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The environmental agenda has increased everybody’s awareness of waste, and the focus on more efficient, and greener packaging has encouraged a wave of innovation in the sector. From recycling materials to extending the life of packaging products, there is seemingly nothing that can’t be made more eco-friendly, more efficient and in many cases cheaper to use.

Balancing the demands of performance, sustainability and cost can be a difficult equation. Josephine Fish of Pregis Protective Packaging says: “We have listened to both our customers and end-users and understand that many of them have environmental concerns; at the same time, they are also seeking protective packaging solutions that are fit for purpose.”

However, Richard Smith, managing director of Charapak questions how far consumers’ environmental principles stretch when it comes down to a price choice. “Cost is always an issue and will never be compromised; we’re all fickle consumers who want the best deal after all. Environmental issues are supplementary to this aim.” And David Scott, head of warehousing and distribution at Torque, goes further: “Costs are driven by customer/consumer demand and this is in fact often a contradiction of the environmental principles.”

Without getting too ideological, paper is a core packaging product which is an obvious, easy and cheap resource to recycle. In fact keeping it out of landfill saves cash. But many packaging manufacturers are taking the next step and addressing sustainability by looking at their source materials.

Easypack uses 100 per cent recycled paper, and most of Ranpak’s paper is made from either entirely recycled materials or has a high recycled content. The virgin paper it does use is derived mostly from sawmill residuals. Ranpak says it only works with Sustainable Forest Initiative or Forest Stewardship Council certified mills to ensure that sustainable forestry practices are taking place.

Pregis produces a lined envelope made of entirely recycled paper which also uses 40 – 100 per cent recycled resin within the air cushion liner. This is derived from the post-industrial scrap of Pregis’s own manufacturing processes, which was previously diverted to landfill.

Recyclability of packaging products is also important. DS Smith has produced a corrugated “Eco-Pallet” which is made of 100 per cent recyclable fibreboard which is contaminant free, and Easypack reckons its white paper is carbon neutral and can be recycled as many as eight times.

Packaging firm Rexam points out that cans are 100 per cent and infinitely recyclable, and it has established the “Every Can Counts” campaign to help reach the target of recycling 75 per cent of cans by 2015.

Consumers who unpack products at home, and retailers who have to deal with transit packaging are all alive to the hassle of dealing with non-recyclables, and making sure that packaging products are sustainable, and easy to recycle is key.

And what could be easier than simply throwing used packaging onto a compost heap in your back garden? Easypack and Storopack both produce compostable packing cushions, that look and act exactly as their non-recyclable cousin. Storopack’s AIRplus Bio, is made from corn and potato starch collected from food production waste. It is a biologically degradable plastic compound based on polylactic acid with co-polyester; and as with polyethylene based films, Storopack co-extrudes the polymer to produce a three-layered structure, which reduces material consumption compared with mono-extruded films.

One retailer that has switched to recycled, and sustainable packaging in a big way, is Marks & Spencer, as part of its Plan A initiative. The retailer also uses biodegradable plastics derived from plant starch, called Plantic. Once on a compost heap, Plantic takes around three weeks to break down, and will dissolve in minutes if submerged in water.

Plastic potential

M&S uses Plantic for trays across its range of Swiss chocolates, and has begun rolling it out to other product ranges. It also uses recycled paper pulp, that can be recycled or composted, rather than polystyrene in the trays that hold fruit such as apples.

While not biodegradable, more conventional plastics can also stand up as sustainable options. Sian Miles, environment and purchasing director at bpi.recycled, says: “We know from our sister business, bpi.visqueen that many online retailers are now opting to use polythene mailing bags over more traditional cardboard boxes. One of the reasons for this shift could be the highly recyclable nature of these bags.”

bpi.recycled transforms waste wrap into a range of “second life” products such as refuse sacks, high performance building films and outdoor furniture. Miles says this is part of a considered approach to sustainability where they try to avoid shipping materials to be recycled in the Far East. She explains: “While this does help to keep waste out of landfill and to conserve resources, exporting this material to locations like China is a process that can incur as many as 20,000 shipping miles and actually entails a massive carbon footprint.”

The environmental and financial costs of transport have also motivated new treatments of plastics. Using down-gauging technology and advanced polymers can now produce pallet stretch wrap that is half the thickness, but just as strong as older versions, thereby halving the volume and weight of film used per pallet.

Stretch films are also the key to a transport saving for Jiffy Packaging, which has come up with a means of transporting CDs and DVDs in wrapped bundles instead of cartons, saving around 700 kg per trailer load, and 44 per cent of volume per pallet. For an even lighter option, DS Smith produces the Evolution pallet, a one-way recyclable alternative to timber or plastic, made of corrugated cardboard. It reckons that its reduced weight of 2.1kg saves up to 80 per cent in fuel costs compared to a lorry load of timber pallets.

Some new products focus on making packaging work harder. The growth of online retail has encouraged several designs for returnable packaging.

