Packaging Grows Green
Many shippers are looking to replace fossil fuel-based packaging materials with more sustainable options. But they must do their homework to find the best—and greenest—fit.
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Question: What packaging material meets all the following requirements: locally sourced, cleanly manufactured, constructed from plentiful and sustainable agricultural waste materials, high performance, low weight, moisture- and heat-resistant, food-grade, and priced much lower than petroleum-based materials?
Answer: None. "No magic material exists," says Oliver Campbell, director of procurement at computer manufacturer Dell and an innovator in sustainable material use. "Different materials have different sweet spots."
That's why companies seeking eco-friendly secondary and tertiary packaging—the materials used to cushion and protect products as they move through the supply chain—rarely find simple answers. Each green packaging option offers a unique set of physical properties and ideal applications.
That uniqueness makes decisions about swapping conventional packaging for green options less a linear equation and more a matrix. Variables such as the shipped items' sourcing location, length of supply chain, and other characteristics must be matched to factors including the green packaging's performance, availability, and cost. They must also be considered in context of the entire supply chain.
Despite these challenges, packaging decisions are getting easier, thanks to a plentiful array of rapidly renewable resources and waste materials—including mushrooms, bamboo, banana peels, coconut hulls, palm, rice hulls, sugar beets, industrial waste, and sustainable wood products—as well as helpful frameworks for how to assess their suitability for a particular product and its supply chain.
More good news: many green products compete well on performance and price. "Everybody is looking for cost savings," says Jeff Boothman, president of ExpandOS, a Denver-based maker of an innovative recyclable cardboard packing material. "If our prices are not competitive, sustainability is not enough."
Taking the First Step
Many companies are easing into the transition from packaging materials perceived as environmentally harmful.
Northbrook, Ill., retailer Crate and Barrel, for example, aims to reduce its use of expanded polystyrene (EPS) to protect furniture in transit by 50 percent over the next two years—as well as cut its total packaging usage by 25 percent and aggressively pursue recycling for the EPS it still uses. In 2011, the retailer began testing Green Island, N.Y.-based packaging company Ecovative Design's molded pulp and air pad products, as well as corner blocks grown from agricultural waste products and mushroom roots.
The packaging tests reflect Crate and Barrel's big-picture view of green initiatives. "We take the broad perspective that sustainability should be holistic, from initial product design to end of life," says Aaron Rose, senior director, merchandising operations and strategic planning for Crate and Barrel.
That means evaluating packaging materials not just for properties such as vibration and drop tolerances, but for their origins. Typical questions about the package's source include: Is the material grown for this purpose or does it use an otherwise wasted byproduct from another grown product? What resources are consumed—and byproducts created—via its manufacture? How close is the material produced to the place where we will use it?
Crate and Barrel also considers where the used package will end up. For example, what happens after the box is unpacked, at a business or in a consumer's home? Are there multiple disposal options, such as reuse, compost, or recycle? How easily can the customer recycle the packaging? This can be a complicated matter—EPS is technically recyclable, but consumer access to EPS recycling facilities is limited.
For existing products, Crate and Barrel evaluates whether it makes sense to simply swap one material for another, or if it should change the product's design to allow packaging improvements. Supply chain-aware design is becoming a key part of sustainable packaging projects.
"The opportunity now lies in process technology innovation," says Troy Swope, senior vice president at Phoenix-based Unisource Global Solutions (UGS), a packaging materials company started by former Intel employees. "You don't want to ruin sustainability with poor processes."
Boiling It Down to Numbers
A variety of tools can help would-be green shippers evaluate packaging system sustainability and compile target metrics.
GreenBlue, a Charlottesville, Va., nonprofit sustainability advisory organization, offers COMPASS, an online lifecycle analysis tool that enables packaging designers and engineers to assess the human and environmental impacts of their primary and secondary packaging designs. It factors in greenhouse gas emissions, material consumption, water use, and even social responsibility impact.
"Most companies use COMPASS to benchmark existing packages so they can change their impact," explains Minal Mistry, senior manager at GreenBlue.
