The "green" implications of a shipment go well beyond the materials that went into the packaging. It's fine to use recycled materials and shrink the size of the box to an absolute minimum. But what if that exercise results in damage to the product while it's being shipped? Then the supplier has to send out a replacement. And voila: the carbon footprint of that shipment has just doubled.
That's one of the concerns that occupy the minds of experts at the UPS (http://www.ups.com) Package and Test Design Lab in Addison, Ill. According to Nancy Parmer, senior director of sustainability for the company's customer solutions group, a meaningful examination of packaging will incorporate three elements: materials, cube optimization and damage reduction. The ultimate solution is a delicate balance among them.
Take recycled materials. A customer might devise packaging that lasts for 50 trips or more. At some point, however, it's going to suffer enough wear and tear to compromise the contents. To figure out when that happens, UPS's packaging lab puts shipments through a number of rigorous tests and simulations. At the same time, it experiments with a variety of eco-friendly materials, such as soy "peanuts," injected molding and clamshell-type boxes that fit snugly around the product.
The results can be dramatic. UPS claims to have saved online retailer Jubilations Cheesecake 19 percent in shipping-related costs per package, thanks to thermal testing and redesign. Additional savings can be realized when cube optimization is thrown into the mix. The UPS lab works to cut down the size of boxes without jeopardizing the condition of delicate products. "Shipping air is definitely not climate-friendly," Parmer says. "In the ideal shipping situation, the actual transport box is only large enough to fit around and protect the merchandise." One customer saw a 30-percent reduction in transportation costs after sizing down its packaging, UPS says.
Sometimes the situation is out of the packaging lab's hands. Merchandisers have a habit of putting little things in big containers for retail display. They're out to maximize product visibility while making life harder for shoplifters. But who hasn't purchased a compact item such as a cell phone or printer cartridge, only to discard huge amounts of plastic, paper and cardboard after opening the box? For producers, that's a marketing decision, and UPS typically isn't asked to weigh in on the matter. Still, says Parmer, it sees plenty of room for improvement on the shipping end.
She recommends that merchandisers take a look at reducing both the size and variety of their boxes. In addition, there are automated fulfillment systems on the market that can select the ideal box size based on the characteristics of an order. "It takes out the human element," says Parmer. Such technology can be pricey, but can offer substantial payback in a high-volume operation that would otherwise require more bodies in the distribution center.
For a big online retailer, green transportation is achieved one box at a time. Yet the savings add up fast. Last year, UPS's domestic package and freight operations recycled 43 percent of the 120,000 tons of solid waste they generated. For one customer, reusable packaging cut more than $500,000 from material costs.
Still, it's essential that companies take a big-picture approach to the matter. That means calculating total carbon emissions, including those resulting from an overly enthusiastic approach to package downsizing and reuse. Says Parmer: "We feel damage prevention is one of the single most important aspects of sustainable transportation packaging."
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