Theres a Better Way Heres How

June 1, 2003
Consistent with national trends reported by the Environmental Protection Agency, the amount of garbage generated by the 2.6 million residents in the Twin

Consistent with national trends reported by the Environmental Protection Agency, the amount of garbage generated by the 2.6 million residents in the Twin Cities is growing steadily. The Solid Waste Management Coordinating Board (SWMCB), represents six counties in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. It is responsible for developing policies and programs for managing this waste. The SWMCB managed 3.3 million tons of garbage in 2001. It is projected to manage more than five million tons by 2017, says Victoria Reinhardt, Ramsey County commissioner and chair of the SWMCB’s Reduction and Recycling Committee. “The garbage crisis in the Twin Cities is often overshadowed by other important public policy issues,” she says.

To stay ahead of the curve and focus on a solution, four years ago the SWMCB studied the composition of the garbage produced by businesses and residents. It discovered that 15 percent of the garbage in its region was comprised of cardboard boxes and wood pallets. Based on these findings, and similar findings of earlier composition studies, the SWMCB set a goal to reduce the amount of commercial transport packaging waste by 75,000 tons, annually.

In 2000, the SWMCB conducted market research to identify industry-leading companies that had made the switch to reusable wood, metal or plastic pallets and containers. According to the research, companies that made the switch experienced lower labor costs, better product protection, less product damage, more productive flow of goods through distribution channels, better ergonomics and improved worker safety. “We also found,” says Reinhardt, “that companies reduced their waste management costs and positively impacted the environment by generating less waste, which in turn reduced the need to build expensive disposal facilities or more landfills.”

The SWMCB knew, when it made sense, businesses would make the switch to reusable transport packaging with or without its intervention. “But we wanted to help businesses make the switch faster,” explains Reinhardt.

In 2001, the SWMCB developed a marketing plan to encourage Twin Cities businesses to reduce the use of one-time and limited-use pallets and boxes. The marketing plan focused on education as the venue to spread the word about the benefits of reusable transport packaging. “With the marketing plan as a tool, the SWMCB created the There’s a Better Way awareness and education campaign,” says Reinhardt. The goal of the campaign is to provide Twin Cities businesses the information needed to make the switch to reusable transport packaging.

SWMCB knew, however, it couldn’t get the job done alone. To add visibility to the campaign and to ensure that expert information was available to Twin Cities businesses, the SWMCB partnered with the Reusable Pallet & Container Coalition (RPCC), an association representing pooled and reusable pallet and container companies in North America. The RPCC advocates the use of reusable pallets and containers as a way to reduce volume in the waste stream, and to improve system-wide productivity of industries employing these products and services.

The RPCC believes the use of expendable material is a national concern that wastes millions of dollars each year, says Ken Smith, president, RPCC. “Reusable pallets and containers are the most economic, safe and environmentally sound packaging systems available to nearly all industries,” says Smith.

Giving a face to the problem

The campaign began in the Fall, 2001, when the RPCC helped the SWMCB develop a series of three direct mail postcards. The postcards were sent to more than 100 targeted companies. These businesses also received a box containing a bucket of shredded money. They were told they might be shredding buckets of money if they weren’t using reusable transport packaging.

To stop the shredding, businesses were invited to request a copy of Reusables 101, an educational brochure developed by the SWMCB and RPCC that answers the who, what, when, where, why and how of reusable transport packaging.

In 2002, the SWMCB began to establish relationships with area industry associations. Plus, local chapters of the National Association of Purchasing Managers and Council of Logistics Management began to assist SWMCB and provide information to their members about the benefits of reusable transport packaging. “Reusable transport packaging is nothing new,” says Frank Rekow, executive director, National Association of Purchasing Managers, Twin Cities chapter. “It has been around for many years. What has changed is the cost of packaging today. It continues to increase. It is not cost effective to purchase [transport packaging material] then to dispose of it.”

What companies learned

Twin Cities companies that made the switch to reusable pallets and containers talked about the benefits during a recent There’s a Better Way reusable transport packaging workshop, hosted by the SWMCB and RPCC. Greg Murphy, corporate category manager for produce/floral, SuperValu Inc., discussed the cost-saving benefits of reusable containers. Traditional packaging at SuperValu, a major food retailer headquartered in Minneapolis, had been wooden, wire-bound crates, along with waxed coated cardboard boxes, items that are not recyclable. The company began using reusable containers in its produce department about three years ago. “With reusable containers, we have less product damage, use less labor for stocking and display, achieve display consistency and have reduced our disposal costs,” says Murphy.

This workshop was the first of its kind in the country. The venue offered business leaders, and state and local government officials, the latest information about the technology and cost-saving benefits of reusable transport packaging. Peter Kelsey, owner of the New French Bakery in Minneapolis, chose reusable containers over cardboard boxes to deliver his European-style breads. Because European-style breads would lose their crust when packed in plastic bags, Kelsey investigated the use of cardboard boxes and reusable plastic containers. “We would have spent $480 per day using 500 cardboard boxes to deliver our bread. By using reusable containers, we spend $145 per day, and our annual cost savings is $125,000,” says Kelsey.

To help businesses take advantage of the cost-saving benefits of reusable transport packaging, the SWMCB worked with the RPCC to develop the There’s a Better Way Web site, “The Web site has become the focus of the campaign and we will continue to improve and expand on it in 2003,” says Reinhardt.

Lessons learned

The SWMCB recognizes the garbage crisis in the Twin Cities as part of a national crisis unfolding in every city. “It won’t be easy to solve, and it won’t be solved over night,” says Reinhardt. “It’s a major social change that calls for business and government to change their behaviors -- to look at how they consume material and to take action to consume less. When consumption leads to waste, it hits a company’s bottom line.”

The RPCC is aggressively promoting the benefits of reusables, adds Smith, and is taking its message directly to the end-users through events like the workshop in Minneapolis. It plans to schedule similar workshops in other major cities in 2003.

The effort under way in the Twin Cities is a model for other cities. Together, businesses and government can turn a nationwide environmental problem into an opportunity to save money.

This article was contributed by Jodi Taitt, JL Taitt & Associates, Minneapolis. For more information, contact her at [email protected].