With apologies to Kermit The Frog, being green is looking pretty easy these days—even for warehouse and distribution center operations. Environmentally friendly material handling systems are available for nearly every warehouse function, and most suppliers are eager to help their customers figure out how to use their equipment to maximum green effect. Best of all, many of these products do not require large investments, just a new way of thinking when it comes to selecting equipment.
What follows is a brief rundown of some areas of a DC operation that offer easy opportunities to go green. Although this is by no means a comprehensive list, it may give you some ideas on simple ways to make your own operation more sustainable.
Waste not, want not
Most distribution facilities create mountains of waste—corrugated cartons from incoming shipments, paper used to pick and process orders, and even the backing of labels used in pick operations. Throw in used stretch wrap, old pallets, and left-over packaging supplies, and the volume mounts quickly.
What to do with all that waste? First, reuse the corrugated materials where possible. By shipping products in their original cartons, you save the cost of new materials as well as the time spent repacking. (But check with your vendors first to make sure the cartons are sturdy enough for reuse.) All corrugated that you do not reuse should be recycled. Balers can make it easy to stack and prepare old corrugated for transport to a recycling facility.
Paper, too, can be recycled, but a greener alternative is to eliminate paper altogether wherever you can.More and more DCs are turning to paperless order processing systems these days. In a paperless environment, warehouse management software relays picking instructions to workers via voice, pick-to-light, or radio-frequency technology, eliminating the need for paper pick lists. As a side benefit, these systems boost accuracy and productivity, and generally have a fairly short payback period.
If paperless operations are not an option, there are still things you can do to reduce your environmental impact. For example, if you use paper for pick-to-label applications, look for labels made from recycled materials.
Run on demand
When the subject of green equipment comes up, conveyors probably aren't the first thing that comes to mind. But actually, today's conveyors are engineered to save electricity. A prime example is the motordriven roller (MDR) conveyor, which is designed to power down when not in use—a significant departure from traditional conveyors, which run continuously during operating hours. Although they're more expensive than conventional models, MDR units typically pay for themselves many times over in energy savings and reduced maintenance expenses (because the units don't run continuously, there's less wear and tear on components). The "run on demand" feature alone reportedly cuts power consumption by at least one-third.
Even if you have an old conveyor, you may still be able to save money by converting it to a more energy-efficient design. A number of conveyor companies offer retrofits for existing systems that involve replacing old drive motors with more efficient units.
Many of today's conveyor systems feature a modular design that allows them to be easily repositioned or even moved to another facility as distribution needs change. That versatility can help extend the conveyors' lives far beyond the time when units are ordinarily consigned to the scrap heap.
When it comes to opportunities for going green, it's hard to imagine an area of DC operations that offers more potential than packaging and shipping. For starters, there are the shipping containers. Rather than relying on corrugated boxes, consider the reusable plastic container for closedloop applications. Advocates say the plastic units are cheaper to use in the long run and provide better protection than corrugated. And the containers are designed to nest when empty, making them economical to store and transport.
If plastic containers aren't an option, there are still steps you can take to make your operation more sustainable. For example, you can select cartons made of recycled materials. You can also review your operations to make sure you're choosing the right size carton for each shipment. Cubing systems make it easy to determine the volume of each order as well as the optimal carton size. Smaller cartons use less material, save on transportation costs, and require less void fill to protect their contents.
As for void fill, again, look for products that can be recycled. Kraft paper made from recycled material is an eco-friendly choice. Air-filled cushioning is another good option—one that requires minimal storage space and is also readily recyclable. There are also peanut-type cushioning products on the market today that are made of cornstarch and other water-soluble materials, making them a biodegradable alternative to foam-based packing peanuts.
Although often overlooked, green opportunities can also be found in a facility's printing and labeling operations. For example, you might be able to switch to a smaller shipping label, or replace your current labeling system with one that prints the shipping information on one side of the label and the packing slip on the other (thus saving paper).You might also consider dispensing with shipping labels altogether in favor of an inkjet encoding system that prints shipping information directly onto a carton. (If you do, look for a system that uses environmentally friendly inks.)
Of all the equipment in a distribution center, the item most likely to be recycled is actually the wood pallet. Most facilities repair and reuse pallets until they're no longer serviceable, and nearly all pallets are eventually recycled. While some argue that wood pallets are the greenest choice because they're made from a renewable resource, others consider plastic and metal pallets to be more eco-friendly because they can be reused hundreds of times (see "how green are your pallets?" DC VELOCITY, November 2008). Still others advocate for pallets made from fiberboard, corrugated, and other materials that are easy to recycle.
