Ingenious new plastic crates pose a serious threat to the traditional one trip cardboard containers, says Sarah Hardcastle Will plastic or card/fibreboard win the battle to become the favoured material for transit packaging in the future? This question is getting a lot of airing in the supply chain at the moment following the creation last autumn of an industry standard for reusable plastic crates by the IGD's ECR group whose members include all the leading multiples. The ECRate, as it is known, is expected to eventually replace the 24 million or so reusable plastic crates of different designs created over the years by the multiples, which have added costs to the supply chain of returning proprietary models to individual retailers. At the moment the ECRate is at the strength testing stage, according to the IGD, which anticipates the first production models to become available at the end of this year. Like the great variety of plastic crates currently in circulation, it will be primarily used for fresh and chilled produce. The IGD says its full introduction ­ which could take several years to fully complete ­ will take the complexity out of the present system, reducing supplier costs, supply chain handling and waste disposal. One trip cardboard packaging, still extensively used for importing fruit and vegetables, now faces a further challenge with the creation of the Unilog reusable plastic folding crate. Developed by returnable transit packaging specialist Hays Crate Services and plastics manufacturer Arca, the Unilog folds nearly flat to almost a sixth of its height, making shipping back empty crates long distances to overseas suppliers a viable proposition for the first time. It is compatible with the ECRate and other stacking and nesting crates, giving users the opportunity to mix and match' it with their existing UK crate pools. Hays development manager Denise Troughton says one trip cardboard packaging has stayed the norm for imported produce because nesting crates are uneconomic and previous folding crate designs have not addressed the compatability issue. "Compared to a typical 75% nesting tray of similar dimensions, a folded Unilog occupies over 30% less space, providing a saving of at least 30% on return transport costs," says Troughton. "In addition, Unilog's uniform shape enables it to carry up to 20% more product than a tapered 75% nesting tray." Unilog has been on trial with two major retailers since November. Faced with these inroads to its business, the cardboard packaging industry is fighting back, with the Corrugated Packaging Association and its European counterpart FEFCO funding a study by Cranfield University into the relative merits of corrugated and reusable transit packaging due out this spring. Industry commentator Nigel Wilmshurst, md of Ceres Logistics, says cardboard retains its edge over plastic because ultimately "it consumes less miles per vehicle than plastic" and most retailer logistics systems are unidirectional, and therefore not geared to handling returnable packaging. {{FOCUS SPECIALS }}