“Go green” has long been the mantra of environmentalists and corporate sustainability officers, but it’s becoming a more common refrain in the distribution center as companies seek to become better stewards of the environment—while also satisfying consumers’ demands to green up their operations. Efforts to reduce energy use, increase recycling, and develop greener transportation strategies tend to get the most publicity in logistics circles, but there’s another way companies are getting greener in the DC and beyond: adopting sustainable packaging solutions. Eliminating excess packaging, increasing the use of recycled and reusable materials, and reducing the use of plastics are some of the goals companies large and small are putting at the top of their environmental sustainability checklist.
“We work with a lot of customers who have made a commitment to the community around sustainability,” says Alicemarie Geoffrion, vice president of packaging operations for contract logistics specialist DHL Supply Chain, North America. She says packaging is a natural part of the process as companies pay closer attention to sustainability across their broader supply chains. What’s more, the growth of e-commerce has heightened awareness of the issue among consumers, who are growing increasingly intolerant of what they perceive as wasteful packaging. “Our customers know these issues are important to their customers. [Especially] as we fulfill more e-commerce orders, we are making sure we are not sending out a small product in a large container, for example. We need to consider sustainability while quickly [processing] those e-commerce orders.”
Makers of packaging solutions have plenty to offer to help meet those goals, including technologies that produce “right-sized” packages and materials that can be reused and recycled.
One way DCs can reduce both the amount of packaging they use and the costs associated with it is to adopt solutions that produce right-sized packages on demand. Typically, companies store a limited range of box or envelope sizes and use them to fit whatever they are shipping. The process often results in the use of “filler” material—paper, packing “peanuts,” or plastic “pillows” that eat up the extra space in an oversized box or envelope. With right-sized packaging, companies can use software and/or equipment that allows them to produce the right-sized package for the job, as needed. Proponents say right-sizing cuts down on the need for corrugated cardboard, removes or reduces the need for filler, saves space in the warehouse and on the delivery truck, and reduces a company’s overall carbon footprint. According to data from right-sized packaging solutions firm Packsize, for every 1 million square feet of corrugated cardboard used, its customers typically see a 40% reduction in box size, use 60% less filler material and 26% less corrugated cardboard, and reduce their carbon dioxide emissions globally by 25 tons.
Packsize CEO Hanko Kiessner says on-demand right-sized packaging technology has become so advanced that Packsize has moved “beyond the box” to create an automated solution that produces the right paper-based envelope, pouch, or box to fit an order—all made from material that can be recycled or will decompose. This is especially helpful in e-commerce environments where order sizes vary and where putting a small item into an oversized box can result in product damage, increased costs, and lost customers.
“What is the message to customers when they receive an oversized package?” asks Kiessner. “Who wants to be known for that? Customers have become sensitized to excessive packaging. Not only is it overly expensive, but it sends a message that the company didn’t do the right thing for the planet.”
Kiessner agrees that the acceleration of e-commerce is helping drive the trend toward more sustainable packaging solutions. E-commerce has been steadily increasing in recent years, and the Covid-19–related shutdowns this year have only heightened the trend. Large grocery chains, big-box retailers, and e-tail giants such as Amazon.com increased hiring and beefed up technology and automation capabilities this spring to accommodate an increase in orders that industry observers say is likely to continue as consumers become more comfortable shopping online. Automating the labor-intensive process of packaging can directly address the need to fill and ship growing volumes of e-commerce orders, Kiessner says. And if you’re going to automate the process, you might as well right-size it at the same time.
“People want to be operationally excellent. On-demand packaging is a driver for that,” Kiessner explains. “We are seeing an accelerated trend toward internet retailing that is not going to reverse. On-demand packaging won’t reverse either.”
Geoffrion and her colleague Emily Davis, DHL’s Go Green Lead for North America, add that customers are much more willing to invest in such solutions today than they were in the past.
“Customers are willing to fund [the purchase] of new equipment for these initiatives. That’s something that is different from what we were seeing a few years ago,” Geoffrion says. “In the U.S., this is becoming more important. People are actually moving forward with initiatives and spending additional money to do so.”
