Wal-Mart, a U.S. pioneer in reusable plastic cartons for the shipping and display of fresh produce, is revisiting the decision and considering a return to corrugated paper cartons starting with apples, citrus and stone fruit.

According to a letter sent this summer to suppliers, among the reasons for the change, originally scheduled for early September, is improved sustainability.

Whether the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer’s decision to return to paper cartons is final seems uncertain.

The grower-shipper community was hesitant to talk about Wal-Mart publicly.

“Wal-mart is asking the industry for input on RPCs for citrus shipments,” a spokesman for a California citrus grower-shipper said.

“Wal-mart is sending mixed messages,” said a spokesman for another grower-shipper. “We’re still not certain whether we may use RPCs after Sept. 10.”

From yet another grower-shipper:

“The directive from up top is that it is cardboard and not plastic, going forward,” he said. “The plastic containers were good in theory, but store-level execution for Wal-Mart was lacking.”

Apparently to give grower-shippers time to obtain supplies of the paper cartons, a subsequent July 27 letter from three Wal-Mart Stores Inc. executives, Michael Cochran, senior director of produce; Craig Carlson, senior director of produce; and Chet Rutledge, director of packing, delayed the transition until mid-October and provided additional reasons for the switch.

Wal-Mart declined to comment further on the letter, which says it is “conducting a series of in-market trials” and the change will provide better product identification, educate consumers, improve category navigation and product selection.

While the timeline has been modified, Wal-Mart requirements are not flexible.

“Suppliers will be required to use the Wal-Mart designed graphic corrugated boxes ... and should transition as seasonally relevant,” the letter said.

One letter identifies seven preferred corrugated carton suppliers for orchard fruit packaging:

  •   Georgia Pacific;
  •   Longview Fibre;
  •   Pratt Industries;
  •   Rock Tenn (Smurfit-Stone);
  •   Temple Inland;
  •   Boise Papera; and
  •   International Paper (Regionally)

The letter also indicated graphics have been finalized and are available to suppliers from Southern Graphics, Louisville, Ky., along with pre-press/adaption and printing plates.

A spokesman for a paper carton manufacturer said Wal-Mart “wants to tightly control the transition and the style and the colors (of the paper cartons).”

Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg declined to comment on the decision.

Wal-Mart’s 2011 Global Responsibility Report does not mention a planned switch from RPCs to paper.

Bruce Peterson, then senior vice president for Wal-Mart, spearheaded the company’s move to RPCs more than a decade ago. In a February 1999 story in The Packer, Peterson said a 1998 test of RPCs in six Florida stores was successful and that 200 stores were using the plastic cartons at the time of the article.

There are advantages to using RPCs, said the paper manufacturer’s spokesman.

“RPCs are all alike, they stack well and there is rarely damage to the produce,” he said. “It’s up to our industry to address those problems and to develop common footprint boxes from one commodity to another, from one supplier to another.”

Contamination was among the hurdles suppliers faced with the RPCs, grower-shippers said. Cleaning or sanitizing facilities for the plastic cartons are limited, they said.

For Wal-Mart, the RPCs required labor to collapse the cartons and storage space until they were retrieved.

Use of corrugated paper cartons may require similar labor costs in transferring the cartons to a baling machine for recycling. However, West Coast recyclers are paying up to $200 per ton for baled paper, “which could translate to millions of dollars a year in income for Wal-Mart,” the paper industry source said.