For decades, cardboard has been used for packaging and transporting products through the supply chain. Cardboard is a versatile packaging material. It can be produced quickly and efficiently and converted into a vast array of packaging designs, in terms of weight, thickness, finish and printing. Bespoke packaging is relatively easy to create. As cardboard packaging is usually supplied and transported in flat-form, it is efficiently moved and stored. Automated process can assemble the packaging at line-side on a Just-in-Time basis, thereby minimising waste. Once the packaging has been used, it can be collapsed and disposed of, either by land-fill, incineration or recycling.
Many years ago, there was little concern about renewable resources and deforestation was not considered of environmental concern. Wood pulp for cardboard production was readily available and cheap. Landfill sites were plentiful and incineration was not considered to have an adverse impact on the environment. However, this situation has changed dramatically. Over the last two decades the environmental impacts of deforestation and waste disposal have resulted in an ever increasing legislative pressure, coupled with taxation penalties, driving companies to find alternatives to cardboard.
The UK Supermarkets were quick to understand the operational, environmental and financial benefits of using reusable packaging. Reusable packaging that does not have too high a capital cost, can prove cost effective against single-use packaging. Re-usability also eliminates the need for packaging disposal once the contents have been removed at the final destination. So long as the reusable packaging is manufactured in an environmentally responsible way and its ultimate disposal (when damaged beyond repair) has minimal environmental impact, then it can be an attractive alternative to cardboard.
Plastic is an excellent material for manufacturing returnable packaging. It is versatile and can be moulded into a vast array of designs. It is extremely durable and once no longer required, can be granulated and reused to make new products. The manufacturing process and the fact that plastic products are recyclable mean that reusable plastic packaging has minimal environmental impact.
Innovative product designs can bring other benefits. Not only can plastic containers be designed to accommodate a wide range of products, they give significantly improved product protection over cardboard. Standards in design features enable containers to stack safely on top of each other, creating robust standard units of load, often capable of double-stacking at the pallet level. This allows vehicle fill to be optimised, subject to overall weight restrictions, thereby reducing supply chain transport costs. Standardisation also facilitates the use of automation both in production and downstream handling and warehousing, again reducing supply chain costs.
At final destination, the Supermarkets have found that plastic containers provide a useful and innovative method for merchandising products, eliminating the need to decant product onto the store fixture. Reusable containers also eliminate the need for collapsing and bailing cardboard waste. The reductions in handling not only save time, and therefore labour costs, but also reduce product damage. In-store labour savings of some 30% have been achieved using reusable containers. It has also been found that sales can be improved due to a more attractive product presentation, by some 7%.
An obvious impact of reusable containers is the need to get them back from the final destination and ensure they are in a condition custom mech mods fit for re-issue to the product suppliers. As many supply-chains use dedicated transport the reusable containers can be returned to central warehouse locations, together with product returns, via returning delivery vehicles. There is no additional transport costs incurred.
Service providers have been established specialising in providing support services to customers wishing to use reusable packaging. The service providers usually operate facilities (often called Depots) to receive returned containers, inspect them and clean them before issue to product suppliers. Damaged containers are repaired where possible and reintroduced into the supply chain. Containers damaged beyond repair are accumulated and transported to plastic recycling facilities for granulation.
As the Depots are usually located close to the customers’ main warehouses or distribution centres, vehicles delivering in product can collect reusable containers from the Depots and take them back to product suppliers on the return journey. This minimises the transport impact.
Obviously, it is important to ensure reusable containers are not lost or inefficiently used through unnecessary stock-piling. The maximum benefits are derived when the containers flow through the supply chain quickly and returned to the product suppliers on a Just-in-Time basis. In order to achieve this, systems, procedures and personnel are required to track the movement of containers and ensure the right types of container, in the correct quantities, are supplied when required. Kontrol is one such system. Once a supply chain is dependent on reusable containers, it is critical that adequate availability is maintained at all times.