Geoffrion and Davis cite increased interest in DHL’s carton-optimization software as well as its on-demand packaging solutions, which can be used separately or combined to improve packaging practices for DHL’s third-party logistics services (3PL) customers. DHL uses on-demand packaging technology from multiple suppliers in what it calls a “solution neutral” approach. Systems have been rolled out across several DHL sites recently and are evidence of the evolution of sustainability across the supply chain, they say.
“This all started with a desire to reduce costs and material usage in the supply chain. Then we started to see more sustainability professionals looking at total packaging consumed and [a company’s] CO2 emissions,” adds Davis. “Companies understand that their brand is carried on the package. People that buy the product and people working at the company want to know they are doing the right thing.”
The other key area to watch when it comes to packaging? Materials. Although Geoffrion says companies are trying to minimize packaging overall, she says they are also focused on reducing the amount of plastic, in particular, that they use throughout their facilities. Davis adds that companies are especially focused on reducing single-use plastics, including “poly mailers”—those lightweight, plastic envelopes favored by many e-commerce operations. Customers are asking how they can move toward more renewable materials in general, she says.
“We’re even getting requests from customers to eliminate any types of plastic tapes and replace them with paper-based tapes,” Geoffrion adds.
That doesn’t surprise Kiessner, who says consumers’ aversion to single-use plastic is a result of growing environmental awareness and demand to reduce waste globally. But plastic is still a big part of the supply chain. So now, companies that make plastic packaging say they are focused on finding ways to reuse and recycle it. Sealed Air Corp., which makes those self-sealed mailers used in e-commerce (among many other packaging solutions), is one example.
“We focus on the circularity of plastic,” explains Chris Rempe, global vice president of marketing for Autobag, the company’s automated packaging systems business. “What we like to do is focus on what happens to the bag after it’s served its useful purpose.”
A key drawback of flexible plastic is that it’s not “curbside recyclable” in most cases, meaning that the end-consumer must drop off the material at a specific location in order to start the recycling process—a tough sell with consumers. Sealed Air and its customers are trying to encourage recycling by participating in the How2Recycle program, a standardized labeling system that communicates recycling instructions to the public. The company is also increasing the amount of recycled content in its products, now offering a mailer material that contains at least 25% post-industrial recycled content, which is waste generated by the manufacturing process. (This is different from what’s called post-consumer recycled content, which is waste generated by households. Although both are recycled, post-consumer content is considered “greener” because it’s gone through its entire use cycle.)
“We’re minimizing the amount of virgin material that goes into the bag in an effort to preserve the sustainability message,” Rempe explains. “That’s a common theme throughout all of packaging: increased recycled content.”
To further promote recycling, Rempe notes that the Autobag system prints shipping and order information directly onto the bag rather than onto a label that must be affixed to the bag. This helps make the product more easily recyclable: To properly recycle a bag with a label on it, the recipient must first cut off the label to avoid contaminating the recycling stream. Eliminating the label removes that step, making it easier for end-users to get on board. Rempe points to other industrywide efforts to reduce the environmental impact of plastics used in the supply chain, including research into non-petroleum based alternatives, which are costly today but may become more viable over time as consumer demand builds and costs come down.
“Consumers are certainly driving all of the actions we’re seeing our customers take,” he adds.
Reusable materials are another key part of the story. Reusable packaging company Orbis says it is seeing increased demand for such solutions in the retail environment, especially in light of e-commerce order delivery trends. Breanna Herbert, associate product manager and sustainability lead for Orbis’s Bulk Pak product line, points to innovations in its reusable plastic “Pally” product—a mobile pallet that can be used in a variety of settings. In response to customer demand for a lighter, more durable alternative to metal dollies for curbside delivery, Orbis is offering smaller-scale mobile pallets that convert from mobile to static operation, allowing them to be rolled more easily from the store and locked into place for delivery or unloading.
“Creating solutions like this is great from a sustainability [perspective] because it can be recycled and the material reused at the end of its life,” she says, adding that the industry overall is focused on developing more innovative ways to reuse and repurpose plastics. Orbis is working on ways to repurpose plastic material waste found near waterways, for instance.
“Finding this material and repurposing it into plastic containers is an example of that,” says Herbert, emphasizing the “feel good” aspects of the sustainability movement. “There’s an emotional impact that reusable packaging has. Consumers are drawn to companies that provide these options.”