Firms thinking inside the box, to make it better

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Plastic storage products have a leg up in today's tough market conditions, as consumers express strong interest in home cooking and home organization. But to come up with new and marketable ideas for a household item as simple as a plastic box is no easy task.

How much potential does a plastic container — or tote, bin, drawer, chest, tub, basket, etc. — offer? How creative or innovative can manufacturers get? What design factors are in play, besides clarity, color, stackability, modularity, durability, material safety, airtightness and functionality?

“There's a lot to get excited about in the design aspect,” Allin Russell said at the recent International Housewares Show in Chicago. “It continues. We are learning and discovering all the time.” Russell is marketing director and lead designer for injection molder Sistema Plastics Ltd. of Auckland, New Zealand.

Coming from a fashion-design background, Russell currently oversees development of Sistema's Klip It food containers and lunchboxes, with the help of a technical designer and two graphic artists. Little design details and twists really count, he said. Examples include easy-to-open clips on airtight lids, lids that stay in place when pouring and dual storage.

“It's extremely comfort-driven in tough times,” said Peter Goldman, president of the home section of research company NPD Group Inc. of Port Washington, N.Y.

Yaffa Licari, president of Perth Amboy, N.J.-based Basic Line Inc., develops advancements in details. The 36-year-old company introduced a patent-pending, under-the-bed storage container called Train. Licari designed tiny hooks on two sides of the container body that allow the containers to be connected to each other, making it easier to pull boxes from under the bed.

Basic Line, which uses Yaffa as a trade name, offers its C-Thru storage item, made out of polypropylene with a clear look. “We use 30 percent less resin but still keep the product nice and rigid,” Licari said. The company's in-house molding facility has 20 presses.

Material reduction usually enables a manufacturer to offer competitive prices. Licari said Yaffa's less-expensive totes last five years, while a leading-brand tote usually lasts 10-15 years. For consumers in saving mode, price often determines their buying decisions.

Another example of a small change making a big difference is the Yaffa Blocks. The company has sold 24 million units of the drawer systems in the past 20 years. Last year, Licari increased storage capacity by adding a little curve to the drawer face.

Snapware CEO Craig Allen put it this way: “You take the same platform and be flexible. It lends itself to application-specific opportunities. … It's hard to say where it ends, but as long as you have creative people, they'll come up with new products.” The company launched its new airtight, double-seal pantry series in response to the consumer trend of buying dry food in bulk.

The airtight feature has gone beyond food storage. Sterilite Corp.'s new Quart Gasket Box is designed to store and protect documents. The clear box resists moisture, with gaskets and tight-clasping latches.

Iris USA Inc. has incorporated versatility into its products. Its drop-front boxes come in two sizes and can be used to store shoes or home office items. They are also designed to fit student lockers. To appeal to even younger children, the company has launched Disney- and Lego-themed storage series.

Japanese firm Like It Co. Ltd. stood out at the show with a uniquely styled storage product. Two plastic items were named honorees of the International Housewares Associations' 2009 Design Defined product design reorganization. The “Poo Pot” diaper pail features a “smart” disposal and removal system as well as a deodorizing function. The PP “Poo Care Basket” can be hung on the side of the crib and features multiple compartments, a tissue dispenser and a handle designed to make it easy to carry.

“Japanese people use space wisely,” said export assistant Atsuko Sawa, “And it is appreciated by U.S. consumers.” The Katsuragi, Japan-based company has opened a showroom in New York and a warehouse in Brooklyn.

But it doesn't always work out when East meets West. Daewood Tech Co. Ltd. of Seongnam, South Korea, said its “nanosilver” food container — which claims sterilizing power by blending small particles of silver into PP resin — sells well in Asia and the Middle East, but is “less understood or appreciated” in the U.S.

Tritan containers?

In response to consumers' growing concern about bisphenol A, a leading U.S. company is in the process of commercializing food containers made of Tritan copolyester, according to anonymous sources at the show. Tritan producer Eastman Chemical Co. of Kingsport, Tenn., declined to comment on the rumor or disclose client information.

Snapware said it is testing Tritan and several other materials at the moment. The company is not actively promoting polycarbonate containers, Allen said. It has also launched a line of glass containers.

A Chinese manufacturer also is testing the Tritan material. Mates International Trading Co. Ltd. of Ningbo supplies the U.S. market with freshvac-brand food containers, which feature a patented vacuum-seal lid.

The containers — currently made with PP and PC — are sold by specialty and online retailers. Mates General Manager Meng Chun said cost is the roadblock. “The price is too high right now,” he said. “The quote we got was twice the price of PC.”