
Tel:+ 1 514-378-0332

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