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Putting sustainability into practice

Fresh milk, writing instruments, table salt, household cleaners, and guacamole—sustainable packaging initiatives are taking root in all five sectors.
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FILED IN:  Sustainability  > Strategy
     

Progress in the quest for sustainable packaging is in evidence everywhere. It’s not like people are reinventing the wheel to achieve sustainable packaging goals. But some are coming close to reinventing the milk bottle. That’s essentially what Superior Dairy has done with a squared-off high-density polyethylene milk jug that is extrusion-blown on-site in its Canton, OH, facility.

Superior has made its 1-gal container taller and more rectangular in shape. Its perfectly flat top, vertical fluting on the sidewalls, and other key structural design elements—not to mention a slightly heavier bottle weight than the flimsy HDPE containers used traditionally for fresh milk—turn the bottles into sturdy columns that can be stacked without the support of the rigid milk crate traditionally used to transport milk through the distribution chain. Bottles are palletized in layers that are separated by corrugated slip sheets. Stretch wrap is the finishing touch on the pallets, which can be stacked two or three high.

This unsupported stackability is what makes the innovative container such a notable contribution to sustainable packaging. Eliminating the need to inventory, transport, and wash the returnable crates saves enormous amounts of water and fuel. More milk can be delivered by each truck: 4.5 gal/cu ft instead of just 3. This means fewer delivery trips and greatly reduced fuel consumption. At Sam’s Club, for example, where it used to require five trips each week per store to keep the store stocked with milk and return empty crates, it now requires just two trips.

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It’s interesting to note that Superior Dairy’s caseless shipping concept dates back at least eight years. Packaging World toured the Canton facility and described caseless shipping in a cover story in June of 2002 (see packworld.com/casestudy-14588). But only when sustainable packaging became the force that it is today did caseless shipping begin to catch on. Sam’s Club began carrying the new milk jugs in November of 2007. By June 2008, the concept had reached 189 stores, and as this issue goes to press, the program is in 226 Sam’s Club stores. Costco also is on board with its Kirkland brand milk.

The huge amounts of milk pouring through those two retail chains do not emanate solely from the family-owned Superior Dairy plant in Canton. Superior has struck licensing arrangements with regional dairies enabling them to go caseless.

Even consumers get something out of the new jug. At Sam’s Club, it sells for about 10- to 20-cents less than the conventional jug it replaced.

“That’s what this is all about,” Heather Mayo tells PW. Mayo is vice president of merchandising at Sam’s Club. “Through processing, packaging, and logistical innovation, we can bring our members a better quality product, with a longer shelf life, at a lower cost, while reducing our impact on the environment.”

Channel-driven’

Sometimes a sustainable packaging implementation is what might be called “channel-driven.” A good example is the redesigned packaging used by Atlanta-based Newell Rubbermaid (NR) for Parker Urban Pens gift sets sold through the club-store channel. In place of a conventional PVC mock clamshell, NR designed a trapped-blister package consisting of two cards made of MeadWestvaco’s (www.mwv.com) Natralock® paperboard and an RPET blister from Transparent Container (www.transparentcontainer.com).

“We intend to transition all of our writing instruments for the club channel into packaging that is smaller and is sourced from materials judged to be more sustainable,” says Bob Stupay, channel manager at NR. In the club-store channel, where retailers are so fixed on sustainable packaging that the largest of them all is measuring sustainability with a scorecard, “the transition out of conventional mock clamshells is a top priority,” says Stupay.

The two paperboard cards in the new package are MWV’s patented tear-resistant material. The Printkote® SBS undergoes a proprietary process at MWV’s converting facility in Low Moor, VA, where an unnamed film laminate—along with a heat-seal coating—is applied to make the paperboard tear-resistant, thus preventing in-store theft as effectively as a conventional mock clamshell. Yet once in the home, the consumer can easily cut the paperboard with a scissors.

The RPET blister, when trapped between the two cards, is heat-sealed to both the front and back cards to create a fully secure package. Once the package is opened, however, the blister is easily separated from the paperboard to facilitate recycling. And when the paperboard reaches a typical paperboard recycling mill, the tear-resistant film laminate is screened out in the repulping process.

Patsy Lawson, merchandising packaging engineer at NR, estimates that compared to the mock clamshell format it replaced, the new package uses “significantly” less plastic. “In addition,” says Lawson, “the blister portion is not only made from recycled material, it can also be recycled after consumer use. We expect our sustainability scoring with some retailers to be improved considerably.”

Both Lawson and Stupay emphasize that while the new package brings sustainability benefits, its impact on shelf is every bit as good as before.

“Developing this package was a strong team effort on the part of marketing and operations people internally,” says Lawson. “They were joined by MWV and blister supplier Transparent Container, who were quick to partner on solving such issues as optimal sealing patterns and die lines. That’s the kind of support you need to be successful when designing or redesigning a package.”

And the cost of the new package? Lawson and Stupay say the reduced cost of plastic per package will produce a net decrease in the overall package cost. They also expect to see a decrease in paperboard costs due to production efficiencies that will be gained as more SKUs are moved out of clamshells and into the trapped-blister packaging format.

Is the supply side helping?

While many packaging materials suppliers are helpful in assisting consumer packaged goods companies move toward sustainable packaging, some sectors on the supply side may have a fundamental structure that throws up roadblocks to sustainable packaging. Or at least that’s what procurement manager Tom Oris of Chicago-based Morton Salt discovered as he began to look at ways of introducing post-consumer recycled content into the tube stock that Morton uses to self-manufacture its iconic 26-oz spiral-wound containers of Morton Salt.

