Keeping seafood fresh and healthy means using storage containers designed for just that purpose. Sustainable and eco-friendly? Even better.
Built for strength, durability and longevity, Saeplast’s double-walled PUR insulated polyethylene containers keep a wide range of food fresh for prolonged periods of time, ultimately extending the quality lifetime of seafood products. For more than 40 years, this New Brunswick manufacturing company’s high standards and demanding product design have meant superior handling, increased safety and stellar reliability.
Saeplast manufactures its product using a process called rotational moulding. What is it? By placing raw pigmented polyethylene powder into steel moulds and rotating them both vertically and horizontally inside a high heat oven for a specific period of time, you will get Saeplast containers. This process results in no stress placed on the polymer itself and no orientation in the materials, which ultimately means high durability, says Saeplast’s Managing Director Brian Gooding. It’s also exceptional for creating robust physical properties.
“What we’re trying to do with Saeplast PUR is provide a cold chain solution through a long value chain that the customer might have,” says Gooding. “For ice, whether it’s flake, slurry or brine, temperature control is extremely important. We put a lot of value on R-value and durability. The reason we’re the leader in our space is because of the amount of work we do in this area to continuously improve the product.”
Saeplast always has multiple projects on the go. Founded in 1979 with the help of Department of Fisheries and Oceans seed money to help fishers on the east coast of Canada improve catch quality, the company has worked hard to eliminate the cyclical nature of the business, says Gooding, who has been heading Saeplast now for 10 years.
“Because we were fully invested in the fish and seafood side of the market, particularly here in North America, for many years, we would be busy from March until September, and then the business would essentially go dormant from September through to February or March, depending on the season and weather conditions. To me that seemed like quite a waste,” he shares.
What to do in the other five or six months of the year was a challenge. Saeplast embarked on a strategy to undertake two fundamental things: One was entering other geography on a strategic basis, and that geography was Latin America. The company had always done work in Mexico direct with end users and through distribution. But in Central or South America, “If we got an order, that was great. If we didn’t get an order, we weren’t counting on it anyway. This region was treated totally opportunistically. To me that just seemed wrong,” says Gooding. Countries like Chile, Ecuador and Peru are big fish and aquaculture producers, with Chile behind only Norway as the second largest producer of Atlantic Salmon. With Ecuador being a huge supplier of shrimp to the world market, the COVID-19 pandemic has only increased the globe’s dependence on Ecuadoran shrimp.
The second strategy the company embarked on was the development of a new product line following in the footsteps of its European operations. While Saeplast has its core fish, seafood and aquaculture segment, European colleagues had entered into what’s termed the ‘protein segments’ – defined as pork, poultry and beef. With sustainability and durability in mind, Saeplast looked to move past certain materials like corrugated cardboard, which is often not recyclable in this context. If blood has been spilled on the material, for example, there’s a risk of cross-contamination, so those cardboard containers end up being landfilled. Thus, the triple wall polyethylene line of products was created – Saeplast PE.
“When you start looking at some other substrates, particularly paper-based solutions, you find they’re unbelievably expensive,” says Gooding. “It’s not so much about the initial price of the container; it comes down to the cost of the container over a period of six months or a year. They might be able to use a triple-walled corrugated box maybe twice, then it would either be contaminated or literally rip apart. We thought that was a waste.”
Stainless steel is another concern, says Gooding. While many think that stainless steel is indestructible, it has a high cost associated with its purchase price, is extremely dangerous to employees because of nicks and cuts incurred from the steel itself, and is extremely noisy and expensive to repair.
Saeplast prides itself on educating clients about their choices. “I’m really proud of that fact,” says Gooding. “Our team has done an excellent job and it’s one of the things that clearly differentiates Saeplast from our competitors and why we’ve been able to grow so much more rapidly than the average producer of containers to the food market segment, whether it’s fish or poultry, pork or red meat.”
