Punnets are in very short supply this season: for its table grapes and stonefruit exports alone, South Africa needs, at a conservative estimate, 550 million punnets per year.

Up until July, South Africa’s three plastic punnet manufacturers were on track with their production of almost 30 different types of export punnets and fewer punnets were ordered from overseas.

“We were on schedule to supply the entire crop,” says Dawid Maritz of Mpact Versapak, second largest punnet manufacturer. “Then loadshedding became worse in August and it’s 100% the result of loadshedding that we’ve fallen behind on our production schedules.”

The output of punnet manufacturers has been significantly affected by loadshedding

Dawid notes that South Africa’s punnet manufacturers had in fact started very early with the production of punnets for the new season, as soon as the previous grape season was ending.

Punnet manufacturer declares force majeure
FreshPlaza has seen a letter in which another of South Africa’s punnet manufacturers declared force majeure last month as a result of the impact of the increased frequency of loadshedding.

At the same time the punnet price has gone up hugely, due to polymer price increases.

It is feared that the table grape industry could run completely short of export punnets this season.

Waiting lists for punnets at some of the plastic manufacturers are three months long. 

“There is an enormous punnet shortage in the whole table grape industry,” Dawid confirms. “Punnet availability is a total mess.”

A grape marketer in the Northern Regions remarks: “The punnet shortage is a big issue and we are all affected by it. Some packhouses are running on three day stock levels which is a high risk.”

Not all of the grape packers contacted for this article reported punnet shortages. Some say they ordered six months ago and have adequate supply. Others point out that they can only order once their retail programmes have been finalised.

In Namibia, Capespan’s Kobus Bothma says that they ordered their punnets well in advance and have sufficient stock currently.

Imports not covering the shortfall
Even under ideal production conditions and at full capacity, local manufacture alone can’t satisfy South Africa’s punnet needs and the balance – around 120 million punnets, it has been estimated - needs to be imported.

One packaging supplier says it has doubled its punnet imports and this is still not enough. Imported punnets aren’t getting to packhouses on time because of vessels bypassing the ports and the myriad of global logistics problems.

Stonefruit exports are less affected, but stonefruit producers packing for the local market are also affected, as are retailers on certain lines like herbs.

Bulk packing instead of punnets
Producers and exporters have had to adjust their marketing plans to accommodate for the lack of punnets, with an increase in heatseal and loose packaging options.

South African grapes in heatseal punnets (archive photo)

Bulk packing for repacking on the receiving side is an option, but the costs of that route are “astronomical” and in the current climate of cost increases (of punnets as well as most everything else) not all grape producers want to or can pack their grapes in bulk format.

Plastic ziplock bags could replace the punnets but, being themselves imported, they are also in short supply.

Availability of paper bags with handles is not geared for the high volumes that would be required to replace punnets (apart from postharvest considerations).

Less plastic in punnets
South African retailers tell FreshPlaza they stock up in advance and are allowing a greater range of punnets, in terms of weight and thickness.

“Some of the punnets will be much flimsier this season because they are a lot thinner as less plastic is used in them,” a retail buyer notes. Close to 80% of South African fruit punnets, both for export and for local consumption, are already fully made of postconsumer recycled PET plastic.

Polystyrene and paperboard punnets are alternatives to plastic punnets for local retail.

Getting hold of specialised herb punnets is currently a major headache and South African consumers who will be seeing more herbs packed in bags this season.

A video of the punnet production process: