Mhlnews 1895 Arena Alas Automated Washer

Big Boxes Without Big Bucks

Dec. 1, 2007
Managing an inventory of returnable bulk containers can be expensive. Container pooling can reduce those costs.
Arena-Alas automated washer cleans reusable containers.

Many companies currently using one-way transport packaging products such as intermediate bulk containers (IBCs) could benefit from container pooling, says Mike Brunhuber, vice president, A.R. Arena Products (Rochester, N.Y., His company designs, manufactures and markets reusable structural plastic products. It also started the first reusable plastic container pooling business in the U.S. in 1993.

“Many of our customers,” says Brunhuber, “are converting to reusable containers for reasons slightly different from even five years ago. Environmental issues are now a priority.”

He says that in the past people talked about the environmental benefits of using returnable containers; however, in the end it was always about money. Now, the money issues and environmental issues make equal sense.

“Two things the potential user of returnables has to get his arms around,” says Brunhuber, “are the actual, not hoped for, return rate of containers and the attrition rate of containers.”

Determining the return rate, or how fast a container gets back to be used again, can be tricky. Companies currently using one-way packaging might not have all the facts and figures on which managers can base a decision. Brunhuber says the more complex the distribution network, the more containers a user will require to accommodate distributors, break-bulk terminals, warehousing and other places where a container will just sit.

Keeping Track
A.R. Arena uses a Web-based system to track containers. All of its containers carry barcode labels on four sides. Scanning is done at virtually every stop along the way.

“We follow a container from the time it leaves our depot and moves to the fill point, through its entire logistics channel and back to our depot,” says Brunhuber. “We like to have at least four points along the way where we can scan.”

Determining when to ship containers back to the depot can be a challenge for users. A.R. Arena bases its rates on the space the collapsed containers will occupy in a truck.

“We know that seven collapsed containers occupy a footprint of a single pallet, and that 21 containers is the minimum optimal return load,” he explains. Using its Web-based system, the company can determine when its customers should have accumulated those 21 containers. It then sends an e-mail notification to confirm the containers were used, and that the truck will be picking up the empties on a specific date.

Eric Fredrickson, consultant and reusable container specialist (Lancaster, Mass.), says there are two things that keep companies from converting to reusables: Not wanting to appropriate capital to a non-core business is at the top of the list. “And not having confidence that they’ll be able to manage reusables, not lose them, not get them back in a timely manner, etc.”

A container pooling company takes those issues off the table, says Fredrickson. It provides potential users with a per-use cost that can be compared directly with single-use packaging.

Another barrier to implementing a reusable packaging program is that a company might be reluctant to launch its own reusable container program when the product is moving from one company to another. “Who makes the investment and who gets the savings? Using a third-party pooling service eliminates that problem,” says Fredrickson.

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