In it for the long haul
Like conveyors, lift trucks, which are the workhorses of most DCs, have become greener in recent years. That's partly because manufacturers have shifted some of their emphasis from internal-combustion engine models to battery-operated trucks that produce virtually no greenhouse gas emissions. In the meantime, research continues on alternative fuels, like hydrogen fuel cells, that show great promise.
Even among electric models, many of today's trucks are greener than their predecessors. There's been a shift away from units that rely on direct current (DC) electricity in favor of alternating current-powered models that use less energy. And lately, manufacturers have introduced hybrid electric models that generate power from energy used in vehicle braking and mast lifting operations.
At the same time, advances in electric battery design and charging technologies have increased the power output of standard cells, making electric trucks more eco-friendly than in the past. Plus, the fast-charging systems for batteries that are now on the market typically reduce the number of batteries required per truck by at least half (and eliminate the need for a battery changing room).
The environment inside
As for the facility itself, there are plenty of ways to make a building more eco-friendly without investing in costly new heating, cooling, and ventilation systems. To begin with, you can install large, low-speed ceiling fans as an alternative or supplement to air conditioning. In the winter, these same fans can force the warm air that rises to the ceiling back down to floor level, where there can be a 20-degree temperature difference.
For very hot climates, also consider misting devices to help keep workers cool as an alternative to air conditioning.
If you haven't already, install dock seals, barriers, and side curtains around all openings at a facility's docks. The seals will not only help keep heated or cooled air from escaping, but will also prevent insects and other pests from entering. Many dock equipment companies also offer seals for their dock levelers and truck plates and the small area around the trailer hinges where air can escape. Consider vinyl strip doors, rollup doors, and air curtains to maintain temperatures in the various zones of refrigerated and freezer buildings— keeping the cold where it belongs.
If your facility uses mercury vapor, sodium vapor, halogen, metal halide, or tungsten lights, think about replacing your existing system with a more energy-efficient alternative, like high-output fluorescent and similar induction lighting systems. T8 fluorescent fixtures, for example, operate on just 64 watts and can reduce power consumption by two-thirds while still producing more illumination than older lights. You can also save energy by installing motion sensors in racks and other areas of the building to turn lights on only when workers are present.
One step at a time
While the list of opportunities to go green may seem overwhelming, remember that you don't have to do everything at once. Instead, start with those improvements that make the most sense for your operation and your budget—no matter how insignificant they may seem at the outset. When it comes to saving the planet, even small steps can have a big impact.
When it began its search for a new distribution facility in December 2007, Gainesville, Fla.-based Exactech had two main goals, and neither had anything to do with the environment. First, the company wanted more space. Second, it was looking to upgrade to a faster, more efficient system for filling orders for its products, surgical instruments and orthopedic implants for hip, knee, and shoulder replacements.
But when it came time to choose the material handling systems for the new facility, Exactech's designer and integrator, TriFactor, suggested that its client consider setting a third goal for itself: to use eco-friendly equipment where possible. "The opportunity was presented to us to go green," recalls Kevin Godwin, Exactech's director of customer operations. The company agreed to give the matter some thought, and soon afterwards, added eco-friendliness to its list of priorities.
After looking at the various options, Exactech concluded that the biggest eco-benefits would come from selecting energy-efficient conveyors and lighting. For conveyors, it chose a motor-driven roller (MDR) model manufactured by Hilmot Corp. The conveyors, which run on 24-volt direct current electricity, operate only "on demand," that is, when a product is present. That makes them as much as 60 percent more efficient than traditional conveyors, which run continuously. They're significantly quieter as well. "We refer to it as our 'stealth' conveyor," says Godwin. And because the motors are not constantly running, there is less wear on belts, bearings, and other conveyor components.
As for lighting, the company came up with an energy-efficient lighting system that could be described as spartan yet functional. Taking advantage of a resource abundantly available in the Sunshine State, it installed skylights that flood the facility with natural light. A polished concrete floor and white insulation on the walls further reflect the light, keeping the space well illuminated.
With artificial lighting, Exactech took a "less is more" approach, installing as little as possible. The lights it did install are controlled by a user-friendly switch panel that allows lights to be turned on only in the areas needed. As a result, power consumption in the new building is lower than it was in the old building, which was about half its size, according to Godwin.
Godwin says Exactech is now looking at replacing the nickel metal lighting fixtures that were there when the company moved into the building with more efficient induction lighting. Induction lamps would require half the wattage of the current lamps to produce comparable light output. Swapping out the fixtures would further reduce the building's power consumption by half.
As for how it's all working out, it appears that Exactech has no reason to regret its decision to go green. "It was more expensive up front," says Godwin, "but we save in the long run with lower maintenance and energy savings." Plus, the green initiative was a good fit with the company's values, he adds. "As a corporation, we are very community-oriented, and so it made sense for us to go green."