It’s Complicated: Material Handling’s Relationship with Sustainable Packaging

Jan. 22, 2020
There are some unintended consequences that could result from the push for sustainable packaging.

In response to mounting consumer demand and regulatory pressure, packaging engineers and manufacturers have been hard at work over the past several years finding ways to make packaging more sustainable. They’ve been so successful, in fact, that sustainable packaging is now a $225 billion market, nearly 25% of all packaging globally.

But the impact of packaging changes is felt far beyond the point of sale by everyone in the supply chain. All too often, what may be seen as progress in the eyes of the consumer creates serious challenges for those tasked with handling, transportation, and post-consumer reuse, recycling, or disposal. With an expected growth rate of 5.7% through 2024, sustainable packaging—and the challenges that come with it—are here to stay.

It is timely to look at three different types of sustainable packaging and the challenges each one may pose for the material handling and logistics industry in the years to come.

Lightweighting: Less is More…Right?

Lightweighting, also called downgauging, means reducing the amount of material used or replacing it with a lighter weight alternative. This form of source reduction is typically the first tactic used to make packaging more sustainable, and it’s easy to see why. In addition to environmental benefits, material reduction almost always reduces production and transport costs—an easy sell. Perhaps that’s why most top retailers and fast-moving consumer goods manufacturers have made big reductions and pledged even more, with reduction commitments ranging from 20% to 33 %, according to McKinsey. Nestlé, for example, has reduced the weight of its water bottles by 22% since 2009, and Unilever has reengineered the material used in some of its pouches, allowing the company to reduce its polymer usage by 1,400 tons each year (according to Dieline).

But downgauging has a downside. The thinner the packaging, the less the product inside is protected, either from impact or temperature. To compensate, handlers must add additional secondary packaging (i.e., insulated boxes, more layers of pallet wrap, etc.) and be far more careful (read: less efficient) when building and breaking down pallets, loading and unloading, and moving around the warehouse. Space utilization also becomes less efficient, as the lighter, weaker packages don’t support the weight of the layers above them: either the product itself must bear the weight, or we simply can’t stack as high.

While the material handling industry has been able to use these workarounds to compensate for lighter weight primary packaging (albeit at a cost) so far, the meteoric rise of e-commerce has created another trend, wholly at odds with lightweighting: the convergence of primary and secondary packaging.

A 2019 packaging trends report by McKinsey sums up the impending collision:

We expect to see a tipping point emerge when purchasing volume via e-channels reaches over 20-30%. As volume increases, many more product manufacturers will be looking to e-channel enabled packaging—in other words, the merging of primary and secondary packaging. We expect large e-commerce players to lead the way in removing the outer box by demanding primary packaging designed to allow direct shipment to consumers without a secondary protective outer layer.

If this trend continues as predicted, material handling and logistics professionals will be faced with the compounded challenge of reduced-performance boxes and bottles, already inefficient as primary packaging, now being moved through the supply chain without the support of secondary packaging or unitization.

Recycled Content Packaging: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Another popular sustainable packaging tactic is to increase the amount of recycled material used. Last year, the EU Commission pledged 30% recycled content in all plastic bottles by 2030. In September of this year, the California legislature passed AB 792, mandating all plastic beverage containers sold in the state must contain a minimum of 50% post-consumer recycled plastic by 2030. Although AB 792 was later vetoed by Governor Newsom, the legislature’s action shows the level of commitment some states and municipalities are willing to make to this effort.

Unfortunately for the logistics industry, packages made with high percentages of some recycled material have similar performance issues to those made with thinner gauge materials. The exceptions are packages made from glass or metal, as these materials can effectively be recycled indefinitely without degrading quality (i.e., strength), but plastics and paperboard experience quality losses after just 1-2 or 5-7 recycling processes, respectively (according to Earth911). Here’s how the Sustainable Packaging Coalition describes the problem in its “Design for Recycled Content Guide”:

“Concerns related to strength of recycled fiber in packaging are pronounced in applications with high levels of recycled fiber and high structural or load-bearing requirements. When high levels of recycled fiber is used in these heavier duty packaging applications, it may be necessary to use more fiber to get to the same performance characteristics as would be provided by virgin fiber. This use of additional material has trade-offs that should be understood and taken into account. High levels of recycled fiber are best suited for packages that do not have significant weight-bearing requirements.”

This is why we typically only see 100% recycled content packaging in applications with minimal strength requirements, such as cereal boxes. To ensure adequate performance, corrugated cardboard products more commonly contain levels closer to 50%; bleached, high graphic boxes tend to be almost exclusively made from virgin pulp. As the percentage of recycled content increases, engineers must often compensate for the loss of strength by adding extra material or an extra layer of another material (i.e., weight).

As companies and regulators push for higher levels of recycled content in everything from plastic water bottles to cardboard boxes, packaging engineers will be forced to accept reduced load-bearing or crush strength attributes, or add weight through more material to compensate. As with lightweighted packaging, handlers will need to add more secondary or tertiary packaging to secure and protect pallets of product and/or handle packages slowly and more carefully. Or, if additional material has been added to the recycled package, handlers will need to reduce the amount of product they can move to compensate for additional packaging weight. Neither option is attractive from material handling or transportation standpoints.

Reusable Packaging: Are We Ready?

The third sustainable packaging trend rapidly gaining popularity is reusable packaging. To date, 112 cities, states and countries have enacted single-use packaging bans, mainly focused on items like straws, bags and food containers. But what began as backlash against single-use consumer packaging has now broadened to include calls for full circular economies, including reusable transport packaging (according to PRI).

Reusable transport packaging is a $98 billion industry of containers, bins, pallets, drums, carts and dunnage made of durable materials, designed to be recollected and reused for many years. Reusable packaging is different from other types of sustainable packaging as methods of retrieval, cleaning and repair must be designed along with the packaging. In fact, it is the reuse system itself and not the packaging alone that defines reusable packaging.

For the material handling and logistics industry, reusable packaging is nothing new, but future challenges will be. As reusable packaging is made “smart” with asset tracking and product monitoring technology, humble pallets and containers are becoming part of the Internet of Things. Handlers will soon be asked to make product selection decisions based on data they receive from containers, truck drivers will rely on temperature alerts from the pallets themselves, and everyone will see real-time alerts when something has gone wrong with a load, pallet, or single case. Existing warehouse management systems will need to be rethought and employees retrained.

Reusable consumer packaging will also create new dilemmas, as empty bottles, jars and bins will require their own reverse logistics loops. Demand for new consolidation, repair, washing, and sortation locations and labor will impact how warehouse and transportation resources are used, creating whole new logistics infrastructures and testing the capabilities of existing ones.

Sustainable Packaging: A Challenge for the Whole Supply Chain

Whether through downgauging, increasing recycled content, or implementing reusable systems, sustainable packaging trends are quickly taking over our supply chains. With these new types of packaging comes reduced environmental burden—and greater difficulties for material handling, logistics and transportation professionals.

Consumers and regulators are pushing packaging engineers to create packaging that’s more sustainable, but if we are to reap the intended benefits, we must consider the unintended consequences of these changes on the manufacturing floor and in the warehouse. Only solutions that work for the whole supply chain can achieve our environmental goals, maintain and improve efficiency, and be truly sustainable.

Hillary Femal is chief marketing officer of the Reusable Packaging Association, a non-profit trade organization representing and promoting the interests of member suppliers and users of reusable packaging products and services.