March 2010 | Commentary | Green Landscape

Hold Everything: Adopting Protective Packaging Practices

Tags: Green Logistics, Packaging

Arnold Barlow is manager of sustainable solutions, UPS, 877-877-7229

Bill Armstrong is technical development manager, Sealed Air Corporation, 720-304-3003

Evaluating a company's distribution and fulfillment processes can play a major role in reducing its environmental impact while enhancing its corporate image and reducing overall costs. Protective packaging is an important part of this analysis.

Packaging supports and balances a company's broader sustainability goals and initiatives for reducing carbon emissions, creating operational efficiencies, conserving resources, ensuring supplier compliance, and enhancing brand reputation.

Companies can apply sustainable business practices to packaging and distribution by focusing on the following areas to reduce transportation costs, handling, and replacement shipping.

  • Packaging materials. The key to creating a sustainable package is minimizing material without sacrificing protection. While using recycled packaging materials is ideal, it's vital that they adequately and efficiently protect the product being shipped. Some recycled or organic materials, such as soy-based products, may deteriorate in extreme heat or moisture, and not all high recycled-content interior protective packaging materials offer equal protection and shipping integrity.

    Reusability is often a goal in creating sustainable packaging, but the materials must be able to withstand the rigors of repeated shipping. Sturdy, reusable plastic pallets, for example, can last longer and have less overall environmental impact than wood pallets, especially if they are constructed of recycled materials and used multiple times.
  • Cube optimization. Both globalization and dimensional weight charges have forced companies to consider cube optimization. Sometimes referred to as "right sizing," cube optimization maximizes the product-to-package ratio and often results in less packaging material, which brings source reduction up front and reduces overall environmental impact.

    By requiring a premium for lightweight, yet space-consuming, packages, dimensional weight charges help ensure that all shippers pay their fair share for the vehicle capacity their packages occupy during shipment. Broadly adopted in the United States in 2007, these shipping rates have led companies to consider new packaging solutions that take up less space in carrier vehicles.

    Numerous packaging materials can protect shipments while occupying minimal space inside the package. Air cellular products provide superior protection using less packaging material compared to loose fill or paper. Inflatable packaging systems allow users to create air-filled cushions, which reduce shipping costs because packages are lightweight and smaller. Using these materials, shippers can create efficient and economical packaging designs for a variety of void fill, cushioning, and blocking and bracing applications.

    Carriers, suppliers, and in-house packaging professionals can help companies create more sustainable packages and reduce overall distribution costs through package source reduction, efficient materials use, reduced damages, and cube optimization.
  • Damage reduction. When looking at the transportation portion of sustainable supply chains, one of the most neglected—yet most important—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 returned and disposed of, the product's carbon footprint multiplies. These incidents can also damage a company's brand reputation.

    A variety of packaging materials can protect shipments and minimize damage. Foam-in-place systems, for example, use fitted foam cushions that require less material per pack, often reducing both package size and weight.

    Another option is suspension and retention packaging, which is shipped flat and assembled on-site as needed. It can be reused and is easily recycled with common corrugated boxes. Designs feature resilient low-slip film that surrounds products, protecting them from transport shock and vibration hazards.
  • Temperature control. Temperature-sensitive items, such as perishables and pharmaceuticals, require adequate thermal protection or temperature-controlled environments. Insulated temperature-sensitive packaging can contribute to efficient distribution methods for these items.

    Switching from common expanded polystyrene foam to more efficient polyurethane foam, for example, can help lengthen a distribution cycle. Companies can switch from next-day shipping to two- or three-day service—perhaps converting from air to ground shipping—resulting in reduced costs and environmental impact. Superior insulation can also mean using fewer gel packs or less dry ice, further reducing package weight and shipping costs without compromising product care.
  • Performance testing. Appropriate package performance testing can be an essential element in determining whether packaging designs and materials are adequate. Many distribution partners and materials suppliers maintain package design and testing facilities staffed with experts who verify the performance of different packaging configurations to determine what best suits specific situations.

    Whether initiated at the product design stage or upstream in the supply chain, sustainable packaging can help shippers be better stewards of the environment while also achieving cost savings and running more efficient operations.