Now more than ever, the wise use of resources makes sense for both the environment and the bottom line. Re-evaluating a company's distribution and fulfillment processes can play a major role in reducing the environmental impact throughout its supply chain, while simultaneously enhancing its corporate image and reducing overall costs.
Reduction of materials, energy usage and waste all contribute to minimizing carbon footprints. Protective packaging is sometimes overlooked as an important part of this relationship. Companies selling sustainable products and promoting other environmentally conscious efforts need to make sure their packaging and shipping systems match their sustainable image.
Companies can apply sustainable business practices to packaging and distribution by focusing on materials, cube optimization, damage reduction, performance testing and special considerations. In the long run, these reduce transportation costs, handling and replacement shipping.
The key to creating a sustainable package is to minimize material without sacrificing product protection. While it is considered ideal to use recycled material to package a product, such materials should meet requirements for adequately and efficiently protecting the product being shipped. The reality is that some recycled or organic materials (soy-based products, for example) may deteriorate in extreme heat or moisture, and not all high recycled-content interior protective packaging materials are alike in terms of protection and shipping integrity.
Reusability can often become a focus in sustainable packaging. Such packaging must be developed to withstand the rigors of repeated shipping. For example, plastic pallets can be designed to last longer and have less overall environmental impact than wooden ones, especially if they are constructed of recycled materials and are used multiple times.
Both globalization and dimensional weight charges have forced companies to take a look into another aspect of sustainable packaging, cube optimization. Sometimes referred to as "right sizing," cube optimization maximizes the product-to-package ratio and often results in the use of less packaging material.
Globalization creates new challenges for packaging since goods must travel longer distances by a variety of transport modes. At the same time, carriers are being tasked to find the most fuel-efficient methods for distributing packages. When it comes to shipping in this fast-moving and competitive global market, every cubic inch of space has become increasingly valuable.
Dimensional weight charges help ensure that all shippers pay their fair share for the vehicle capacity their packages occupy during shipment by requiring a premium for light-weight, yet space-consuming packages. Broadly adopted in the U.S. in 2007, these shipping rates have led companies to consider packaging that takes up less space in carrier vehicles.
Numerous packaging materials can protect shipments while occupying minimal space. Air cellular products provide adequate product protection using less packaging material compared to loose fill or paper. Inflatable packaging systems allow users to create air-filled cushions, reducing shipping costs due to lightweight and potentially smaller packages. Using these types of materials, a range of efficient and economical packaging designs can be created for a variety of void fill, cushioning, and blocking and bracing applications.
When looking at the transportation portion of sustainable supply chains, one of the most neglected aspects is avoiding product damage in transit. Damages lead to increased costs for replacing goods, including manufacturing, shipping and labor associated with processing the replacement and the claim. When a product has to be replaced and re-distributed, and the original damaged item is returned and disposed of, the product's carbon footprint multiplies. And not to be overlooked, this also results in damage to a company's brand reputation.
A variety of packaging materials can be used to protect shipments and minimize damage. Foam-in-place systems provide efficient product protection by creating high-performance foam cushions that protect products during shipment. In addition, these foam materials require less material per pack, often reducing both package size and weight.
Suspension and retention packaging is another efficient protective packaging alternative. Shipped flat and assembled on-site as needed, suspension and retention packaging can be reused and is easily recycled with common corrugated boxes. Designs feature strong, highly resilient, low-slip film that surrounds products, protecting them from transport shock and vibration hazards.
Though often considered environmentally friendly, newspaper and other paper-based packaging materials may not always provide the needed product protection.
Efficient and sustainable packaging is not limited to physical protection, cushioning materials and damage reduction. When shipping temperature-sensitive items such as perishables and pharmaceuticals, companies must ensure they have adequate thermal protection or are distributed in temperature-controlled environments.
High-performance insulated packaging can also lead to more efficient distribution methods. For example, switching from common expanded polystyrene foam to more efficient polyurethane foam can help lengthen a distribution cycle. By extending the distribution cycle, companies can switch from next-day shipping to two- or three-day service-perhaps converting from air to ground shipping-resulting in a lower environmental impact while also being more cost-effective overall.
Appropriate package performance testing can help determine the adequacy of packaging designs and materials for distribution. Distribution partners such as UPS, along with material suppliers such as Sealed Air, have package design and testing facilities around the country staffed with packaging professionals to help design and verify the performance of different packaging configurations to determine what will best suit any specific situation.
The UPS Package Design and Test Lab leverages extensive knowledge of the conditions and forces of distribution and shipping. The Sealed Air worldwide network of Package Design and Development Centers provides comprehensive offerings in packaging design, testing, prototyping and tooling for a variety of protective packaging forms and materials.
Initiating package design changes upstream in a supply chain, or ideally at the product design and development stage, can help establish more sustainable distribution packaging processes.
Co-author Bill Armstrong is a packaging consultant for Sealed Air, with expertise in protective packaging design, development and testing. Arnold Barlow is manager of sustainable solutions for UPS, the world's largest package delivery company and a supply chain/freight services leader.