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P2 Impact

Finelite takes an enlightened approach to reusable packaging

Union City, Calif.’s Finelite, Inc. long has been known for innovative, environmentally sustainable lighting solutions. But nine years ago, the company took a look around and realized that waste and expense issues were lurking in the shadows. Then the light bulb went on.

Recognizing the need to recycle

The first step to “enlightenment” is recognizing that a problem exists. In 2005, Finelite was sending 110 tons of solid waste to landfill, and company leaders saw that no matter how sustainable their products were for the customer, internal operations needed some adjustment.

What started with the implementation of a standard recycling program has grown into a company-wide, comprehensive approach to waste reduction, with inspiring results for the bottom line, environmental impact and customer satisfaction.

In 2006, Finelite expanded the recycling program from cardboard, paper, bottles, cans and wood to include bubble wrap, plastic stretch film, copper wire and defective metal parts. Through these efforts, the 110 tons generated in 2005 shrank to just 18 tons per year in 2011, an 84 percent reduction.

In addition to a much lighter environmental footprint, the company saves $27,000 annually on garbage disposal costs.

Redesigning operations

While transporting delicate products that need to arrive intact — often requiring substantial packaging—Finelite nevertheless found eco-friendly efficiencies in the shipping department. The first step was to replace bubble wrap with more readily recyclable crinkle paper, cutting costs from $54,000 to $45,000 a year — a cost savings of 17 percent — while eliminating the use of some 4,200 pounds of bubble wrap each year.

Finelite circuit board crates
Another effective fix was switching from staples to paper tape for closing shipping cartons. Not only did the change save money — the paper tape costs 43 percent less than staples — customers preferred the more easily removed tape.

With recycling and some operational redesign well underway, the company turned its attention to increasing efficiency through reuse, in this case by adopting reusable transport packaging practices.

Finelite designed and purchased a custom-built, reusable rack system for the shipping of lighting components between one of the company’s vendors and the production facility. Used through the entire manufacturing process, the rack replaces the recurring purchase of wooden pallets, cardboard boxes and stretch film for transport.

One of the company’s industrial engineers designed a cover made from sturdy, clear sheet rubber that can be reused, eliminating the need for stretch film. Finelite estimates that these reusable tarps save 436 miles of plastic stretch wrap per year and prevent 6,000 pounds of the material from being sent to landfill after one-time use. Getting rid of the stretch film expense has saved the company and their supplier hours of labor that each side spent applying and removing the packaging material.

Reusable transport packaging makes concrete financial sense for the company. “We use Reusables because they deliver cost sav­ings in mate­ri­als and labor. In our expe­ri­ence, we break even on our ini­tial invest­ment of reusable sys­tems within two years, and then the sav­ings con­tinue to accrue long after that,” noted Ana Koo, an indus­trial engi­neer at Finelite. “In con­trast, dis­pos­able pack­ag­ing mate­ri­als have a short life span and rep­re­sent an ongo­ing expense.”

A little help from your friends

Finelite found that partnering with vendors and suppliers was essential to making progress, and surprisingly easy. Working with local California-based suppliers, Finelite purchased reusable crates to eliminate the need for one-time cardboard boxes and the stretch film that held the boxes in place on the pallets. The crates are returned to the vendor to be used again.

Finelite also worked with its overseas supplier of LED printed circuit board assemblies (PCBAs) to stop waste and save money. The vendor used to package PCBAs in static-free bags, which then were placed into cardboard boxes for shipment to the U.S.

Finelite worked with the vendor to find a reusable packaging solution; now the PCBAs are packed in trays that maximize space and eliminate the need for static-free bags and cardboard boxes. Once emptied, Finelite returns the trays to the vendor in Asia for restocking. The company estimates that the new process saves about $10,000 a year and eliminates both handling of cardboard boxes for recycling and landfilling the static-free bags.

Efforts recognized

In addition to numerous awards for innovative products, the company’s waste reduction efforts also have been recognized. In 2011 Finelite received the Business Efficiency Leadership Award from my employer, StopWaste, a public agency responsible for reducing the waste stream in Alameda County, Calif. In 2013 Finelite was named the win­ner of the Reusable Pack­ag­ing Association’s sec­ond annual Excel­lence in Reusable Pack­ag­ing Award, pre­sented at PACK EXPO in Las Vegas.

Finelite’s products long have been industry leaders. Now the company’s all-in approach to reducing waste will be paying off in efficiency, cost savings and customer satisfaction for years to come.

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