Looking for Answers, Finding Questions

Nov. 1, 2007
Theres nothing like wandering around a trade show when youre seeking answers to pressing questions. And, this years Pack Expolike any Pack Expowas the

There’s nothing like wandering around a trade show when you’re seeking answers to pressing questions. And, this year’s Pack Expo—like any Pack Expo—was the place to find plenty of both answers and questions.

One answer I was looking for was whether this whole sustainability trend is just a marketing manager’s dream, or is it for real this time? Based on what I heard while speaking with many equipment vendors and transport packaging professionals, we’re in this for the long haul. It’s not hyperbole, although there is an element of hype in it.

People are serious about finding ways to create sustainability in products and packaging, even if we are still challenged to find a good definition. One of the better definitions I heard was from Jeff Wooster, who currently leads the sustainability packaging technology team at Dow Chemical. Although it might be construed as a cop-out, Wooster says sustainability is what it is to you. Pushed for some clarification, Wooster says, “It’s how you maximize performance with a minimal use of resources.”

As Wooster points out, the focus of all this talk and action around sustainability has been about either material—making more out of less—or running a building in the most environmentally responsible manner.

Another critical piece of the puzzle, he notes, is that businesses are going to have to face the labor issue to become sustainable. “To sustain your business,” says Wooster, “you’re going to have to look at the people element as well as things like infrastructure of your location. These are also part of any lifecycle analysis, just as much as total considerations of use of other resources.” I thought about that. He’s right. It’s not always about paper versus plastic. It’s about litterbugs, baby boomers and water supplies, too.

Looking for some global perspective, I spoke with Wil Schoenmakers, global head of consumer products, P.A. Consulting in the U.K. He says the challenge with global product development is that every country is different. “Since we lack definitions and standards,” says Schoenmakers, “an exporting company really has to know where it currently is [on the sustainability continuum] and where it wants to be in five years.” As he points out, a problem for a company wanting to do the right thing is that it can never be sure what the end user will do with packaging material.

So, I was back to the people issue.

A partial solution to this sustainability dilemma, says Henry Wischusen, director, Integrated Development (Atlanta), is to design our way out. “Reduce the amount of packaging used by optimizing the design of the product and the transport packaging,” he says.

Wischusen noted that about 40% of the impact on Wal-Mart’s packaging material-reduction scorecard can be accounted for in transport packaging material. Want to reduce the amount of transport packaging material required to get the goods safely to the distribution center? Use air-ride suspension trailers, rather than leaf springs, for example, suggests Wischusen.

To that, I’d add some education on how pallet loads are handled once they’re off loaded and moved around within the building. And, it might prove educational for packaging engineers and distribution center managers to take a road trip through the total environment a package will travel before deciding on what packaging material is required.

Oh, I’m back to the people issues, aren’t I?

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