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UPS gets companies thinking green inside the box

<p>Get an inside look at how UPS works with companies to meet sustainable packaging standards.</p>

There's a delicate balance between protecting goods and protecting the environment when shipping products around the world, UPS has found.

GreenBiz checked in this week with Arnold Barlow, UPS senior manager for sustainable solutions at the Sustainable Brands Conference in San Diego for an update and a look inside the carrier's Eco Responsible Packaging design lab.

"Any time you introduce a new product, there's an educational process, but we've seen some success," Barlow said.

When the UPS first launched its green packaging standards two years ago, the company heralded it as the first of its kind. Companies meeting criteria in damage prevention, right sizing and material use became eligible to label their shipments as eco-friendly.

Since the Eco Responsible Packaging program launched, Barlow reports, customers are beginning to see its value. They're also looking beyond transportation packaging to other types of packaging, he said.

The program is an opt-in contractual service that UPS provides to any customer meeting its standards.

UPS assesses each customer's packaging at its lab to determine whether it qualifies for the eco label. The lab works with customers big and small, but charges a fee for the consultation service.

When it comes to life cycle analysis for packaging, ideally it should be done at the design state, but Barlow pointed out that this usually doesn’t happen. Many products get designed without an eye on sustainable measures and that is where the UPS design and test lab comes in, which helps customers determine how to design sustainable packaging for any given product.

"If a customer cannot do it on their own, then we come in as outside consultants. It's a fee-based service but any one is eligible to seek help. Typically it’s middle-market customers who seek our help -- we don't see too many garage-based businesses approaching us, although we can help everyone," Barlow said.

Barlow spoke in more detail about each category the lab assesses as part of its criteria.

Photo of earth and package provided by Andrea Danti via Shutterstock.


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.

Spillover effects

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.


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