Online fashion shoppers, for example, routinely buy several sizes and colours of each item they intend to keep, generating massive volumes of returns. For these operations, parcels that can be resealed to take the return as well as delivery effectively halve the waste of each return. This also has the bonus of saving the customer the cost and effort of sourcing their own packaging for the return. Returnable packets also facilitate online film and game rental services that rely on customers sending items back.

Charapak’s “There and Back Pack” has two adhesive strips, one to be torn off on opening the original parcel, the second for resealing the pack for return. This is also available with a decorated interior which can be reversed and used as a gift pack – more added value for the shopper.

Charapak says customers have saved as much as £50,000 by switching to its pre-constructed boxes, but returnable packaging, particularly heavier duty transit packaging is generally more expensive than its disposable card and paper alternatives.

And inevitably, costs are absorbed up the supply chain to some extent. Harry Fairbank, managing director of Arlington Packaging, says: “It has been necessary for leading suppliers like ourselves to take the initiative and develop financially attractive lease or temporary hire options over a fixed term period. This provides the scope for responsible manufacturers and producers to harness the benefits of a more environmentally acceptable packaging solution without having to be concerned about any high up-front costs that could otherwise compromise increasingly squeezed profit margins.”

Minimising waste

A new option for semi permanent returnable packaging is the Notbox, which is, as it name suggests, like a cardboard box, but not quite. It has a layer of card, which is reinforced with layers of non-woven polypropylene, and it can be backhauled flat. Managing director of Notbox, Jonathan Cobb says they will make up to 30 round trips, after the fourth round trip the savings they recoup will have paid for their cost.

Linpac Allibert has estimated that its rigid plastic trays such as Maxinest are more carbon efficient than single-trip cardboard containers after 20 trips, that they pay for themselves after about 12 trips and that they go through the grocery supply chain around 24 times a year, for as many as seven or eight years.

There is also an inventive new returnable transit solution for transporting viscous materials, which are usually transported in disposable drums and barrels resulting in significant product wastage. The new design from Arlington Packaging uses returnable plastic boxes in combination with plastic bags, called, appropriately, Air Assist Bag-in-Box. It uses two kilos of disposable material for every thousand kilos of viscous material being transported, and allows extraction of vastly more viscous material from each unit.

Another way of producing less waste is to use less materials in the first place. Smith of Charapak says: that “reduction of air gap and use of void fill” are vital, and especially for online retailer where the sustainability of every item’s packaging also reflects directly on the brand as it all ends up in peoples’ homes.

Most regular online shoppers can attest to the fact that over-packaging is a common occurrence, such as huge boxes stuffed with void filling material simply to transport small, non-delicate or flat items that would be more secure, and presumably cheaper, in a smaller pack.

Office Depot has been using Savoye’s Jivaro lidding machine to avoid just such wasteful packaging. The automated system feels for the height of the product before trimming the card and creating a lid for each box at the appropriate size. Office Depot reports that it has reduced the number of vehicles that it uses to transport orders as a result of cutting wasted box volume with this system.

Mike McCreesh, head of distribution, says: “As a result of redesigning our packaging systems Office Depot now uses ten per cent less material in boxes, sleeves, lids and labels. The use of polythene shrink-film liners has also been reduced – saving over 400 tonnes of plastic per year.”

Savoye also offers a packaging system designed specifically to eliminate excess box volume for e-commerce operations that specialise in items such as books, DVDs and flat packs. The E-Jivaro wraps items in card, adapting each wrap to the size of the item. In this way items are wrapped securely, and the size of the packet will allow many items to be posted through letterboxes.

Storopack is also taking the issue of over-packaging seriously as a route to greener operations: “Differentiating, reducing and avoiding or preventing are the most effective strategies for increasing sustainability – even more than re-using and recycling.” The firm has addressed this through a software system developed with US company Invata which integrates physical and digital data to assign each shipment the most efficient packaging with minimal material use. It says this saves packing costs, but also personnel and freight costs.

Over-packaging is not the only type of waste, and simply minimising packaging material is not a cover all solution. Items with inadequate transit packaging will effectively become waste products themselves.

Jim Hardisty, managing director of warns of the potential costs of damaged goods if substandard equipment is used. He says that in a recent incident, “a major UK supermarket was faced with £2.5m worth of damage after a wooden pallet racked 10-pallets high broke in its automated storage system”.

He can, of course, explain the relative efficiencies of plastic for pallets, in terms of product wastage as well as recyclability of the pallets themselves: “Plastic pallets are strong and durable and less vulnerable to damage than other types of pallets – a standard plastic pallet has a lifespan of up to ten years, offering an excellent return on investment. Once a plastic pallet reaches the end of its working life, the plastic still lives on, as the pallet can be recycled and the plastic can be reground to produce new plastic products.”

Edible film

Product wastage can also be reduced by making packaging work “smarter”. Recent innovations are even using packaging to prolong the life of some food products. The recycling organisation WRAP found that 290,000 tonnes of meat and fish, worth about £1,300 million, is avoidably wasted each year in UK households. In response, pharmaceutical manufacturer Pepceuticals is developing an edible film wrapper for fresh meat to increase shelf-life and ultimately reduce the need for oil-based plastic packaging.

