Transport Packaging: Degradable Plastics Wear Thin with Manufacturers

Jan. 1, 2006
The real challenge is to build the business case for reusables with RFID tags.

Someday readers of material handling's history will think it fascinating, maybe even quaint, that we paid so much attention to obvious ideas such as reusable pallets and containers. In 100 years they will have mined from the landfills all the usable material and turned it into fuel, no doubt.

In 2006, however, the subject of reusable containers and pallets is still a hot topic. November's topic of degradable plastics [" Degradeable vs. Durable," Nov. 2005, p. 12] generated a lot of interesting e-mail, notes (discarding the stuff written in crayon) and phone calls for me . Among the more reasonable responses I had was a telephone conversation with David Rodgers. He's the current president of the Reusable Pallet and Container Coalition (RPPC, Washington, D.C.). His dayjob is as senior vice president for sales and marketing at Orbis (Oconomowoc, Wis.).

For reusable pallet and container makers, the argument about the viability of such products is hardly even a talking point any more. The important things now, are tracking, tracing and accountability.

"A user of reusables," says Rodgers, " struggles to have visibility of its assets when those assets are out of its control. So this real possibility of better accountability [with radio-frequency identification (RFID)] is exciting for everyone in this industry."

The RPPC is taking a hard look at asset tracking for accountability of containers, and RFID is the leading candidate. Bar coding has long been used on multiple-trip containers. The labels, even when protected, have been a challenge in the many environments a container must pass through on its way from manufacturer to end-user. And a bar code label, with all of its potential, still has liabilities and limitations.

"RPPC has recently joined the EPC-Global group," says Rodgers, "because we want to be sure reusable packaging is part of the mindset of people in that group, especially on the transportation services subcommittee."

The challenge for RPPC will be to build the business case for reusables with RFID tags and how this will impact asset accountability and improve cycle turns for the end user. The big cost for users of multi-trip containers will be the cost of a tag that can survive a wide variety of environments in an industry such as produce, for example.

"We understand that what's inside the box is most relevant and that's why the RFID initiatives are focused there," says Rodgers. "But we're trying to change the mindset that says transport packaging has to be one-way."

Convincing shippers the box should be thought of as part of the intended use of the product, or important to where the product is going, will be a challenge. For Rodgers, and many like him, thinking about the box and its purpose is what transport packaging is all about. Their irrefutable point—don't buy another something that you've already paid for— is logical for believers in reusable packaging material. Degradable plastic just does not have a place in this mindset.

Hartson Poland of PDQ Plastics (Bayonne, N.J.) was another reasonable voice in the discussion. In an e-mail he said: "As raw material prices drive the cost of all pallets skyward, the 'cost-per-use' model becomes more critical than ever. The pallet that can deliver exponentially more uses ends up the clear winner in this environment. As the manufacturer of the single most durable plastic pallets in the universe, [I'll allow him the hyperbole since I've yet to test all, or any, of the pallets in the universe.] we have been preaching the 'costperuse' model all along. From a purely environmental point of view, source reduction is at the top of the hierarchy of the preferably preferable; even over recycling. For material handling products, the idea of degradable materials is just wrong-headed."

Wrong headed for material handling, indeed. There's probably a place for degradable plastics in this world, however we shouldn't let it get in the way of doing the right thing; using what is already paid for.

This is certainly one of those issues where I find it not possible to be objective, however, I do like to be fair. If any one would like weigh-in on the side of degradable plastics or wasteful material handling practices, drop me a note.

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