Expanding Markets With Bagged Products

BioCycle March 2006, Vol. 47, No. 3, p. 58

When evaluating a move into bagging compost, mulch and blends, production volumes, distribution markets, automation and diversity of bag sizes all need to be considered.

Nora Goldstein

TO BAG or not to bag? That may be a compost marketer’s “$64,000 question” (in today’s dollars, probably $64 million!). Perhaps one of most pragmatic reasons for selling compost and mulch products and blends in bags is to make it easier for smaller volume buyers to use it. Homeowners, for example, may find it easier to load up the back of their car with bagged soil amendments than borrow a pick-up truck or line the car trunk and load in the compost. In addition, some landscapers, especially those doing jobs in areas hard to access with dump trucks, may prefer bags over bulk material. Bags also allows landscapers and the homeowner to track the exact amount used on each job.

Another potential plus is facilitating the product branding process, especially when a full line of garden and landscape blends is being sold. Companies use the base product, e.g., a biosolids or yard trimmings compost, then customize blends for a host of end uses. Print, radio and television advertising, sponsorship of gardening shows and exhibits at consumer and wholesale trade shows all work together to build that brand. When done successfully, the bagged product line promotes the availability of bulk sales. In fact, the profit margin on bulk sales may be greater than bags, but the market outreach achieved via bag sales more than makes up for reduced revenues. (Bagged products also can make it easier to brand and market your product line as a replacement for more conventional bagged products such as dried manure.)

Ron Alexander, of R. Alexander Associates, Inc., notes in his book, The Practical Guide to Compost Marketing and Sales, that transportation issues are different with bagged product distribution than with bulk. “Different types of trailers are required for delivery and most buyers cannot purchase a full tractor trailer. Therefore, if a composter is serious about bagging, they will be required to purchase a series of bagged products (e.g., soil amendment, potting mix, mulch, etc.). By offering their customers a product line, they can more easily fill an order that is large enough to competitively deliver. It also should be noted it typically costs more for the actual bag (packaging) and transportation, than it does for the contents of the bag.”

Tips And Techniques
Over the years, BioCycle has published how-to and feature articles on bagging compost, mulch and blends. One way to enter the bagged product market is to work with a contract bagging company. The other is to take the plunge and purchase equipment to have on-site. The following “tried and true” tips and lessons-learned are helpful when evaluating equipment options:

High Volume Vs. Low Volume: What is the scale of a program’s bagging endeavor? Is it seasonal production? Year round? Multiple products? “If this is about being a major packager – selling in high volume to a major mass merchandiser, for example – then a fully automated line that starts at about $120,000 is needed,” says Fred Schumpert of Creative Packaging, Inc. “If they just want to get into the business to expand their market reach or service some niche markets locally, they probably only need an investment of roughly $35,000 to $60,000.” Clients determining what system to go with are asked where they want to be in five years. “Typically, the lower cost lines are not upgradable, whereas a company can spend in the range of $65,000 to $75,000 for a semiautomated line that can be upgraded to automated.”

Servicing Big Box Stores: Another factor is what market is being targeted for the bagged products. Big box stores typically like to use one company that can meet all of their soil products needs, not just supply compost and mulch. Supplying a family of products – often on short notice – typically requires a bagging line that can churn out filled bags quickly and can switch between products and bag size. The product line could include topsoils, different grades, types and species of mulch products, colored mulch, composts and a range of potting soils.

One last note on big box stores: The exception to the multiple product rule is when a facility produces a soil product that is not indigenous to that marketplace, such as cypress mulch or Ponderosa Pine in Chicago. In that instance, the big box stores may buy just one item from a supplier.

Volumetric Or Weight-Based Filling Unit: Deciding between these two options is mostly based on the type of product(s) to be bagged. Most free-flowing items, such as fertilizers, stone and some soil products, are compatible with weight-based equipment. The product is weighed in the scale and then drops into the bag. Materials that are moist can stick to the side of the scale, and eventually cause bridging, which will slow or stop production. Some companies opt for a volumetric filler if they are bagging materials with a moisture content higher than 15 to 30 percent.

Bark producers typically go with a volumetric system. Adds Tiny Andrews of Amadas, Inc.: Volumetric fillers can be used in a weight-like mode if needed. “Essentially, you adjust the timer to get the bag to fill to the weight you want,” he explains. Another consideration is the value of the product. If a compost blend sells for $10/lb, a weight-based unit is a better fit because overfilling a bag can be costly. Products with value of $.50/pound, on the other hand, can be packed by weight or volume. For many, the final decision is based on the total number of types of products being bagged, and whether the majority of those are more suited to a weight or volumetric unit.

Degree Of Automation: The decision about how much automation should be built into the bagging line essentially boils down to three factors – labor, number of products being bagged and capital investment. A facility selling a range of products in different bag sizes may opt for a semiautomated line to facilitate the “switching out” of material and bag size. Conversely, a facility that bags high volumes of one type of topsoil day in and day out would do better with a fully automated line. In terms of labor, avoidance of repetitive motion can be a consideration in system selection. For example, semiautomated palletizers address the workplace injury issue by incorporating an elevated platform into the design. “Essentially the platform raises up with the height of the stack so workers don’t need to reach over their heads,” says Andrews. He also notes that while fewer people may be needed on a fully automated bagging line, those who do operate the equipment may need to be more highly skilled, e.g., to operate the palletizer than a laborer working on a manual fill and seal line.

