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How Dell Gives Packaging a Sustainable Makeover


This post originally appeared on ESCM

By Oliver Campbell

The attitude of many companies is changing when it comes to prioritizing "green" initiatives and focusing attention on sustainability in the supply chain. The effects of climate change are real, the consequences are serious, and businesses are recognizing ways in which they can help by reducing their carbon footprint.

At the same time, companies are striving to make their supply chains more efficient, and environmental efforts can prove key to increasing productivity. Sourcing materials, production, travel and waste management should all work in tandem with a company’s broader green initiatives to deliver the most effective results.

With the economic downturn, one might assume that companies would abandon their green initiatives in favor of cheaper alternatives but a PwC report released earlier this year, Sustainable Packaging: Myth or Reality, discovered quite the opposite. It found that sustainability investment has increased rather than decreased during the economic downturn, as companies are paying greater attention to the effective use of resources. Companies are more conscious of finding ways to make every aspect of their business more efficient from production to sourcing materials.

Packaging is a key part of this process. Any company which supplies physical equipment needs to consider packaging, and the efficiencies packaging can provide. It is now more feasible than ever to create packaging that is beneficial to the environment while also being valuable from a business perspective. Businesses can minimize the impact of business operations, while at the same time create new possibilities for customers to reduce their environmental impact.

Many different materials can be used as green alternatives to traditional packaging. One example of a natural material is bamboo, which is a rapidly renewable member of the grass family with tremendous tensile strength that serves as a great alternative to more commonly used molded paper pulp, foams and corrugate. In addition to being highly sustainable, bamboo also helps promote healthy soil and, when harvested correctly, doesn’t require replanting, making it an ideal renewable resource. Also, bamboo is the fastest-growing woody plant in the world and can grow up to 24 inches per day, so the material is practically always readily available, which is vital for large companies which often need substantial amounts of packaging.

Sustainability can also be built into all processes associated with the production of the bamboo. In our own experience for example, after it is harvested, the bamboo is mechanically pulped at a nearby facility. During this process, 70 percent of the water is reclaimed and used in the process (the other 30 percent is lost to vaporization). Nothing is poured out, and no toxic chemicals are used. If it's sunny, the pulp is dried by the sun, reducing electricity use.

Another rather unusual source of a highly durable packaging solution is the humble and unassuming mushroom, which we at Dell are currently piloting as a packaging material for our servers. The mushroom bioscience is based on using common agricultural waste products: cotton hulls, rice hulls or wheat chaff are placed in a mold and injected with mushroom spawn. Five to ten days later, the mushroom root structure completes its growth, having used the energy residing in the sugars and carbohydrates of the agricultural waste instead of external energy sources such as petroleum. The final product looks and acts like Styrofoam, only this is organic, biodegradable and can be used as compost or mulch, which makes for easier and more environmentally-friendly disposal. In addition, this material is also surprisingly durable and tough.

More common alternative solutions can kickstart green packaging in your organization. Other options include: high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which is made using recycled-content plastics derived from recycled milk cartons and detergent bottles; molded paper pulp; lightweight air cushions that can be dramatically minimized before disposal. The alternatives are evolving practically every day.

The case of sourcing materials responsibly has become equally important when it comes to manufacturing your packaging. Every step of your packaging process presents an opportunity to minimize your carbon footprint. Sourcing materials locally and packaging locally by creating an "in-region" solution means that you cut down on the carbon you would emit if you were sending transporting materials back and forth over long distances. This could help you save on the overall costs of shipping materials, while also helping reduce carbon emissions in the long run.

Customers, governments and other stakeholders are paying more attention than ever to the sustainability and efficiency of the supply chain, and packaging is a pivotal part of this. Not only do these new alternatives offer the chance to reduce your carbon footprint but they can also contribute to substantial savings. Dell’s packaging strategy has eliminated 20 million pounds of packaging between 2008 and 2012 and also cut costs by more than $18 million, demonstrating that there are real and tangible benefits. With the rapid development of technology and alternative packaging solutions being studied constantly, these benefits have the potential to be far greater in the future for anyone who chooses to adopt a sustainable approach to packaging.

Oliver Campbell is director of procurement for packaging and packaging engineering at Dell, Inc. 

For further information, visit: www.dell.com/poweringthepossible.

[image credit: Dell, Inc.: Flickr cc]

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