Packaging plays a vital function in the food and logistics industries. Not only does it store the goods and protect them from impact, but it also provides information about the goods, secures them to be tamper-proof or weather-proof and is an important tool in sales and marketing for making the goods look attractive.
Household and commercial waste
But such packaging also accounts for about one fifth of all household waste in Britain and between 5% and 10% of all commercial and industrial waste. So the environmental impact of packaging is a source of concern to regulators as well as consumers.
Most manufacturers use either single-trip or reusable packaging. The single-trip variety consists of common cardboard or polystyrene boxes that have become a typical example of food industry waste.
Of course, the cardboard and polystyrene can be recycled, but the energy requirement for collecting, sorting, cleaning and recycling can become costly.
This is the supply-chain waste that has been targeted for reduction by Wrap UK together with food retailers. Although there are benefits of recycling, this may not always by the most cost-efficient or environmentally effective option.
The environmental impact of single-trip packaging is very dependent on the type of raw material and the energy needed to manufacture that package in the first place. All of this is linked to a single trip for the food items.
Reusable or returnable packaging is much more environmentally effective. Examples of such materials are plastic crates and trays, as well as bulk bins and plastic pallets.
The environmental advantage of reusable packaging is critically dependent on the number of trips it makes in its working lifetime. The more trips the reusable packaging makes, the lower its overall environmental impact.
Clean and hygienic
Further advantages to reusable packaging are that it can be cleaned after each trip and it also will provide a more robust protection for the goods it transports.
Once its working lifetime is over, the plastic crates and trays can be more effectively recycled than the single-trip polystyrenes and cardboards.
However, reusable packaging does have its downsides. It is usually heavier than single-trip packaging and so will have higher handling and transportation costs. Robustness is necessary for it to withstand the rigours of multiple trips.
But such costs become significant over long distances, as the return-trip costs, often with empty packaging, must also be considered. This is the point at which single-trip, packaging will be at an advantage.
However, these disadvantages may be neutralised by the lower damage rates of reusable packaging. Such a lower damage occurrence becomes a significant commercial issue as well as an important environmental factor over long periods of time.
So despite the higher transportation costs, the reusable packaging may be the best choice among the alternatives available for food retailers.