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Greening The Packaging Most People Never See - Pallets, Boxes And Wraps
By Justin Lehrer, StopWaste.Org
Packaging. The term evokes images of wrappers, tubs, pouches and other types of product encasements—and for many, mixed emotions about the amount of materials used. But, while primary packaging has been getting all of the attention and well-deserved scrutiny, secondary or transport packaging has been quietly filling our landfills.

Not a surprise, as transport packaging - like pallets, boxes and plastic stretch wrap, remain largely hidden from shoppers’ view. These materials travel between manufacturers, distribution centers and retailers, and are generally removed in warehouses before the final product reaches the shelf. Nonetheless, they contribute significantly to the overall amount of packaging waste going to landfill in the US—nearly one-third of all solid waste generated.

In 2007, StopWaste launched a campaign to help transport packing come out of the closet - or rather, the dumpster. Focused on waste prevention through reuse, the “Use Reusables” campaign works with companies to replace disposable transport packaging materials with durable, reusable alternatives. For example, a business with regular product deliveries might switch from corrugated cardboard boxes to reusable plastic totes. The benefits include not only a dramatic decrease in packaging waste—and associated costs—but other environmental benefits too. Studies have found that, on average, reusable containers generate 29% fewer GHG emissions, 39% lower energy consumption, and 95% less solid waste than single-use packaging, even when that packaging was recycled at end of life.

Due to their standardized and durable design, reusable pallets and totes also improve operational efficiency, allowing for more product to be moved per trip. Reusables are easier on workers, too: They eliminate box cutting, taping and broken pallets, reducing the risk of injury, while handles and other design features improve ergonomics. Lastly, Reusables provide great product protection - resulting in a lower packaging failure rate.

Changing Business As Usual
 With so many arguments in favor of reusable transport packaging, shouldn’t companies be clamoring to make the switch? The reality is that the transition to Reusables is not a quick decision and far more complex than, say, setting up a paper-recycling program. The best solutions are tailored to each business’ specific products, work flows and supply chain. This means assessing the company’s overall operational process to identify potential products that are frequently transported in large volume, finding the right reusable transport packaging materials to replace those currently used, and performing a detailed cost-benefit analysis to determine the Return on Investment from a switch to Reusables.

This is where StopWaste’s campaign comes in - helping companies evaluate if Reusables are right for them, and providing the tools they need for a successful transition, at no cost to the business. Together with our campaign partner, the Reusable Packaging Association (RPA), StopWaste developed a suite of educational materials - including guides, case studies, cost comparison tools and other resources, all available through the campaign website UseReusables.Com. At the core of the campaign are training workshops, produced jointly by StopWaste and the RPA, where interested businesses learn about the basics of reusable transport packaging, and have an opportunity to discuss their specific scenarios one-on-one with transport packaging experts. The Use Reusables campaign also provides grant funding on a case-by-case basis.

Success Close to Home
To date, 10 workshops have been held throughout the Bay Area. 362 individuals have attended, representing industries ranging from manufacturing and retail to food and beverage distribution and healthcare. The campaign has helped several companies make the switch to Reusables, saving millions of dollars in packaging expenses and disposal costs, as well as preventing thousands of tons of waste.

A favorite among the success stories is Ghirardelli Chocolate in San Leandro, and not only because of their delicious product. Ghirardelli switched from cardboard boxes—used to move their famous chocolate squares inside the plant—to reusable totes, avoiding the purchase and disposal of 660 tons of cardboard each year. Unlike cardboard boxes, the totes rarely collapse and crush the chocolate. This prevents an additional 800 tons per year of damaged product. The bottom line: annual net savings exceed $520,000 after a payback period of 1.1 years!

The Bay Area Newsgroup’s Alameda County facilities replaced wooden pallets to distribute their newspapers with durable plastic pallets, preventing not only 37 tons of wood waste per year, but also saving $46,000 on labor, previously needed to repair and handle broken pallets.

In an effort to eliminate plastic film, several companies are employing Reusables to secure products during transit and warehousing. US Foods’ San Francisco Division in Livermore is piloting thick, reusable rubber bands, long enough to fit around a loaded pallet. Finelite, a high efficiency lighting manufacturer in Fremont, has custom-created reusable rubber tarps to secure lighting components to a supplier’s delivery racks. With a payback period of less than one year, the innovation prevents 3 tons of plastic film per year, and saves hours of labor applying and removing plastic film.

Going National
 In 2011, the Use Reusables campaign made a huge geographic leap, expanding its reach from the San Francisco Bay Area to a national audience. This was a logical step, as supply chains rarely stop at regional borders. The expansion is funded by a $499,000 grant from the U.S. EPA’s Climate Showcase Communities Program.

Building on existing tools, StopWaste and the RPA are working on creating a training curriculum and supporting  organizations outside the Bay Area organizations in replicating the campaign’s successful workshops. The first out-of-state workshop takes place this March in Utah, in partnership with the Utah DEQ Business Assistance Program. Reusables events closer to home—in fact, at StopWaste’s offices in Oakland—include a presentation at the Reuse Alliance’s Reuse Summit on January 26, and a half-day Reusables training workshop later this spring. To learn more about the “Use Reusables” campaign and to sign up for email notifications, visit www.UseReusables.Com.

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