It’s important for the lab to obtain accurate data about the materials used in packaging. UPS relies on data from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and its Compass Program for lifecycle metrics. It benchmarks materials used by its customers against those that rate the best in metrics.
The lab takes into consideration whether a material can be composted and recycled – as well as the extent it is made out of recycled materials already -- to assess if a customer's choices pass the test. Corrugated material, which is already about 80 percent recycled, is a good example of a material to use, according to Barlow.
Damage control, protective packaging and right size: a delicate balance
Damage prevention is important to assess, as most of a product's carbon footprint comes from the manufacturing process.
If it's not adequately protected, then it has to be manufactured, packed, processed and shipped again, which doubles the footprint, according to Barlow.
It’s a delicate balance to ensure that the package meets damage control standards as well as maintains the right ratio of product to packaging so that its overall dimensions meets the program’s “right size” criteria.
"There's a certain science and art involved -- it's not easy to arrive at the right size given other concerns,” Barlow said. “At the UPS package design and test lab, we help customers with this."
For $700, the UPS lab tests packages at their potential heaviest and lightest weights using International Safe Transport Association standards' 3A test for small parcels.
Since the debut of the Eco Responsible Packaging Program, Barlow said, businesses are beginning to look beyond transportation packaging to the multiple layers of a product’s packaging.
Barlow cited toothpaste as an example: The toothpaste tube is primary packaging, the box the tube is packed in is secondary packaging and the shipping box is tertiary packaging.
Green standards in tertiary packaging are now starting to spill over to primary and secondary packaging, with businesses rethinking how those are designed, Barlow said.
Greening the shipping process
UPS has worked on greening its shipping as well. Within its own operations, UPS focuses on route optimization, has tapped recycled materials for its next-day air letters since 1998 and has the largest fleet of alternative fuel vehicles in the industry, Barlow said.
The fleet has 2,500 vehicles that run on a variety of resources - compressed natural gas, liquefied natural gas, electric vehicles, hybrids and propane.
UPS also operates what Barlow refers to as a “rolling lab” that road tests all the technology available. It has found propane to be cost-effective in Canada, which has good propane infrastructure, Barlow said.