Tools and careful analysis are critical, because green is not always as it appears. "In many cases, intuition is wrong," says Mistry. For example, "A recycled product may seem like a good option, but if its performance declines, increasing product damages, you'll spend more money on secondary packaging, which increases shipping costs."
"First, do no harm," says Victor Bell, president of Environmental Packaging International, Jamestown, R.I. It's easy for a well-intentioned change to have an unintended consequence. Switching to a bubblewrap-lined envelope may reduce the total packaging materials required, but the package's components are difficult to separate, which complicates recycling.
"Sustainability is about tradeoffs," acknowledges Mistry.
Compliance: Growing U.S. Awareness
Relying on tools and experts to evaluate packaging helps businesses shipping globally and domestically ensure compliance with Extended Producer Responsibility laws. These regulations assign manufacturers responsibility for product and packaging end-of-life issues. Many manufacturers comply by joining private-sector programs that facilitate collecting, separating, and processing products, such as the Green Dot program, run by PRO Europe and active in 27 countries. Canada has a similar program, StewardEdge.
Individual U.S. jurisdictions are beginning to implement stronger packaging material laws. For example, Suffolk County, N.Y.; San Francisco; and Freeport, Maine, all ban polystyrene.
The challenge of keeping track of disparate laws and fees leads many companies to engage consultants to help design compliant packages, as well as complete documentation, reporting, fee payment, and labeling requirements. Consultants also help companies comply with their customers' sustainable packaging scorecards, such as the one required by Walmart.
The Neglected R: Reuse
Among the 3Rs of sustainability, reusing doesn't get as much attention as reducing and recycling, but it is making inroads into many industries. Replacing cardboard with reusable containers avoids or postpones end-of-life issues while often offering better product protection, stackability, and moisture- and heat-resistance, says Jerry Welcome, president of the Reusable Packaging Association, Arlington, Va. Some sustainable containers can be reused as many as 70 times.
Pallet pools and milk crates have been around a while, but in recent years Walmart has become a major proponent of reusables for produce and direct store delivery items. Drug stores are breaking down packs in distribution centers and moving individual items to stores via reusable trays for easy restocking, and meat is starting to travel in reusable trays. Consumer goods companies are making end caps that both ship and display product, then are returned. Other adopters include the auto and home moving industries.
Ghiradelli Chocolate Company, San Leandro, Calif., is set to save $1.95 million in net packaging reduction by replacing the 580,000 corrugated boxes it used every year to ship finished products to its stores with reusable plastic totes. The boxes got soiled and sometimes crushed the product, in addition to putting 350 tons of soiled cardboard a year into the waste stream.
The Bottom Line: Performance
Eco-friendly qualities are meaningless if the sustainable materials don't deliver on performance and financial requirements. The expanding array of agricultural and post-industrial waste products means chemists and engineers can better match requirements to a sustainable solution, and even blend multiple materials to impact performance or price. "Agricultural waste is very stable," says UGS' Swope. "With petroleum-based products, 60 to 70 percent of the finished goods price was raw materials. With sustainable materials, it's 15 to 25 percent."
Special requirements narrow the choices. It's harder to attain a food-grade status with sustainable materials, for example, because a moisture barrier is often needed between packaging and the food item.
Much of the sustainability focus centers on packing containers and cushioning, but some progress has also been made in biodegradable tapes and shrink wrap using rapidly renewable materials such as cornstarch. Dell evaluated bio-based wraps but found the cost prohibitive. Materials used in larger volumes are better bets to deliver on cost requirements.
But the calculus for making environmentally responsible changes can also take into account offset or even soft costs. Crate and Barrel, for example, was able to cover the slight premium it pays for mushroom packaging by redesigning its processes to remove excess packaging. "We recognize that while there may not be an immediate cost savings in material, there is a cost to the environment in not making the switch," says Rose.
Aided by an army of chemists and engineers, packaging companies are learning to draw the best out of plentiful, sustainable bio-materials and industrial waste, ensuring that shippers' green packaging efforts will continue to evolve.