Marks and Spencer is set to prolong the life of its strawberries by including a strip in each punnet, which is impregnated with minerals that absorb the ripening hormone ethylene. This should give an extra two days shelf life. M&S trials found a minimum wastage saving of four per cent, which equates to some 800,000 strawberries to be enjoyed rather than chucked.

Over the past year M&S has changed the way Plan A is managed and there is now greater board level involvement with bi-monthly meetings. This pro-active, top down approach has seen compelling results. Mark Bolland, chief executive, says: “This year, Plan A has contributed a net benefit of over £70 million, up on the £50 million last year, which has been invested back into the business.”

There are also immediate financial consequences for ignoring sustainability. DS Smith Recycling’s commercial director, Mathew Prosser, points out: “’With landfill tax increasing a further £8 next month, taking it from £56 to £64 per tonne, and increasingly stringent environmental regulations, it’s clear that companies can make considerable financial savings by implementing sustainable waste management schemes.”

There are many factors that affect the sustainability of our packaging products, from what they are made of, and how they are used to what can be made from them. And there have been huge advances in materials, products, and systems available to make operations greener, deliver added value for customers, and reduce costs.

Some may have more ecological integrity than others, and it may not be a panacea, but a considered approach to packaging can certainly make your operation get better.

Case Study: CHEP carbon plan

CHEP, the provider of pallet and container pooling solutions, has been awarded the Carbon Trust Standard in the UK. The company has reduced its carbon emissions by 7.6 per cent in the last three years. CHEP’s sustainability programme includes: optimisation of the compressed air system used in all sites and the elimination of air leaks; and monitoring energy consumption on a weekly basis to identify power and natural gas wastage.

Fernando Rodríguez, vice president plant operations for Europe, says: “Cutting carbon is a priority for us as a business and delivers tangible bottom-line benefits. We have already cut our carbon emissions by 7.6 per cent and are committed to making further reductions.”

“Going through the assessment process to achieve the Carbon Trust Standard helped us to quantify our carbon footprint, benchmark our performance and identify areas for improvement across our operations.”

Case Study: Closed loop recycling investment

BPI has commissioned a £4.5m waste wash plant to recycle polythene waste such as used pallet stretch wrap, garment covers and shrink film.

The plant will enable bpi.recycled products to recycle 25,000 tonnes of waste material each year in addition to its current rate of 70,000 per year. This waste will be used to create new products including refuse sacks, outdoor furniture and building films.

The plant enables BPI to increase the number of closed loop recycling initiatives it can offer. Under these schemes, bpi.recycled can recover materials such as back of store waste from retailers, and supply the same retailer with products like refuse sacks made from their own scrap.

Business director Gerry McGarry said: “The new plant at Rhymney will help to increase our already extensive recycling capabilities, bringing major benefits not only to our business, but also to UK recycling and to the environment as a whole.”

Case Study: Saving money two ways

GGB, a supplier and distributor of Italian and Malaysian car parts, has cut packaging spend and waste disposal costs by using an Easypack Shredder to generate packaging material from surplus cardboard boxes.

The cardboard is converted by the Shredder machine into a strong, pliable mat which is used for packing a variety of parts. The material protects heavy, bulky items as well as more delicate parts which can all be packed together in one outer. The mat is also used to protect sharp corners on metal parts including pipe ends on exhaust systems and silencers.

The firm says: shredded cardboard has replaced previously used cardboard off-cuts which lacked pliability, were time consuming and added excessive weight to the package.

The general manager at GGB Limited, comments “The Easypack Shredder is ideal for our purpose as it generates as much material as needed, where we want it, when we want it. The whole operation is clean, we no longer have to store packaging material and we save money two ways by reducing the spend on material purchase and avoid the cost of disposing of surplus cardboard. We like the machine which is constructed with stainless steel and easy to clean. It is very quiet, and the built-in trimming blade means we do not have to pre-cut the cardboard”.

Case Study: Smoothie bottles to school uniforms

Marks and Spencer is recycling the bottles that package its smoothies into school skirts, blazers and fleece tops.

The scheme forms part of its Plan A commitment to maximise its use of recycled content, and to send zero waste to landfill by 2012. Recycling plastic uses much less crude oil and energy than the traditional method of producing polyester, due to the fact that the oil has already been moulded into plastic.

The bottles are sent to a sorting centre where they’re separated into three different types of plastic – PVC, HDPE and PET. The sorted bottles are then compressed into dense bales, and taken to a reprocessing plant where they’re separated into individual squashed bottles. Each bottle is washed to remove labels and impurities, dried, then ground into small flakes.

The flakes are melted and squeezed through tiny holes, through which it emerges as molten polyester. As it solidifies it’s cut into small pellets which are then stretched to make yarn. After this, the yarn is knitted to produce a roll of fleece fabric, which is dyed and cut into panels that are sewn together to form the clothing. Zips, buttons and trims are then fitted, although these are not made from recycled materials.

It takes, on average, 25 two-litre plastic bottles to make a recycled school blazer and skirt. The supermarket says: it is well on course to meet its target of eliminating its landfill waste this year.

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