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Secondary Packaging – The Silent Killer of the Environment

While direct contact/retail/primary packaging has been receiving all of the attention and well deserved scrutiny of the world, secondary packaging, without much attention at all, been has been quietly filling our landfills.

Trouble by the Pallet

It is estimated that the stretch film market – that nearly invisible product used to wrap pallets – is over 1.5 billion pounds annually. Stretch film is used for load retention and containment to get a product from one place to another. But after the product is received and the stretch wrap removed, it may well be re-palletized and then, of course, re-wrapped in more stretch film. If it sounds silly and wasteful, understand that scenario is probably played out tens of thousands of times each day between manufacturers, distribution centers and retailers. Guess where most of these 1.5 billion pounds wind up?

I admit my company sells stretch film and I suspect many may categorize it as a necessary evil because it is an excellent way to unitize and protect a load during shipment. For most loads, it can also help to avoid plastic or metal strapping, Strapping may not result is as much secondary packaging waste, but disposal is difficult, can be dangerous (ask anyone who has ever worked with it) and without costly, inflexible automation, the strapping process is labor intensive.

Fill Voids, Not Landfills

For the purpose of this discussion let’s acknowledge the difference between interior packaging and void fill products. Interior packaging is typically used in cushioning applications and can be constructed of a wide variety of flexible and rigid foams or of corrugated design. We usually see this around electronics and other high cost products that are susceptible to damage in shipment, especially from overseas. The volume of this waste is probably greater than anyone would suspect and the shame of it is that most of the foam products can be eliminated with good corrugated designs. That would make a great subject for an article but for now let’s focus on void fill materials.

Void fill packaging materials are used to protect the product(s) being shipped when the outer, shipping case is larger than the products. This is most common in pick and pack operations where orders tend to each be different in size, shape and weight. Most cases you receive are usually filled with some form of paper product (newsprint, indented, bogus, Kraft, etc.), bubble sheets, with one of many commercially available inflatable products, or loose fill materials including the much maligned (deservedly I believe) foam peanuts and shells.

With so many options and manufacturers involved in the void fill industry, it is impossible to determine or accurately estimate the amount of waste being generated. However, I think we can all agree the total volume is substantial. Just check the local landfill and you’ll see that voids in boxes is not all these products are filling.

Corrugated over Corrugated – are we being redundant?

According to www.corrugated.org, in 2005, 24.7 million tons of corrugated board (76.6% of all containerboard produced) were recycled. By many estimates, over half of it is used for simple (secondary) case packing applications. In most of these situations the case will never be touched by the consumer, and disposed of in back rooms of major retailers on an almost continuous basis. I will admit that corrugated remains one of the easiest products to recycle and most retailers crush and bale their empty cases for that purpose. But now, thanks to the Internet and large catalog houses, let’s not forget the fast growing number of cases that are unpacked in homes and businesses throughout the country and are neither baled nor recycled.

Steps in the right direction for stretch pallet wrapping film

This is one of the many areas of packaging where technology has outpaced the market. The pallet wrapping equipment market has matured and as a result, the vast majority of equipment in use today is between five and ten years old. Those wrappers were designed to run and take advantage of the film properties that were available at that time. I don’t think it is too early in the new millennium to use the term “turn of the century technology,” is it?

Pallet wrapping films today are much stronger, and stretch farther with new, high yield formulations. To give you an idea of the waste reduction potential available, we recently reviewed the pallet wrapping process of a huge distribution warehouse of a manufacturer of a household brand we all know and use. With some simple, low cost modifications on existing equipment, we reduced their overall stretch film usage by over 30%. What we did was not magic and it required only minimal cost and effort to achieve. This particular client employs some of the best packaging engineers in the industry, but I can assure you most if not all of their time is spent on their primary, retail packaging. We refer to this as sustainable, low hanging fruit because for minimal effort and expense, you can easily maximize the benefit, quickly.

Steps in the right direction for void fill

There are very few applications which require loose void fill. If you are using foam peanuts, please stop it right away. Your people hate them, your customers hate them and there are other loose fill solutions. Just say no to foam peanuts, shells or any other shape of this obnoxious packaging product.

Another product that I find rare use for is bubble sheeting. I know it is big business and kids (and some adults) love popping those cute little bubbles, but void fill is not a toy! Bubble packaging is effective but typically very high in cost and the composition and recyclability of this product varies greatly from one manufacturer to another. Perhaps it is time to review your usage because lower cost, more sustainable options are available for you, your customers and the environment.

In the area of void fill we are very pleased to be working with a number of responsible manufacturers of paper void fill products and inflatable void fill solutions from Air Pouch, a division of Automated Packaging. We believe they are on the forefront of sustainability creating materials and processes to make their inflatable void fill products as earth friendly and as easy to recycle as possible.

Steps in the right direction for redundant corrugated usage

It is praiseworthy that corrugated is one of the most recyclable and most recycled materials in the packaging industry. However, my biggest gripe – first in a long list – is the fact that so much of the corrugated we use is placed over other corrugated. The dreaded “master case” that holds the smaller, individual retail units we take home is, quite frequently, completely unnecessary!

Much of that corrugated can be eliminated or dramatically reduced by utilizing earth friendly and sustainable plastic (there is that dreaded word again) formulations. Some may not like plastic as a sustainable solution, but many in the field now accept that in certain applications, plastic can result in a smaller carbon footprint than paper products, including corrugated. Once again, the first step towards a greener world and a lower material and labor cost is to review what you are currently doing. If it you have been packaging the same product, the same way for more than a few years, you are most certainly out of date. Speaking of corrugated, how much do you know about the corrugated you are currently using? What is the recycled, post consumer waste content and how can you minimize the amount you use? How long have you been utilizing the same board and board supplier?

For the most part, I am very proud of the packaging industry and the new materials and designs they have developed to help us all achieve our sustainability goals. What truly drives innovation is demand, so even small steps in the right direction actually fuel the engineering and results we all want. If you are waiting for that perfect packaging solution, it may never happen. Even though it may be frustrating at times, change is indeed best when it is evolutionary and not revolutionary.

Let’s face it; there are plenty of primary and secondary sustainable packaging opportunities to keep us all worried and occupied. Right now, my mind is focused on a box of steaks one of our favorite business associates sent us for the holidays. Love the friend, love the steaks but I hate the packaging. There has to be a better solution to those foam insulated coolers, doesn’t there?

Dennis Salazar is the president of Salazar Packaging, Inc., a certified MBE (Minority Business Enterprise) company specializing in packaging products, equipment and solutions. With over thirty years in the packaging industry, he is known for his tongue in cheek sense of humor as well as his sustainable packaging passion and expertise.

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