Sustainable Packaging 101

SPC 101: Transport Packaging

August 9, 2018

When we think of packaging, oftentimes consumer-facing packaging is what first comes to mind. In reality however, packaging is used throughout the whole supply chain, way before a product reaches a consumer. Much of this packaging is used to protect the product during transport between manufacturers, distributors and retailers, called transport packaging. Today, transport packaging also increasingly reaches consumers directly, as e-commerce business continues to grow and reshape the packaging value chain and the customer experience.

But, what exactly is transport packaging and what are its sustainability implications?

Transport Packaging is a shipping unit that provides containment and protection to goods during handling, storage, and transportation. The term includes all industrial packaging and the shipping containers for consumer products.

There are three “levels” of packaging that are commonly recognized. Not every shipment utilizes multiple levels of packaging and in some cases, one packaging level provides the function of multiple levels:

  1. Primary Packaging contains the product. It provides protection and containment, but is not necessarily suitable for transport. This is most typically what consumers see when they purchase a product and it  serves as a marketing tool as well as protection. This packaging comes in a huge variety of formats and materials.

  1. Secondary Packaging contains one or more primary packages for use during transport. Secondary packaging aids in containment, handling, unitization and damage prevention. In some cases, such as online retail, this is also the packaging used to ship directly to consumers. Common types of secondary packages include bags and boxes. Boxes include single-use or reusable shipping boxes, which can be stackable, collapsible, foldable, or nestable. Bags can be multiwall bags or envelopes or bulk sacks. Crates, drums and barrels, and speciality containers for unique products can also be put in this category.

This packaging sometimes includes interior dunnage that reduces friction and contact between the primary packs during transport, providing additional protection. Dunnage can take many forms, including air cells, airbags, expanded or other foams, paper systems, suspension films, or product separators.

  1. Tertiary Packaging is used to group secondary packaging together to aid handling, unitization, transportation and damage prevention to products. Tertiary packaging is the traditional transport packaging used to move bulk items to distribution and retail outlets. Oftentimes, tertiary packaging provides the function of flat unit load support in transport. Common types include pallets and skids, most commonly made of wood or plastic. These can be single use or reusable and can be rackable or nestable. Slip sheets are also used for this purpose, which are typically kraft or corrugated paper with lips that fold up to hold secondary packs in place. For lighter loads, trays can be used, which also come in a range of materials and forms.

Often Tertiary packaging also uses exterior dunnage to reduce friction between units and support load stabilization during transport. This dunnage typically includes stretch wrap, metal or plastic strapping, protective reusable covers, edging placed on the outside of units, or air pillows or other cushions placed in between secondary units.

How it Affects Sustainability

Transport packaging must provide sufficient damage prevention, optimize space utilization, and use sustainable materials with responsible end of life scenarios.

Damage Prevention: In transport, every “touch point” increases risks of product damage and so packaging plays a central role in protecting the product on its journey through the supply chain. Damage to the product is the worst case scenario for supply chain players and the environment.

Replacing damaged products accounts for a much higher GHG output and resource usage than does packaging. Damage prevention also reduces unnecessary extra shipments due to returns and replacements. Working across the value chain to ensure damage prevention at these different levels helps bring products safely to market. Products can also be redesigned to minimize damage in transport, so innovation and testing is key.

Material efficiency: High importance placed on protection can lead to over packing products, using unnecessary amounts of dunnage materials. More and more, end consumers are seeing this waste firsthand through ecommerce packaging deliveries to their home. This can negatively impact company reputations, particularly when the material is not recyclable or reusable. Sustainable transport packages should aim to find that ‘sweet spot’ between protection and material reduction. To this end, companies must understand their damage rates and invest in continuous improvement and material optimization for their packaging.

Volumetric efficiency:  Lack of customizable boxing options can also lead to overboxing and inefficient use of space where excess air is being transported. Efficient box and container space that is lightweight allows for more product to be shipped in a single load, while reducing GHG emissions from unnecessary extra shipping and weight. It also further reduces packaging material usage. Open communication between brands, suppliers, manufacturers and distributors helps to facilitate this system wide optimization which also reduces costs of shipping.

Sustainable Material Sourcing and End of Life: While transport and optimization are central to sustainability considerations for transport packaging, it is also important to consider sourcing and end of life. Materials with favorable characteristics from the sourcing perspective are those that come from renewable and responsibly sourced resources or include recycled content. From an end of life perspective, favorable packaging are those that are reusable, recyclable (with access to collection and an end market), or compostable (where access to composting exists).

Overall environmental impacts differ for different business models. One must consider the entire life cycle impacts of packaging design decisions and should always consult a life cycle assessment tool for packaging, like COMPASS, to determine net impacts across the value chain.  All players should consider the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency in transport and manufacture of products and packaging. Companies should focus on making their areas of highest impact as efficient as possible and help balance those impacts by making other sustainable choices and investments. Since transport packaging touches players across the value chain, collaboration is critical in identifying best practices for materials and formats.