Your fruits and veggies container may be cooler than you think

Ag & Food |  3 min. read

Ever heard the story behind the Cool-Pak, the oft-used plastic containers that keep our fruits and veggies fresh?

Well, it’s definitely a cool invention. The story behind this subtle innovation starts in Ireland, in the 1800s, when Niall Kelly’s in-laws-to-be came to California.  After a successful turn in the Gold Rush, they took up farming in Southern California.

In time, the family moved into the packing end of the fruit and vegetable business.  In fact, originally, they made those little green baskets that you often see at farmers’ markets, filled with berries or cherry tomatoes.  But by the 1990s, the packing business wasn’t going so well.

Niall had started his first business while he was still in college, and was focused on his career in tech when he received – the call.  And when his father-in-law called and asked him to help with the business, into the family he went. There was work non-stop in the beginning, but that work paid off.

Today, if you’re bringing home strawberries or blueberries, mushrooms or tomatoes, cut fruit or spring salad mix – you might well be bringing your groceries home in Cool-Paks.  (About one BILLION times a year, somebody is.)

Is it a Cool-Pak?  You can find out.  Turn the container over, maybe after you’ve emptied it – and check for the “Cool-Pak”, stamped into the bottom.  And if that’s too easy – the Cool-Pak folks say that if you hold a stack of their clamshells up to the light (so you might have to save a few instead of putting them straight into the recycling), you can often see a little yellow/gold tinge. 

And Cool-Pak is cool, not only because it keeps our fruits and vegetables fresh (and protects them from bumps and bruises) – but because Cool-Pak “clamshells” are made mostly, often entirely, from recycled plastic water bottles.

Now, how does a bottle turn into a box (or to be precise, a clamshell)?  The starting point includes you and I, recycling our plastic bottles.  That’s the raw material, phase one.

Next, recycling plants separate out the various recyclables (our bottles are made from a particular type of plastic known as polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, and uses ethylene and xylene as the starting petrochemicals).

Finally, that PET, in the form of small flakes – or raw material, phase two – goes to a thermoforming company.  Those flakes are heated – pressed into big, flat sheets – and those plastic sheets are fed into a big machine (so this is no DIY project) that heats the plastic, and gives them a shape – in this case, clamshells.  (By the way, we’re not recommending you do this, but if you REALLY want to see how it’s done, search “thermoforming” on YouTube.  It’s all there.)

Now if you’re wondering what’s so complicated about all that, picture this.  You get your container of strawberries home, you pull out a little whipped cream, you’re all set for a summer treat and – you can’t get those “buttons” that close the package, open.  Or you’re done with your strawberries, but being you, you’ve saved some for the rest of the family and – you can’t get the things to close.  Making a clamshell that DOESN’T do those things, that actually isn’t so easy.  So thanks Cool-Pak, for figuring it out.

And here’s something else to picture:  your water bottle from a picnic in the park – might show up on your next picnic, as a clamshell filled with cherry tomatoes or raspberries.  That – is pretty Cool, and green too.  So don’t forget, recycle that water bottle, it might be your next Cool-Pak (and don’t forget to recycle that too!).