Secondary Packaging -- A Silent Threat to the Environment

Secondary Packaging -- A Silent Threat to the Environment

While direct contact, retail, and primary packaging has been receiving all of the attention and well deserved scrutiny of the world, secondary packaging, without much attention at all, has been quietly filling our landfills.

Trouble by the Pallet

It is estimated that the stretch film market -- that nearly invisible product used to wrap pallets -- totals more than 1.5 billion pounds annually. Stretch film is used for load retention and containment to get a product from one place to another. But after the product is received and the stretch wrap removed, it may well be re-palletized and then, of course, re-wrapped in more stretch film.

If it sounds silly and wasteful, understand that scenario probably plays out thousands of times each day between manufacturers, distribution centers and retailers. Guess where most of the 1.5 billion pounds of stretch film ends up?

I admit my company sells stretch film and I suspect many may categorize it as a necessary evil because it is an excellent way to unitize and protect a load during shipment. For most loads, it can also help avoid plastic or metal strapping. Strapping may not result in as much secondary packaging waste but the disposal is difficult. It also can be dangerous (ask anyone who has ever worked with it) and, without costly and inflexible automation, the strapping process is labor intensive.

Fill Voids, Not Landfills

For the purpose of this discussion, let's acknowledge the difference between interior packaging and void fill products. Interior packaging is typically used in cushioning applications and can be constructed from a wide variety of flexible and rigid foams of corrugated design. We usually see this around electronics and other high-cost products that are susceptible to damage in shipment, especially from overseas. The volume of this waste is probably greater than anyone would suspect. It's a shame that most foam products can be eliminated with good corrugated designs.

Void fill packaging materials are used to protect products being shipped when the outer shipping case is larger than the products. This is most common in pick-and-pack operations where orders vary in size, shape and weight.

Most cases you receive are usually filled with one of the following: some form of paper product, such as newsprint; bubble sheets, with one of many commercially available inflatable products; or loose fill materials, including the much maligned (deservedly I believe) foam peanuts and shells.

With so many options and manufacturers involved in the void fill industry, it is impossible to determine or accurately estimate the amount of waste being generated but I believe the total volume is substantial.

Corrugated Over Corrugated: Are We Being Redundant?

In 2005, 24.7 million tons of corrugated board was recycled, according to www.corrugated.org. That accounts for nearly 76 percent of all containerboard produced.

By many estimates, over half of it is used for simple (secondary) case packing applications. In most of these situations, the case will never be touched by the consumer, and is continuously disposed of in back rooms of major retail operations. I admit that corrugated remains one of the easiest products to recycle and most retailers crush and bale their empty cases for that purpose. But now, thanks to the Internet and large catalog houses, the fast growing number of cases unpacked in homes and businesses throughout the country are neither baled nor recycled.

Much of that corrugated can be eliminated or dramatically reduced by utilizing earth friendly and sustainable plastic (there is that dreaded word again) formulations. Some may not like plastic as a sustainable solution, but many in the field now accept that in certain applications, plastic can result in a smaller carbon footprint than paper products, including corrugated.

Speaking of corrugated, how much do you know about the corrugated you are currently using? What is the recycled, post-consumer waste content, and how can you minimize the amount you use? How long have you been using the same board and board supplier?

Steps in the Right Direction for Stretch Pallet Wrapping Film

This is one of the many areas of packaging where technology has outpaced the market. The pallet wrapping equipment market has matured and, as a result, the vast majority of equipment in use today is between five and 10 years old. Those wrappers were designed to run and take advantage of the film properties that were available at that time.

Pallet wrapping films today are much stronger, and stretch farther with new, high-yield formulations. To give you an idea of the waste reduction potential available, we recently reviewed the pallet wrapping process of a huge distribution warehouse of the manufacturer of a famous household brand. With some simple, low-cost modifications on existing equipment, we reduced their overall stretch film usage by more than 30 percent.

It wasn't magic and required only minimal cost and effort. This client employs some of the best packaging engineers in the industry, but I can assure you they spend most of their time on primary, retail packaging. We refer to this as sustainable, low hanging fruit because for minimal effort and expense, you can easily maximize the benefit, quickly.

Leave the Peanuts Alone

There are very few applications which require loose void fill. If you are using foam peanuts, please stop right away. Your people hate them, your customers hate them and there are other loose fill solutions. Just say no to foam peanuts, shells or any other shape of this obnoxious packaging product.

Another product that I find rare use for is bubble sheeting. I know it is big business, and kids (and some adults) love popping those cute little bubbles but void fill is not a toy. Bubble packaging is effective but typically very expensive, and the composition and recyclability varies greatly from one manufacturer to another. Cheaper and more sustainable options are available.

In the area of void fill, we are very pleased to be working with a number of responsible manufacturers of paper void fill products, and inflatable void fill solutions from Air Pouch, a division of Automated Packaging. We believe they are on the forefront of sustainability by creating materials and processes to make their inflatable void fill products as earth friendly and as easy to recycle as possible.

Once again, the first step towards a greener world and a lower material and labor cost is to review what you are currently doing. If you have packaged the same product the same way for more than a few years, you are most certainly out of date.

For the most part, I am very proud of the packaging industry and the new materials and designs they have developed to help us all achieve our sustainability goals. What truly drives innovation is demand, so even small steps in the right direction actually fuel the engineering and results we all want. If you are waiting for that perfect packaging solution, it may never happen. Even though it may be frustrating at times, change is indeed best when it is evolutionary and not revolutionary.

Dennis Salazar is the president of Salazar Packaging Inc., a certified MBE (Minority Business Enterprise) company specializing in flexible packaging products, equipment and sustainable packaging solutions. A slightly different version of this essay originally appeared on SustainableIsGood.