Though it still represents a small percentage of overall produce shipments, Safeway and other retailers are expanding use of reusable product containers.

Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway said it made the transition to RPCs for many types of produce in the last two years, eliminating 17 million pounds of corrugated boxes and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 37,518 metric tons.

If a typical cardboard box weighs about a pound and a half, 17 million pounds translates to more than 11 million corrugated cartons.

According to a news release, Safeway began testing RPCs in its distribution system for fresh wet-pack produce in early 2010 and continued the transition in 2011. Wet pack produce, including green onions, radishes and other commodities, are topped with ice. Safeway’s major supplier of RPCs is IFCO Systems, according to the release.

Safeway Vice President of Transportation Tom Nartker said in the release that using environmentally friendly methods is part of Safeway’s commitment to sustainable business practices.

“This expansion into produce is a natural extension of best practices in logistics,” Nartker said in the release.

A spokesman for Safeway could not be reached for comment.

The use of RPCs for apples represents a small fraction of the overall Washington crop, said Dan Kelly, assistant manager of the Wenatchee-based Washington Growers Clearing House.

For the 2010-11 Washington apple season, packinghouses representing about two-thirds of the state’s volume reported 1.5 million RPC shipments. If another third is added to account for unreported shipments, Kelly said about 2.3 million RPCs were used that season, from a fresh crop of about 108 million cartons.

In February, Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. said in a news release that using RPCs for fresh commodities this year will eliminate 45 million pounds of waxed and corrugated boxes. Commodities Kroger receives in RPCs include green onions, radishes, lettuce, grapes, tomatoes, avocados, corn, beans, carrots, cabbage and cauliflower, according to the release.

Wal-Mart has been using RPCs for fresh produce since 1998, but it also accepted shipments in corrugated cartons.

“It appears five years ago there was a trend away from RPCs and now it appears that some of the major players are trending back toward RPCs,” said Keith Mathews, chief executive officer of FirstFruits Marketing of Washington, Yakima.

Mathews, however, said RPCs don’t necessarily offer cost advantages compared with corrugated cartons.