Recent challenges facing the industry have varied, but COVID-19, of course, has played a huge role, on multiple levels, in the company’s operations this past year. While preferences of where clients are choosing to eat has changed — with online orders making a huge upswing since November of 2020 —Saeplast has seen a gradual increase in business to the extent that, while they’re not quite back to where they were pre-COVID-19, they’re not far from it.
“We actually have a significant backlog of orders, because as customers’ businesses start to normalize, they realize that they didn’t buy last year, so now they’re buying for both this year and last year and playing a little bit of catch-up,” says Gooding. “While that’s happening we still have all these issues that have only continued to worsen on the raw material side of things. We’ve also seen massive inflation.” These and similar challenges are, of course, being encountered industry-wide.
Naturally, managing the financial end of things has been a priority, as has maintaining company culture and employee health and wellness.
“I’m seeing it every day,” Gooding shares. “People are really struggling with the social isolation, and I’m talking and engaging with work colleagues and trying to keep things as upbeat as possible. That’s really been the biggest challenge through all of this, and my biggest worry. That’s what keeps me awake at night – just our folks.”
Maintaining sustainability has also been a top priority for Saeplast, and Gooding is proud of the company’s record. “Fundamentally our product is sustainable,” he says. “It’s a long-lasting, durable product. You can use our containers, if you maintain them, theoretically forever; I routinely see containers over 20 years of age. They’re highly sustainable but we don’t stop there. It’s always about continuous improvement. We always have a multitude of development projects on the go and as the brand leader and as the leader in this space that we compete in, we’re always looking to lead. We’ve done this for 42 years, and we’ll always lead the market.”
It’s in the company’s DNA to continue to lead with technology, says Gooding. At the moment the team is working on weight reduction and how to keep and improve the same physical strengths of their containers moving forward. They’ve also been working on the use of some post-consumer material, putting PCR back into the core of their polyethylene foam fill.
“I see the use of PCR becoming a very large component in the future,” says Gooding. “We’re embarking on that now and we’re leading the way on it. We’re the only ones doing this work in our space and it’s important. We want to leave the world in a better place.”
Being eco-friendly has led to several other changes, including switching much of Saeplast’s exterior lighting to LED technology and embarking on a project with the engineering department of the University of Prince Edward Island to look at energy efficiency within company processes.
“It goes beyond just sustainability of our products,” says Gooding. “Of course, that’s important, but it’s also sustainability within our operating plant. Within the plant we capture all the corrugated [cardboard] that comes in from suppliers. One hundred percent of that is recycled. We try to use reusable products as much as we feasibly can, and of course any of the plastic film that we use in our process we capture and recycle as well.”
As a member of Operation Clean Sweep (OCS), Saeplast also works to limit its environmental impact as much as possible by eliminating polyethylene resin pellets from the nearby waterways. As the company is located literally one kilometre from the Bay of Fundy, it’s incredibly important to prevent and clean up any potential pellet spills.
“We’re a charter member of the OCS,” says Gooding. “We bring in all of our resin from Alberta by rail, so we only will deal with vendors that are also Operation Clean Sweep members. We check and audit their rail cars to make sure there are no pellets on the outside of the car, and when we bring the plastic into our facility, if there’s ever a spill on the rail siding, we literally are vacuuming up pellets to ensure that it doesn’t make its way down to the Bay of Fundy.”
This commitment to not only reducing waste but ensuring a better world for years to come is a long-standing Saeplast mandate and one that Gooding personally upholds.
“Plastic is a wonderfully forgiving material that gets a bad rap, and it’s really not justified because the benefits of polyethylene are incredible,” he says. “It’s 100 percent recyclable, and it makes wonderful products. Unfortunately, the problem that we face as a plastic processor is littering. But that’s human behaviour. It’s not an attribute of the material.”
Running a company that makes plastic products means understanding that human behaviour is at the root of both the detriments and advantages for the next generation, says Gooding. “In the end, it’s incredibly important to us to leave the world in a better spot.”