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.
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.
Dell Computes Bamboo’s Benefits
Perhaps the highest-profile application of sustainable packaging is Dell’s use of bamboo to replace foam cushioning materials for lightweight products such as laptops, tablets, and smart phones. Bamboo, sourced near the company’s plants in China (but far from panda habitats), is a fast-growing grass with long, strong fibers.
Dell put bamboo through its paces, including vibration, shock, drop, and storage testing, based on International Safe Transit Association standards and its own data. “We make calculations from a total cost standpoint, comparing the cost of the material and logistics savings,” says Oliver Campbell, director of procurement at Dell. “The net is the cost savings.”
Dell uses its own framework to evaluate materials, but Campbell advises other companies to start a packaging recycling effort as Dell did: by talking with customers, whose comments drove development of guiding principles for evaluating packing methods it calls the 3Cs:
- Cube: How big is the box? Could it be smaller?
- Content: What is the packaging made of? Could it use better materials?
- Curb: Is it easily recycled?
Its objectives for Cube—shrinking packaging volume by 10 percent—as well as Content—increasing the amount of recycled content in packaging to 40 percent—have been achieved. It expects to soon reach its Curb goal—increasing to 75 percent the amount of material in packaging to be curbside recyclable.
Mushroom Packaging: A Growing Market
As some manufacturers have discovered, packaging can be a grown—not manufactured—product. Companies such as Crate and Barrel, Steelcase, and Dell are replacing expanded polypropylene (EPP) or expanded polystyrene (EPS) with mycelium, or mushrooms. One example: Ecovative Design’s EcoCradle cushioning material grows in a mold in five to seven days using mycelium and agricultural byproducts such as plant stalks or seed husks.
While its typical density is four pounds per cubic foot—heavier than most fossil fuel-based foams—it can be tweaked for different uses—for example, whole cotton burrs make for a lightweight, insulating material with large air pockets, while finely ground oat hulls result in a denser product.
A product such as EcoCradle satisfies many items on sustainable material checklists: It uses a cost-stable, low-value agriculture byproduct. It is energy efficient to produce. It can be reused or even composted, returning nutrients to the soil. Packagers like its drop and vibration tolerance. “Mushrooms deliver better cushioning performance than polyethylene cushions,” says Oliver Campbell, director of procurement at Dell.
Start-ups such as Ecovative—initially conceived in a Rensselaer Polytechnic classroom—present a challenge for large companies. Their manufacturing footprint is inadequate for the geographic spread of these enterprises, so adoption must be paced with the company’s ability to find manufacturing partners.
For Dell, also a former dorm-room startup, “working with Ecovative is a smart risk,” says Campbell. “These technologies continue to evolve, and mushroom packaging has good potential.”
Ten Strawberry Street Finds a Fruitful Solution
Shipping fragile items sustainably can be tricky. Denver-based manufacturer and importer Ten Strawberry Street was using paper to wrap its fine china, glassware, and flatware before loading them into recycled corrugated boxes, but was incurring unacceptable breakage complaints from consumers and retailers.
Then the company discovered ExpandOS—small, lightweight paper pyramids with interlocking, circular holes that fill in void space and lock carton contents in place. The product is made from 100-percent post-industrial waste, and is both reusable and recyclable.
The packaging is converted on site from flat sheets using special equipment, lowering the cost of delivering the material to distribution facilities, and taking up less storage space. Because products are locked in place, Ten Strawberry Street doesn’t have to worry about friction, so it can pack products of different weights and shapes in the same box. ExpandOS often ships prospective customers a brick, two coffee cups, and two light bulbs together to illustrate the benefit.
The product’s weight is comparable to foam and a bit heavier than bubblewrap, and it costs less than both those materials, says Jeff Boothman, president of ExpandOS.
The switch enabled Ten Strawberry Street to meet two key goals: delivering product without breakage, and satisfying retailer shipping requirements.
French Broad Chocolates Is Sweet on Green Cell Foam
Packing green gets challenging when the product is temperature-sensitive. Asheville, N.C.-based chocolatier and café French Broad Chocolates wanted to replace polystyrene coolers it used to ship its chocolate treats to warm locations, but needed packaging that would keep the product under 75 degrees F without adding too much weight.
What the company didn’t expect was to find one better—a green alternative that actually wicks away the condensation from melting ice packs. In 2011, the chocolatier chose KTM Industries’ Green Cell Foam, a product made from corn through a clean, low-water-use process. Manufacturing byproducts are burned into carbon dioxide and water at nearby Michigan State University, where the initial research and development took place. It’s green enough to eat, according to Tim Colonnese, president and CEO of KTM Industries. The product density is two pounds per cubic foot, compared to 1.2 pounds for expanded polystyrene.
“It holds product temperature without adding weight,” says Dan Rattigan, co-owner of French Broad Chocolates.
Other companies tap Green Cell Foam’s additional characteristics, such as its desiccant, anti-static, and multishock capability.
“Green Cell Foam costs more than other packaging materials, but we’re willing to pay a premium for sustainability,” says Rattigan. The cost increase was offset, he adds, by KTM Industries’ design services, which enabled the chocolatier to outfit its box dimensions with just a few Green Cell Foam panel sizes.