Returnable is the Operative Word

Mom said it was bad manners to interrupt when another person was speaking. The guy at the other end of a recent telephone conversation, however, was challenging me to override mom's admonition. The problem was, he kept using the term "reusable" synonymous

His argument seemed to be, given the expense of creating a returnable container program at his plant, plastic pallets and containers were costing way too much money. They exceeded the budget laid out by the consultant in the first half year of the program. Shrinkage of containers in the plant was something they had not anticipated and many more containers were required to fill the system. And tracking! Tracking the containers was turning into a nightmare. He wanted to go back to the old system of corrugated cartons and wooden pallets he could just throw away.

I hear this litany from a lot of first-time returnablecontainer users. What woke me from my nap was when he mentioned, someday, somebody was going to do a lifecycle analysis and prove that using all those plastic things was bad for the environment, and besides, plastic reusable container programs were too expensive for second-tier suppliers like himself.

My window of opportunity suddenly opened. First, any container, regardless of material, is reusable if it's returned. Let's not condemn a worthy idea. And next, while the definitive paper-versus-plastic lifecycle analysis study has yet to be done, there are a plethora of studies that support the benefits of returnable container programs.

The most recent of these studies to cross my desk is one commissioned by the Reusable Pallet & Container Coalition (RPCC), (Washington, D.C.). The study was undertaken by Franklin Associates (Prairie Village, Kans.).

The results of this quantitative independent life cycle analysis shows reusable containers:
• Require 39 percent less total energy.
• Produce 95 percent less total solid waste.
• Generate 29 percent less total greenhouse gas emissions than single-trip containers.

You're right, I've drifted away from the paper-versus-plastic issue. I think it's more important to establish any type of returnable program and stop arguing about what the containers should be made of. RPCC tends to be material neutral in its approach to the subject of transport packaging, pallets and containers for material handling. It believes the issue of non-reusable pallets or containers is a national concern that leads to millions of dollars in waste each year.

The Franklin study selected 10 produce shipping scenarios to study and analyze over a 12-month period. On average, the results of all 10 of the applications studied showed that in this case, reusable plastic containers were the way to go for the reasons I've cited above.

The choice of produce shipping scenarios was a good one. Produce is challenging. It requires added energy for refrigeration and large amounts of fuel. Produce is generally shipped long distances to its destinations. Also, reusable plastic containers require backhauling, or return to the point of origin. Even with these harsh parameters, the use of reusable plastic containers in the study resulted in lower environmental burdens.

Environmental issues have increasingly come to the forefront of U.S. businesses, governmental organizations, and local, state and federal legislatures. David Russell, president RPCC, also president of IFCO Systems (Bartow, Fla.) says, given that produce applications present the most challenging conditions for favorable, these results "bode well for other applications in which reusable transport packaging is a current or potential packaging option."

The purpose of the study was to evaluate the energy, solid waste, and atmospheric and waterborne emissions associated with reusable plastic containers compared with display-ready common footprint corrugated boxes. It examined the entire life cycle of each system, including extraction of raw material from the earth, material and container manufacture, outgoing transportation of containers, backhauling and washing of empty reusable plastic containers, recycling of corrugated boxes and reusable plastic containers, and end-of-life disposition.

If it's objective, valuable data you need to make the most informed decision possible regarding packaging options and the benefits of reusables, this study deserves your attention. Jeanie Johnson, RPCC executive director, says RPCC will continue to provide more studies, more data, and more industry information in a credible, objective manner.

"With the results of the Franklin study," says Johnson, "we can give policymakers and potential end-users the information they need."

The report notes that one factor dominates the findings. Multiple trips in a reusable plastic container closed operating system lead to efficiencies that create relatively low environmental burdens only partly offset by backhaul and cleaning steps. Container reuse with closed-loop recycling at end of life is more efficient in reducing not only solid waste, but energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, compared to lighter-weight containers recycled after one trip.

An executive summary of the study and fact sheet are available on the RPCC Web site (www.rpcc.us).

So I guess the argument remains: Why should you be interested in this if you don't buy into the global warming issue or the importance of the Kyoto Protocol? The one thing missing from the Franklin study is that adopting a returnable container program makes common sense because it makes cents. Paying for something you already own a second time, like shipping containers, doesn't make sense—no matter how you spell it.

Clyde E. Witt

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