SPC Collaborative, Shipping Liquids, Dives Head First Into the Challenge

May 6, 2021

One year has passed since the SPC first introduced the Shipping Liquids Collaborative. The complexity that exists between consumer packaged goods liquid products and the e-commerce environment has proven to be a healthy challenge. This challenge has guided the group to analyze a few key areas where stakeholders are looking to create change. Like many other challenges in the sustainable packaging space, optimizing liquid packaging for e-commerce is best examined through a systems approach. Encompassing all stakeholders in the supply chain (packaging manufacturers, designers, brand owners, retailers, and carriers) is vital to this Collaborative. The goal of the Collaborative is to align stakeholders in order to provide recommendations and best practices to successfully prevent damage, minimize packaging waste, minimize cost, and promote recyclability. 

When looking at the overall challenge of shipping liquids in e-commerce, there are a myriad of factors that influence the package as it travels through the system to the consumer. In general, it is much more difficult to prevent damage to the package in the e-commerce system than in a traditional brick-and-mortar system. There are more “touches” or occasions where the package is handled. A package that is sent through a fulfillment center on average has around 20 touches (United Parcel Service 2019, 1). The package is loaded and unloaded onto different trucks, stored in warehouses, filled or packed with other items, and then given to carriers to deliver – all opportunities for damage to occur. 

While all products in an e-commerce setting are susceptible to damage, liquid consumer packaged goods can have significant consequences when damage does occur. For example, damaged liquid packages can cause spills at fulfillment centers or shipping facilities, disruption to the operational flow of packages, and requiring clean-up crews which could potentially endanger employees and ruin other packages and/or equipment. Damages to liquid packaging can be messy and time-consuming.

The type of damage is influenced by many factors including, but not limited to, dropping the package, vibration, compression, and environmental changes like pressure, moisture, and temperature (Amazon 2019, 1). If a load of laundry detergent bottles is transported on the same truck underneath a box of bowling balls, the risk of damage could be greater than it would be if those laundry detergent bottles were packed underneath down pillows. The difficulty of shipping liquids lies within the details. Retailers and carriers cannot control what other products the consumer orders with that bottle of shampoo, how the outer box is packaged, or the environmental conditions inside and outside the delivery truck. 

Damage commonly occurs around the closure or the dispenser of a package, such as the cap, trigger sprayer, spout, or pump. These can have a multitude of failures that cause liquid to leak out including: physical breakage to the closure, partial or full unlocking of the closure (think of the nozzle you turn to spray on the front of a sprayer), twisting, jamming or popping off of the closure, cracking or splitting of the closure, and burping, where the closure partially opens and some liquid is released. Generally, the strategy to mitigate damages like the ones listed above is to prepare the package for shipping by adding additional material. Measures like taping the closure, adding a seal, bagging the entire package, or zip-tying the bag are mitigation techniques. However, these fixes address the symptom of a liquid spill rather than the root cause of why the package was damaged in the first place. 

This is where the Shipping Liquids Collaborative comes in. The group of suppliers, brands, retailers, and carriers acknowledge the difficulties of preventing damage, the environmental impacts of adding additional (often non-curbside recyclable) packaging, and the importance of keeping the product adequately protected, keeping in mind that the product almost always has a higher environmental impact than the packaging itself. 

So what are we doing to address these issues? So far, the Collaborative has focused its energy on understanding the dispensers or closures on packages and promising designs intended specifically for liquids in e-commerce settings. Traditional closures typically do not address the challenges of shipping liquids in an e-commerce environment, which is how the industry has ended up with lots of auxiliary prep and wasted materials. Specific design changes to the primary package can help decrease leaks and spills, making it more efficient to ship a liquid product. 

With many supply chain partners working on e-commerce-specific packaging designs, the Collaborative can consider their application and potential implementation.. The Collaborative has also examined retailer and carrier guidelines to understand how and why liquids are prepped in a fulfillment center or store. These guidelines can then help translate into what is needed for the implementation of e-commerce specific designs by brand owners. It is also important to consider how these new designs can be validated by testing and certification. The International Safe Transit Association (ISTA), is an especially important collaborator as potential next steps are considered. 

Overall, the Collaborative has come a long way in understanding the challenge of shipping liquid products. We have learned a few things along the way and still have a lot to learn. 

  • There is ample room for improvement when designing closures and primary packaging for e-commerce-specific applications. Suppliers and brand owners are dedicated to working on this and new innovations are rolling out. 
  • There are quite a few factors that influence whether a package fails (leaks or breaks etc.). It can be difficult to pinpoint and control, but with better testing and data sharing, packaging for e-commerce can begin to be harmonized. 
  • If the packaging design is changed, it is also important to change the process. Retailers and carriers spend a lot of time and money on preparing liquid products for shipment. The whole idea of designing an e-commerce package is to prevent damage and eliminate prep. Retailers and distribution centers may need to shift to new methods for packing orders for e-commerce designed packaging. 

As more consumers utilize e-commerce as a shopping method, the Shipping Liquids Collaborative members will continue to optimize liquid packaging design, reduce materials, and innovate to make shipping liquids more sustainable and efficient. For more information on this Collaborative and how to get involved, you can check out our website here or contact the SPC Team Lead, Lucy Pierce, at lucy.pierce@greenblue.org



Amazon, 2019, pp. 1-6, ISTA: SPC Liquids Deep DiveTesting Liquid Products for Ecommerce Fulfillment. 

United Parcel Service, 2019, pp. 1–3, Impact of Liquids in the Small Parcel Network.