Bananas were originally marketed in bunches and the leaves were used as padding to minimise the marking and bruising in transit to markets. In the early 1900s wood cases were introduced, with all of the bananas packed as single fingers, and weighing around 45 kgs. Eventually the wooden crates were replaced by the cardboard cartons we still see used today.
Once the trailers of newly harvested bunches reach the packing shed, either the top of the trailer, which is demountable, is slid onto a rail like system and pushed into the shed, or the trailer is reversed into the shed
Bunches are then lifted onto an overhead conveyor system using an air ram for easier lifting for the operator. Bunches generally weigh around 35-50kgs and each day an operator may lift up to 500 bunches. The bags are removed to be recycled and used for upcoming crops.
The overhead gantry system then takes the bunches through a high pressure wash to clean the fruit.
Next the hands of bananas are removed from the bunch stem in a process called “dehanding”. A special thin, straight bladed dehanding knife is used to remove the hands, which each contain from around 25 to 30 individual bananas or finger from the bunch stalks.
Care is taken at all of the above processes to ensure any “passengers” that come into the shed, especially green tree frogs and tree snakes which like to live in the bunches are not harmed and returned to the plantation. Occasionally, some of these passengers do manage to make a long trip to markets, where they are retrieved and sent to local zoos, or returned to the farm from which they came.
After the hands have been removed, they are cut into clusters of between 3 and 9 individual bananas, to make it easier for retailers and consumers further down the supply chain. It is these clusters that you would be used to seeing at your local retailers.
Once cut from the bunch into clusters, the bananas are placed into a fresh water wash tank, or placed onto a packing wheel, for further cleaning, removing of excess sap.
After the wash, and before bananas get to the packing station they are placed onto a conveyer belt where they are graded, sized and sorted to remove any with deformities, blemishes, cuts, bruises or marks that render them unmarketable. This conveyor belt will take the clusters to the packing stations.
The rejected bananas are put on another conveyor belt and will either become stock feed or be chopped up to be reused as plantation fertiliser.
At the end of the conveyor belts are the packing stations, where packers place clusters into banana cartons in preparation for journey to markets. The two most common grades or sizes of bananas are “Large “and “Extra Large”.
During the packing process a plastic carton liner is first placed in the bottom of the carton which lines the whole carton. Next a sheet of paper is put into the carton to draw away any more moisture.
After one layer of bananas has been put into a row down the centre of the carton, a plastic slip sheet is placed over this fruit. This will protect these bananas from rubbing, therefore preventing bruising each other during transport to markets.
Two more layers of bananas are then placed into the carton. These two layers are placed in opposite directions to ensure a snug fit inside the carton which will minimise transportation rubbing and subsequent marking of the bananas.
The fully packed banana cartons weigh a minimum of 13 kilograms net. Over 20 million of these cartons are packed in Australia each year.
After packing the boxes are moved on a conveyor belt to a palletising station where they are placed onto pallets ready for transport to market.
Hydraulic lifts assist these workers so that the transfer of the bananas from the conveyor belt to the pallets is always at the same level as the belt. Glue is used to stabilise each layer of the cartons as they are placed onto the pallet, and the top layers are strapped to assist transfer by forklifts.
From the palletising station the pallets are then placed in cool rooms to bring the temperature of the bananas down to 14-16°, which is the temperature they will be transported at in their journey to the market.