Bagging operations servicing container growers, greenhouses or nurseries that have specific formulas for the soil mixes may find it advantageous to use automated mixing. Automated mixing lines include hoppers that feed in the filler materials, dosing units that add in the fertilizers or other additives and the actual mixing equipment, such as a paddle mixer. To minimize mistakes, recipes are entered into a computer, which controls the addition of ingredients. Capacity of the mixing line is determined by the capacity of the bagging equipment and the output the producer needs to meet. Automating components of the mixing line can be done incrementally, e.g., as more professional growers are added, the dosing units can be automated, such as going to weighing dosing feeders.

The bottom-line, according to the experts, is that if a bagging operation is running more than 20 SKUs (stock keeping units), it should consider running manual or semiautomated versus automated. Notes Fred Schumpert: “If you are only changing bag sizes between two and three cubic feet, for example, that can be done on the same setting on the machine. But if you’re having to make frequent changes from multiple bag sizes, and there are mechanical and programming changes to make, that could defeat the benefit of automation.”

Market Expansion Without Further Trucking
Maryland Environmental Services (MES) in Annapolis was created by the state legislature and governor in 1970 as a self-supporting, nonprofit public corporation to work with both government and private sector clients to find innovative solutions to complex environmental challenges. It owns and operates several recycling and composting facilities; in other cases, it has operations contracts with publicly-owned facilities. One of those is the Montgomery County Composting Facility in Dickerson, Maryland, which receives about 77,000 tons/year of ground yard trimmings. The site is owned by Montgomery County and operated by MES.

Yard trimmings are composted in windrows and turned with Scarab equipment. MES built an open-sided pavilion a number of years ago to keep finished compost dry prior to screening. The site uses a McCloskey trommel screen. About six years ago, it started a bagging operation to complement bulk sales of its product, marketing it as a soil conditioner under the name Leafgro. Amadas manual bagging equipment was purchased (the site now has three manual bagging lines and currently operates two).”We decided to start bagging in large part because of trucking costs to haul bulk product,” says Nanci Koerting, site manager. “Hauling expenses are what get you. If you can service more customers in a fairly close area with both bulk and bagged product, you are better off – and it maximizes the cost of trucking.”

MES opted for manual equipment with volumetric feed. There is a 15 cubic yard hopper that meters in the compost. “We selected manual bagging because we aren’t in it full-time like other operations,” adds Koerting, in part because the bagging line isn’t inside a building and thus production is limited to warm-weather months. “We have four people working on each line. The production rate is about 1,000 bags/man hour.” One person fills the bags, then passes it onto the next person who operates the sealer. Bags are put onto a conveyor, flattened, weighed (to comply with weights and measure requirements), then pulled off the end of the line by two stackers. The pallets, each holding fifty 1.5 cubic foot bags, are stretch-wrapped. One forklift operator services both lines, moving the filled pallets to wrapper. “We use a plastic that has a five percent UV rating because we store the wrapped pallets outside,” she notes. “Going into the fall, we build up inventory of bagged product – over 100,000 bags at any one time – because we have to be ready to go when spring hits.”

In addition to the leaf compost, MES has an enriched blended product sold as ComPro. Originally, ComPro was made from biosolids compost. When the biosolids facility closed, MES stopped making it. Requests were received from the public to reproduce the product, so MES worked with the University of Maryland Turfgrass Research Facility to conduct studies that would enable the remanufacture of ComPro, especially suited for turf applications to encourage seed germination and root growth. The yard trimmings compost is used as a base, then enhanced with nutrients and other ingredients. It is sold in one cubic foot bags. The third product in the line is Compro-Plus, an outdoor potting soil comprised of leaf compost and a “permanent aerator.”

In 2005, MES sold around 400,000 bags of Leafgro and ComPro products. “Bagged product is sold throughout the Mid-Atlantic states,” says Koerting. “Production is pretty much up to the speed of the crew. The lead person sets the pace for the rest of the people on the line. One key lesson we’ve learned is that people working on the bagging line have to be enthusiastic about it. The more enthusiasm they have, the more they produce.”

Equipment Highlights
There is a very wide range of equipment options when putting together a bagging line. Some companies offer form-fill-seal units, with the preprinted plastic bags feeding right into the system. They come in horizontal and vertical designs. A recent introduction has been robotic units for palletizing bagged product. The accompanying sidebar provides an overview of some equipment trends and considerations.

Amadas Industries, Inc. (www.amadas.com) offers bagging systems that range from manual to fully automated. The company recently upgraded its Soils & Bark Bagger, which features Amadas’ “open-mouth” bagger design, and is available in portable or stationary units. The company also sells a semiautomated palletizer. Hamer, Inc. (www.hamerinc.com) recently introduced its 300VF automated form-fill-seal bagging line designed to produce up to 35 bags/minute. Manual bagging equipment also is available.

