Reefer containers protect food supply and boost developing economies says Anders Holm GM marketing and sales, Maersk Container Industry. Even though government reactions to the recent pandemic had the effect of pressing the reset button on much of the world’s economy, the global trade in food remained relatively unaffected. Whatever else was going on, the world’s population still needed to be fed.
However, the major issues highlighted by the recent crisis turned renewed attention on the question of sustainability, and especially how hard-pressed economies intend to deal with increased pressures on their supply chains. After all, the inevitable further squeeze on costs is going to affect everyone, and above all those whose businesses are marginal at the best of times.
Shipping food around the world, particularly perishable and delicate fruits and vegetables, is an intensely competitive business where margins are measured in small percentages. In this context, controlled atmosphere reefers play a vital role: not just in ensuring that high-value cargos reach their destination in perfect condition, but in maximising energy efficiency and minimising costs for operators.
As natural products, fruits and vegetables are still alive after harvesting and continue to consume oxygen (O2) and release carbon dioxide (CO2) as they ripen. The key to slowing down the ripening process, and thus extending the transportation window, is controlling the supply of O2 and the extraction of CO2. Left to freely consume O2 inside unregulated reefer containers, the produce would become rotten long before completing the voyage.
With properly regulated atmospheric control, however, even the most delicate fruits, such as avocados, bananas and blueberries can easily survive anything from 28-45 days in transit and still arrive in perfect condition.
Passive beats active
There are two basic approaches to controlled atmosphere technology: passive and active. The active system injects nitrogen (N2) into the reefer to reduce CO2 levels more quickly. However, the process is more complex and costly and requires additional flushing to achieve and maintain the correct balance of gases for specific fruits. Besides which, with voyages of up to 40 days or more, the benefit of rapidly reducing CO2 levels to the desired set point is negligible.
The passive system, in contrast, allows for a more natural exchange of fresh air and CO2, which is simpler, less energy-intensive and more stable. With its well-proven Star Cool Controlled Atmosphere (CA) reefers, Maersk Container Industry (MCI) has established beyond doubt that the passive system is both more than adequate to the task while offering class-leading energy savings and environmental performance.
The Star Cool CA system manages the container’s atmosphere by using a membrane constructed of multi-layered, high-tech polymer film. This facilitates the controlled removal of CO2 while the auto-fresh air intake carefully balances the optimum atmosphere by preventing O2 levels from falling below set point.
Innovation is the key
Since first launching in 2009 the global Star Cool CA fleet already numbers some 80,000 units, giving these advanced reefers an 85% market share. The controlled atmosphere system can be enhanced by related technologies such as CA+, which gives shippers even more control over the gas mix. This is particularly relevant for low-respiring fruits like blueberries or lychees, which need extremely precise control of CO2 levels.
Another option is the MCI’s advanced StarConomy software system. This uniquely controls both compressor and fan speed at the same time to minimise the build-up of heat while maintaining a precise atmosphere. Further MCI innovations include the Sekstant software system, which provides real-time reefer information, monitoring and reporting. This helps shipping companies to pin-point weaknesses in the cold chain and thereby prevent food loss.
Markets that were beyond growers reach before Star Cool CA
The widespread adoption of MCI’s Star Cool CA reefers by the world’s shipping lines has facilitated a step change for both growers and consumers. A decade ago, perishable commodities like blueberries would only be seen on supermarket shelves for at most a couple of months of the year. These delicious and nutritious fruits are now a year-round staple, worldwide.
Similarly, there was a time when the super-food avocado was a rare luxury in China. Today, it is a daily favourite enjoyed by the massed market. Thanks to the capabilities of Star Cool CA, imports of avocado into China have increased by a factor of 1,400 in just the last seven years. This is not only great for domestic consumers, it is also a fantastic opportunity for growers too, who can now access huge markets that were beyond their reach before Star Cool CA.
How the world will emerge from the recent crisis is the question on everybody’s lips today. But regardless of how it ultimately pans out, technologies like Star Cool CA reefers will be playing a pivotal role. Not just in ensuring a steady supply of perishable food to new and distant markets, but also in protecting the economic viability of regions of the world that will be feeling the pressure more than most. Something to think about next time you pass a Star Cool reefer on the road.