A Greener Approach to Packaging

July 1, 2010
Reusable packaging and crating materials can lower a company's carbon footprint while improving the bottom line.

According to Bureau of Transportation statistics, 43 million tons of goods, valued at about $29 billion, are moved nearly 12 billion ton-miles domestically on an average day. And as every shipment is moved, tracked, delivered and confirmed at its final destination, there is far too much packing and shipping material used. While there's no doubt that these materials are necessary, companies today want logistics vendors to maximize efficiencies throughout the distribution channel and create greener supply chains.

As fuel prices rise, it becomes more and more essential to analyze shipping methods and transportation tactics. Logistical planning can improve environmental impact, customer relations and your bottom line.

Internet Technology-based Platforms

Businesses using global logistics to move assets around the world are looking for more information regarding their shipments and want it instantaneously. Internet technology-based platforms provide shippers with real-time status reports throughout a shipment's lifecycle. The workflow milestones monitored include quote, booking, pick up, pack complete, routed, in transit, delivered, proof of delivery and invoicing.

The speed of information saves time that would have otherwise been spent researching and calling for shipment updates. Instantaneous tracking information helps shippers control inventory and costs associated with their assets.

Smartphone applications enable real-time data collection for condition reports, photos, real-time upload of critical pickup and delivery information, transport data and site survey data. The smartphone provides a common platform for these capabilities at an affordable price.

These technologies improve efficiencies and help save on transportation costs like fuel and labor while also reducing the carbon footprint through more efficient routing of pickups and deliveries. The use of alternate vehicles, such as cargo vans or Sprinter vans instead of semi-trucks, can help further reduce gas consumption.

Greener Packaging Methods

Today almost all businesses are taking a serious look at how their policies affect the environment. The packaging and transportation industries have not always been the “greenest” industries, but there is opportunity for radical improvement. Reusable packaging and crating materials can help and new crates can be engineered for multiple transits. Crating companies can repair packaging rather than tossing damaged materials into landfills. This extends the lifecycle of a crate and reduces the demand for new lumber.

Crating companies are recycling wood, corrugated cardboard and other packaging materials to minimize materials that might otherwise be discarded. For instance, my own company, Craters & Freighters, is heavily involved in research and development of eco-friendly packaging and shipping methods. An estimated 25% of our customers are requesting eco-friendly packaging and/or shipping, especially those in the technology field, and this number is increasing steadily.

Reusable Crates

Some crating companies offer reusable crates that are engineered specifically to withstand the rigors of multiple trips. Specs for such crates include those with hinges and link locks that allow multiple entries into the crate without tearing it apart with a crowbar. For example, trade show booth crates can be built to be more rigid and contain an interior structural design that is specific to the products they will contain. The process makes the crates more expensive at the outset, but it ultimately saves the cost of having to buy multiple crates. In addition, crates can be refurbished and repaired at little or no cost to extend the life of the crate.

Another trend involves the shipping of computer server racks to data centers. Many companies shipping this type of content are utilizing racks that can facilitate multiple visits, saving money and resources.

Biodegradable Materials

Some of the biggest changes to packing materials include the replacement of petroleum-based products, such as polyethylene, polystyrene foam and foam-in-place packaging that are extremely slow to degrade, with materials that are more biodegradable. Packing peanuts made from potato starch are a potential replacement for foam packing peanuts. Interpack materials made from recycled corrugated or crumpled craft paper are other biodegradable options to bubble wrap or EPS foam.

Recycling of Wood and Other Packing Material

Not only are craft paper, crimped paper, recycled shredded cardboard and plastic pallets more biodegradable, they can be recycled a number of times depending on their usage.

If polyethylene and polyurethane products are necessary for cushioning, they may be obtained from a recycling company. Airbags can also be used to replace petroleum-based packaging materials if the goods are not weight-sensitive.

Corru-fill is another example of a recycled packaging material. It's made from recycled corrugated boxes. One of the benefits to using Corru-fill is that it doesn't settle to the bottom of the shipping container like traditional foam peanuts. Corru-fill stays put, offering protection of the piece during shipping. The drawback to using Corru-fill is that it is heavier and about 50% more expensive than foam peanuts.

A Well-engineered Container

The need for packaging materials can be reduced by the efficiencies of crate and container designs. Containers need to be designed so that as much product can be shipped within the container as possible without compromising the structure, and in turn jeopardizing the protection of the goods. If this type of consolidated packing is done correctly, it eliminates the need for more wood and excessive cushioning materials.

Depending on the nature of the goods being placed in a container, experts can consider a blocking and bracing technique to secure the goods inside the container. Employing this method requires that any sensitive components are cushioned and braced in the crate with cushioned wood blocks and braces.

Eco-Friendly Shipping

Ground and ocean cargo is less expensive than air cargo. Bulk shipping is cheaper than individual parcel delivery. By strategically bulk shipping large-quantity inventories to warehouse facilities close to the end-buyer, companies can significantly reduce many overhead expenses. Eliminating a large centralized warehousing facility and outsourcing many of the warehouse functions can also save the expenses such as rent, staffing, insurance and utilities as well as drastically reduce the carbon footprint.

Intermodal transportation solutions can help reduce the carbon footprint of long-haul trucking. A rail car can reportedly transport a ton of freight over 400 miles on one gallon of gas and is more efficient than a hybrid car. Consideration should be given to suppliers that use alternative fuels, such as bio diesels, flex fuels and ethanol.

Industry leaders should consider these things if they intend to meet customer expectations regarding the environment. It's also the right thing to do. Companies must continuously seek efficiencies regarding waste management, recycling and energy consumption. The benefits include cost savings, process efficiency and “greening” up the industry.

Diane Gibson is CEO and founder of Craters & Freighters, a Golden, Colo.-based provider of packaging and transportation services.

For more information:

Corru-Fill

National Recycling Coalition

Plastic Loose Fill Council

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