“Sourcing post-consumer paper is extremely challenging,” says Oris. “I think it’s because the paper industry is so vertically integrated. Their roots are in forestry. They want to use virgin materials because that’s how they stay vertically integrated. It’s a different process to take recycled paper and break it back down and make board out of it again. But it can be done. And, most important, it can be done cost-neutrally. I refuse to believe that PCR must cost more than virgin fiber.”

Oris is also moving Morton Salt to a more sustainable position in the folding carton material it uses for 1- and 3-lb packages that go to institutional customers. “We’re about to complete our transition to GreenChoice board,” says Oris. “It’s made from 100% recycled material, and about 65% of it is post-consumer. The board manufacturer also uses 100% clean, renewable energy in making it.”

Oris notes that the switch to GreenChoice, which comes from Strathcona Paper (www.strathconapaper.com), “is being done on a cost-neutral basis.”

Oris believes that both producers and buyers of paper-based packaging have an obligation to make sustainability happen.

“I feel that the industry as a whole, with procurement people leading the way, should understand that you can achieve environmentally friendly and sustainable packaging without having a negative cost impact. Consumers will embrace such initiatives, but they’re not going to pay a premium for it, especially when they’re buying gas at $4 per gallon. That’s why cost neutrality is so important. And it’s achievable, too, once rising volumes bring efficiencies into place.”

Shipping empty bottles

Talk about less is more. How about shipping empty bottles so that the amount of fuel consumed in distribution is slashed dramatically? That’s what Princeton, NJ-based Arm & Hammer began doing Sept. 23 with its line of Essentials™ cleaners in three varieties.

Management at A&H figured that most traditional household cleaners consist of 95% water and 5% active ingredient. So they’ve packaged the concentrated active ingredient in a 1.2-oz refill cartridge that is attached to the empty spray bottle.

The 1-qt PET bottle with trigger spray is designed to be reused. Consumers purchase a $2.75 “starter kit” that consists of an empty PET bottle and a concentrate cartridge made of HDPE. They fill the bottle with tap water and pour in the concentrate. When they’ve used up the cleaner, they buy a two-count refill pack for $3.85. That’s about 25% less than a 1-qt bottle of traditional cleaner, says A&H.

Assisting A&H in bringing the clever concept to fruition was label supplier Gilbreth (www.gilbrethusa.com). It supplies the 50-micron PETG shrink-sleeve label that decorates the 1.2-oz refill cartridge; this label is gravure printed in seven colors. Gilbreth also supplies the 50-micron PETG shrink sleeve label that holds the two bottles together; it, too, is gravure printed, but only in a couple of colors.

A contract packager fills the 1.2-oz refill cartridge and applies its shrink sleeve label. These containers are shipped to a second contract packager, where the 1.2-oz refills are manually stuck to the 1-qt bottles with a glue tab. Then an Axon (www.axoncorp.com) sleeve labeler applies the shrink sleeve that holds the refill cartridge snugly to the PET bottle. This label extends from the top of the pump sprayer to the shoulder of the bottle. A&H says the trigger-spray bottles can be reused seven times, an estimated 2.5-year life span. Other environmental benefits include these:

• Because Essentials cleaners use plant-based ingredients derived from coconuts and palm kernel oil, as well as other biodegradable cleaners, they contain no ammonia or phosphates and use fewer chemicals than traditional cleaners.

• Shipping fewer trigger-spray bottles takes 70,000 trucks off the road, saving more than 18 million gal of fuel and reducing CO2 output by 40 tons.

“These products were designed to help people clean green, offering them an environmentally sensible and powerful alternative to traditional cleaners,” says Bruce Tetreault, group product manager at A&H. “The refillable packaging reduces waste, and the plant-based cleaners are less harsh but work as well as traditional cleaners. Consumers get all these benefits while actually saving money.”

Can machines be green?

A frequently asked question in discussions about sustainable packaging revolves around equipment. How can packaging machinery be enlisted as an ally in a company’s drive toward achieving its sustainability goals?

Fort Worth, TX-based Fresherized Foods found the answer by installing in its Mexico plant a plateless, digital case-printing system from Iconotech (www.iconotech.com) that permits in-plant, on-demand printing. Digital case printing relies on special software and a thermal plotter that burns images on an inexpensive film stencil. Mounted on a drum, the stencil transfers ink to the case blanks as they move past and contact the drum. The goal at Fresherized Foods is to consolidate 150 preprinted SKUs into 50 common case sizes. In the first year alone, 81 SKUs were converted into 33 generic case sizes. Because the product being case-packed is short shelf-life avocados and guacamole manufactured to customer order, the on-demand nature of in-plant case printing is especially suitable in this application. Like most initiatives that bring sustainability benefits, Fresherized Foods’ generic case-printing program has also proven enormously beneficial from a cost savings standpoint. By investing about $70,000 on the Iconotech system, the firm figures it can save about $300,000 annually.

“That’s one of the compelling things about sustainable packaging,” says Marcia Walker, vice president of technology at Fresherized foods. “It goes neatly hand-in-hand with cost savings.”

Part of the annual savings is in reduced fuel costs. The plant in which the Iconotech machine is installed is in Sabinas, Mexico, in the Maquiladora region just south of the U.S. border. But the preprinted, corrugated cases the firm had been using are all sourced in the U.S. If the cases are deemed obsolete due to any number of product modifications that might require a change in what’s preprinted on a case, that case can’t just be destroyed or even recycled in Mexico. Stipulations in the NAFTA agreement require that the obsolete cases be carefully accounted for if tariff penalties are to be avoided. And the only way for that accounting to occur is for the obsolete cases to be returned north of the border. Since installation of the Iconotech machine, the amount of fuel consumed in shipping obsolete cases back across the border has been greatly reduced.

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