(April 12) Paper or plastic?

It’s a fairly benign question when the subject is what to take your groceries home in. But when you’re talking about what to transport fresh fruits and vegetables in, from field to store, it can be a weightier issue.

There are corrugated people, and there are reusable plastic container people, and their relationship might sometimes be likened to that of water and oil.

Ned Sams doesn’t see why it has to be.

Sams, sales manager for Bulk Bin Packaging, Etc., Grass Valley, Calif., oversees a world in which plastic, paper and other materials co-exist in bulk bin harmony.

“We offer an alternative that the paper industry doesn’t really offer,” he said. “We offer paper, plastic, solid fiber — you name it, we can do it.”

Bulk Bin is a broker that works with a network of suppliers from all four corners of the country to get its customers whatever suits their bulk needs — regardless of material.

That’s more than can be said, he added, for other companies.

“The paper industry is not very interested in anything that’s plastic,” Sams said.

As an example, he said paper giant Georgia-Pacific Corp., Atlanta, is interested in getting a piece of the plastic action but not in investing too heavily in something it’s not sure is profitable.

“Georgia-Pacific is offering (reusable plastic bulk bins) on a limited basis,” he said.

Sams said he isn’t partial to plastic over corrugated and that Georgia-Pacific happens to be a good business partner of Bulk Bin. Bulk Bin supplies its customers with a lot of product made by the Georgia-Pacific.

“RPCs are trying to steal market share, and people claim that they are, but I’m not seeing that,” Sams said.

Bulk Bin’s latest product is a full-footprint, four-sided corrugated bin that the company proudly advertises on its Web site as 80% cheaper than plastic. The bin comes standard in 24-inch and 36-inch sizes, and the company also will custom-build bins to suit customers’ needs.

The advantage of the four-sided bins is they fit flush on pallets. With traditional octagonal bins, the corners of the square pallets stick out past the bins, posing a tripping hazard.

BINS FOR BLAND

After workers who harvest onions for Bland Farms LLC, Glennville, Ga., hand-clip the company’s Vidalias, the onions can sit in the field for up to a week while they dry, said Delbert Bland, president.

Traditionally, those onions have been left in the field in burlap bags. But a few years ago, Bland started to notice problems with that approach. Moisture from the ground was seeping through the bottoms of the bags, making the onions on the bottom of the bag wet.

Instead of drying, those onions were staying wet, increasing the likelihood of bruising, Bland said. Meanwhile, an opposite problem was occurring at the top of the bag. Onions at the top were dry, all right, but they were also hot because of direct exposure to the sun. When onions get too hot, their cell structure can break down, also causing bruising, Bland said.

“The ones in the middle of the bag were the only ones that were just right,” Bland said.

To fix the problem, three years ago Bland Farms began packing onions in 20-bushel bin boxes. The bins were stacked three high, and a lid put on the top bin, preventing the onions on top from getting too hot.

Meanwhile, the bins also protected the onions on the bottom from ground moisture. Vents in the bins aired out the onions, allowing them to dry.

New this year at Bland, the company has begun transporting the bins straight from the field into a new drying room.

That solves another bruising problem. Before this year, workers would unload onions onto conveyor belts, where they were graded. Rumbling down the conveyor belt also caused bruising, Bland said.

Now, warm air is forced through floor vents in the new drying room into the bins.

“This year, we’ve taken it one step further,” Bland said. “We don’t touch that onion from the time it’s clipped until it’s put in a box. The shelf life is greatly increased, and it makes a much better onion.”

Before the company started using bins, Bland estimates 20% of its onions were getting bruised in the drying process.