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Other Voices: How green is your transport packaging?

Here’s what a New Hampshire-based manufacturer discovered when it performed a lifecycle assessment of its packaging products.
By Bryan Sheehan, president, SymbioSus Sustainability Consulting
January 05, 2012

Editor’s Note: The following column by Bryan Sheehan, president of SymbioSus Sustainability Consulting (http://www.symbiosus.com) is part of Modern’s new Other Voices column. The
series, published on Wednesdays, will feature ideas, opinions and insights from end users, analysts, systems integraters and OEMs. Click on the link (http://www.mmh.com/
article/how_to_submit_a_column_to_other_voices) to learn about submitting a column for consideration.

*** *** **
Business is more focused than ever on sustainability. Company boards and customers alike want to do business with sustainable companies. Material handling companies are
not exempt. Like all suppliers, they need to be aware of the environmental impact of their products and solutions and to offer more environmentally-friendly options. That is especially true if they are going to meet the growing expectations of their customers. It’s also important if they are going to identify opportunities to reduce the environmental impact, resource demand and cost of their material handling solutions.

The questions many companies are asking are: just what does it mean to be green and how does my product compare to my competitors’ products?

Mills Industries, a New Hampshire-based manufacturer of corrugated plastic shipping and storage containers, is an example of a company taking sustainability to heart. It recently commissioned our company to conduct a life cycle assessment (LCA) of its primary product, a corrugated polypropylene (PP) carton.

An LCA is a systematic, data-based method for assessing the environmental impact of a product across all phases of a product’s life, from raw materials acquisition through manufacturing and all the way to end-of-life disposition. In our case, it’s done using industry-accepted LCA methodology, including the ISO 14040 and 14044 LCA guidelines, and LCA software.

Mills Industries’ Challenge
Mills Industries manufactures reusable corrugated polypropylene cartons. The chief competitor to PP cartons are corrugated paper (CP) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) cartons. Both competing products have their own sustainability story to tell. But which has the most compelling story if you look at the total life cycle of the product – from sourcing of raw materials to the disposal of the product at the end of its useful life?

Those were among the questions that Mills Industries wanted to answer. It had already taken a number of steps to reduce its overall environmental impact, including purchasing renewable electricity, increasing the energy efficiency of its facility, recycling and reducing waste, offering recycled-content versions of its products and accepting products for recycling at the end of use, for customers who choose that option.

At the same time, Mills Industries recognized that the market is asking for more from its suppliers.

To answer those questions, Mills Industries asked our company to asses, analyze and report on the life-cycle environmental impact of a typical Mills PP carton as well as that of a typical CP carton, HDPE tote, and any relevant comparisons.

We were also asked to recommend actions to further reduce the environmental impact of Mills’ PP carton products.

Results
To meet these objectives, each of the products were assessed across each phase of their life cycle, from resource extraction to end-of-life disposition, excluding the use phase.

We did this to focus on the differences resulting from materials and manufacturing methods, and since the usage was assumed to be the same for each product.

What did we find?

One takeaway was that the Global Warming Potential (GWP) impact of a Mills’ PP carton over its useful life is 84% lower than that of a similar CP carton and 83% lower than that of a similar HDPE tote for an equivalent amount of usage.

The Mills PP carton also had between 31% and 94% lower impact than the CP carton or HDPE tote on all 5 other key environmental impact categories assessed, including the potential for: water acidification; water over-nutrification; freshwater toxicity; soil toxicity; and smog formation.

The key drivers of the lower impact of the Mills PP carton were its greater durability compared to CP options (less need for replacements), and its lighter weight compared to molded HDPE options (less raw material required).

But we also determined that the main driver of the environmental impact of the Mills PP carton is the plastic granulate production process, which contributes from 42% to over 90% of the life cycle impact for the various environmental impact categories studied.

We were able to document that prior actions taken by Mills also reduced the environmental impact of the company’s products. For instance, using a hydro-electricity-powered extrusion partner, purchasing green electricity for its facility, and re-grinding and recycling PP manufacturing scrap, have helped reduce the overall Global Warming Potential (GWP) impact of the Mills product by 35% compared to what it would be if industry-standard practices were used.

Finally, we identified some key areas that would further reduce the environmental impact of Mills’ PP carton products, including the increased use of recycled PP material in manufacturing, encouraging more customers to recycle the products at the end of their useful life and encouraging granulate producers to use more non-carbon-based energy.

Now that the life cycle analysis is complete, Mills Industries has a data-based story to tell customers and potential customers alike about its transport packaging. It raises a question for other providers of transport packaging and material handling solutions: How green is your product?

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