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Greening Packaging Most People Never See

By 3p Contributor

By Justin Lehrer

It can be a challenge to make packaging that is sturdy enough to safeguard its contents, while minimizing carbon emissions related to shipping. The two factors may seem at odds. Heavier transportation packaging may protect the product better but will result in more carbon emissions.

The key is to locate the sweet spot between product protection, cost and packaging design. At the February 2013 “Use Reusables” workshop in Silicon Valley, several tech and health care companies explained how they optimize packaging in their supply chains to strike the right balance. Titled “Greening the Packaging Most People Never See,” the event focused on reusable alternatives to limited-life transport packaging materials such as cardboard boxes, wood pallets and plastic stretch film.

Key decision factors

Helping the environment was a key factor in all the presenters’ decisions to reduce single-use, disposable transport packaging, although not the only one. The 15 million trees cut down each year to make wooden pallets in the U.S., 31 million tons of cardboard boxes disposed each year, and 6.4 million tons of non-durable plastic generated annually — almost all of which is thrown away — were certainly important drivers. However, many of the presenters also reported large savings on labor, cost of packaging and storage space as a result of switching to reusables.

Ali Sholer from EMC, an IT storage hardware manufacturer, talked about the reusable shipping containers EMC utilizes to transport large quantities of hard drives from their factories to customers across the globe. The company used to ship in cardboard boxes, stacked onto wooden pallets and secured with plastic stretch wrap. Now they use reusable blue plastic crates called BKubes. After emptying BKubes, customers return them to EMC. One crate holds 200 hard drives, replacing 40 cardboard boxes needed in the past to ship the same amount of product. The program has reduced EMC’s packaging costs by $292,000/year, avoided 160,000 pounds of waste and reduced customer service time on site by 36 percent.

LED lighting manufacturer Finelite has been working with their suppliers to replace single-use stretch wrap, cardboard boxes, staples and bubble wrap. Dean Mayes with Finelite explained that parts traveling from their suppliers to Finelite’s manufacturing facility in the San Francisco Bay Area now use reusable crates, reusable tarps, biodegradable paper tape and recyclable crinkled paper. The practices have saved the company $24,750 annually on stretch wrap, chipboard inserts, staples and bubble wrap.

Reusables a boon for the health industry

Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto, CA has three million square feet of hospital space on some of the most expensive land in the country. Rather than build extra storage space for frequently needed supplies like tongue depressors, gauze and cotton balls, Krisanne Hanson explained that Stanford partners with supply chain logistics experts Owens & Minor to store and sort supplies off-site and deliver inventory just in time. Two 50-foot trucks deliver 800 reusable plastic totes each day and contractors restock 300 different locations which frees up clinicians to focus on patient care, instead of handling supplies and packaging.

Kaiser Permanente started their reusable totes program in the San Francisco Bay Area even earlier, in 1990. Nicla Sinnott explained that they transport medical supplies, pharmaceuticals and documents in four sizes of reusable totes. Three of the totes have the same size footprint and can nest for compact storage. Although Kaiser spends nearly $25,000 annually to buy replacements for lost totes, they are saving $561,450 and 500 labor hours per year not having to purchase and assemble cardboard boxes.

Finally, Nancy Parmer talked about shipping company UPS’s Eco Responsible Packaging Program. UPS has rating criteria that look at factors such as product protection, greenhouse gas emissions, recyclability, compostability and reusability within a life cycle assessment framework. This helps their customers make informed decisions about their transportation packaging.

These success stories inspired many of the event attendees to look for reusable transport packaging opportunities at their own organizations. At the end of the workshop, several participants commented that reusable transportation packaging seemed like common sense, wondering why only 15 percent of transport packaging in the US is reused. Given the many examples documenting significant savings of time, space and materials at the workshop, reusable transport packaging offers an opportunity to grow our economy in a way that reduces our impact on our environment.

Justin Lehrer leads the Use Reusables campaign (www.UseReusables.com), a joint project of StopWaste (StopWaste.org) and the Reusable Packaging Association (Reusables.org), with financial support from U.S. EPA's Climate Showcase Communities program. The Use Reusables campaign offers hands-on training workshops, financial assistance, events and expert advice, supported by a site of educational materials and a comprehensive website. Justin can be reached at jlehrer@StopWaste.org.

Image credits: EMC, Finelite, Owens & Minor, Kaiser Permanente

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