Premier Tech’s (www.premiertech.com) equipment line includes the FFS-200 Series “loose fill” horizontal form, fill and seal bagger that works with bags ranging in size from 4.5 to 100 quarts. Production rate is up to 32 bags/minute depending on product characteristics, method of feeding, bag size, plastic film thickness, etc. The VF-2000 Series volumetric feeder is designed to handle a wide variety of products that may be difficult to handle. Premier Tech offers high and low level automatic bag palletizers (the latter typically is used when a site has space constraints); it recently introduced a robotic palletizing cell, a fully automated system that does simultaneous palletizing of four different products.

Rotochopper, Inc. introduced its GoBagger automated mobile bagging system in November 2000. It was the first mobile system on the market, says Vince Hundt of Rotochopper. The machine can be pulled with a pick-up truck and set up in about ten minutes, he says. In 2003, the Model 250 unit became available, which is a lower cost unit capable of filling about 250 bags/hour.

Packaging Equipment Trends
IN the past decade, the two most critical factors in cost control with bagging operations have been raw materials and labor, as packaging (bags and films) have fluctuated up and down and selling prices have generally remained constant, or declined, particularly with increased competition in the market place. Automation of the bagging process – not just for less labor, but also reduced workmen’s compensation – has been the key component for most major packagers of organics. The conventional bag filling – either via volumetric doser or electronic weigh scale – with continuous bag sealer, several operators manually stacking filled bags on a pallet, and a semiautomatic pallet stretch wrapper, are “fading into the landscape”, as more automated systems have entered the industry.

The Bemis-Hassen “Ultima” vertical form-fill-seal, a modified potato chip packager, and the “Zip Zag,” preformed, fan-folded printed bag in a box that was processed on the machine of the same name, and then sealed with a rotary band, or hot air sealer, were two of the earlier systems for reduced labor packaging in the lawn and garden industry. The “Hamer” horizontal form-fill-seal, initially a modification of the company’s automatic ice-packaging machine, with higher production speeds, and less capital and film/bag costs, literally supplanted these two former systems, and its machine has undergone numerous upgrades and new features over the past 12 years. Shortly afterwards, the Premier Tech’s version of the horizontal form-fill-seal was available, and they’ve recently introduced an automatic machine for handling the popular preformed, stand-up pouch, with reclosable zipper for smaller bag packaging.

There are now new, advanced-technology vertical form-fill seal machines, using both flat and tubular poly roll stock entering the market from European manufacturers such as B&C Automatic Machinery, Italy, and BTH, Holland, both with capabilities of not only loose-fill, but also compression baling packaging. These machines, along with the Willems-Techniek baler-form-fill-seal, also from Holland, are venturing into the worldwide 2.2 and 3.8 cubic-foot peat market.

Packaging automation has afforded reduced labor in the filling and sealing processes; however, without further automation “down stream,” operators are hard pressed to keep up with the machinery, especially with heavier-weight and higher-stacked, bark mulches and professional soil mixes. To address injuries resulting from repetitive lifting, automatic palletizing, or some form of operator assistance, is near mandatory with high-speed bagging systems.

There are a large number of North American and European manufacturers of electro-mechanical, automatic palletizing systems, including both conventional individual layer squaring and low and high level stacking, and now a newcomer, robotic systems. Manual and semiautomatic pallet stretch wrappers are often replaced with conveyorized systems, equipped with automatic poly top sheet dispensers, particularly when interfaced with automatic palletizing equipment to further reduce labor and improved pallet load stability. Lately, European-made, stretch hooders are finding utility in the market, especially where outdoor storage of moisture-sensitive products is practiced. While their capital costs are higher than an automatic stretch wrapper, usually the material costs (poly bag and stretch film) are lower.

On the bag and film side of the packaging equation, smarter graphic designs, stand-up, reclosable pouches and other easy-opening bag features, and laminated films have literally changed the “landscape” of lawn and garden displays at the retail level. Many of these polyethylene and polyester-based systems have driven changes in packaging equipment, such as automatic pouch filling sealing. These higher cost, process-printed bags, films and pouches have exacted higher demands on their producers to prevent sunlight and UV degradation when displayed at retail.

How are soil products packagers able to choose from this ever-expanding “smorgasbord” of automatic packaging options? Factors to be considered include: The variety of products (soils, mulches, chips, decorative stone, sand) and their respective flow characteristics; Market for distribution (regional nurseries, landscapers, retail stores, mass merchandisers, or “box stores,” professional growers); Desired production output; Local labor costs; Capital investment; and Storage and methods of distribution. When converting from manual bagging to automatic packaging, or entering the bagged lawn and market for the first time, it’s advisable to convene poly film/bag and machinery specialists at the same time as both packaging mediums and equipment need to be integrated for optimum efficiencies.

Fred Schumpert, Creative Packaging Inc., Lookout Mountain, Tennessee

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