Creating a greener supply chain, reducing carbon footprints, and being more environmentally friendly is quickly becoming a priority for a lot of manufacturers these days.  As a growing number of consumers gravitate toward more environmentally aware companies, manufacturers are becoming more dedicated to environmentalism than ever before.

While a holistic approach to environmentalism impacts multiple areas of a business, certainly a greener supply chain is one area with a tremendous impact.  Each stage of production process offers opportunities and flexibility to incorporate green methods.  Transportation strategies, sourcing options, and storage tactics can all impact a company’s environmental efforts, but protective packaging remains one of the simplest approaches to gain a greener supply chain.

What Kind of Packaging Creates Greener Supply Chains?

There is a lot of debate about which is the most eco-friendly type of protective packaging of the market.  Makers of plastic pallets like to claim that they are the most environmentally friendly, while steel, corrugated paper, and wood all make the same claims.

Obviously, they can’t all be right.  Let’s discuss each of the options.

Plastic Protective Packaging (Pallets)

Although true that plastic pallets are reusable and may have a longer shelf-life, depending on their use, they can’t be repaired if they are damaged.  That means that they basically become trash once they are damaged, unless melted down and recycled.

According to the EPA, there were 14.49 million tons of plastic packaging produced in the United States in 2017, but only 1.89 million tons was recycled and over 10 million tons was landfilled.  In fairness, we don’t know what percent of that packaging was protective packaging, rather than primary or secondary packaging, but it is clear that some of those plastic pallets are ending up in landfills, where Mother Nature has a tough time breaking them down.

To make matters worse for plastic pallets, they are basically made from oil products.  More specifically, plastic pallets are made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which is created from petroleum or natural gas, which begs the question about sustainability. Being made of HDPE means that plastic pallets are not particularly eco-friendly, they come from a non-renewable resource, and they have a significant overall impact on the environment.

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Steel Pallets and Packaging

There is very little doubt that steel pallets are very durable and can hold up to conditions that would make plastic pallets, and even some wood pallets, buckle.  In addition, they can reused many times and are easily repaired if they become damaged.

Overall, steel is pretty environmentally friendly too.  According to Dalhstrom, steel is endlessly recyclable, requires relatively little energy to product or recycle, the waste products of steel are also reusable, and it isn’t toxic to humans or the environment.  Steel also leaves a relatively small carbon footprint.  According to WorldSteel.org, the steel industry generated between 7% and 9% of direct emissions from the global use of fossil fuel in 2018.

Overall, steel is pretty environmentally friendly for protective packaging, but it won’t help you build a greener supply chain.  Here’s why:

  1. For most manufacturers, steel protective packaging just isn’t practical.
  2. It’s much more expensive to procure, especially for manufacturers needing custom sizing.
  3. The weight of steel protective packaging would add significantly to transportation costs, meaning that more trucks would be needed to handle the same number of products.
  4. Additional trucks also means additional environmental impact.
  5. Steel protective packaging also means that other materials might be necessary to pad or cushion products on steel pallets or crates. This ads to expense and creates a bigger environmental impact.

Corrugated Paper or Cardboard

Corrugated paper, or cardboard, is very green packaging.  Although usually made from wood, it’s only made from the scraps of wood that can’t be used for anything else or recycled wood scraps.  Cardboard can often be reused, but it is also highly recyclable and biodegradable, even if it does end up in a landfill.

Can you have a greener supply chain by using corrugated paper?  Absolutely.

Unfortunately, corrugated paper just doesn’t have the durability to stand up to the rigors of protective packaging.  It’s perfect for engineered packaging or to pad a manufactured product, but you can’t use cardboard alone to protect your products during shipping.

Wood Protective Packaging

Wood, whether hardwood or southern yellow pine (SYP), can be used for a wide variety of protective packaging products.  Whether it’s a pallet, crate, strapping, dunnage, or simply a strengthening component for your engineered packaging, wood will help you build a greener supply chain.

Industrial wood, the wood used to manufacture protective packaging, is the ultimate environmentally friendly material.  Obviously, it’s made from trees, but it’s actually made from the lowest grade wood from trees that are from actively managed forests that are sustainable.  Mills size up each log they receive and cut it to get the most high quality lumber out of it as possible. These are the prime cuts that are used to make furniture or used in building materials.

But there’s still a lot of wood left in a log after the prime cuts are removed. That’s where wood pallet and crate manufacturers come in. We purchase the wood that’s left.

It’s definitely not the pretty wood, sometimes having a lot of knots or even a little bit of bark, but it’s perfect for making pallets and crates.  In our industry, strength matters over beauty, and the process ensures that nothing goes to waste.

95% of Wood Pallets are Recycled Many Times

Another reason why wood protective packaging creates greener supply chains is that wood pallets can be re-used, recycled, repaired, and remanufactured many times throughout the life of the pallet or crate.

According to a study done by Virginia Tech, at least 95% of wood pallets are recycled.  When wood pallets can no longer be repaired, they can be ground up into mulch or pet bedding, used as firewood, or turned into wood pellets.  Even if a wood pallet ends up in a landfill, it is biodegradable.

Wood Packaging Maintains Small Carbon Footprint

Wood pallets, crates, and packaging is truly eco-friendly, sustainable, and uses a very small carbon footprint.  If you’re trying to create a greener supply chain, your carbon footprint matters.  When we’re applying the concept of a carbon footprint to protective packaging, a carbon footprint is the measure of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the lifespan of that packaging.

Pallets made of wood harvested from a sustainable forest have a negative carbon footprint because the wood stores the carbon and it isn’t released into the environment.  This is a major difference between wood and most other materials.

Wrapping It Up

For supply chain managers and manufacturing companies, there is a lot of debate on how to create a greener supply chain.  Choosing the most eco-friendly packaging can help tremendously in that effort, but ultimately it’s just one piece of a very large, holistic puzzle.

With a growing number of business buyers and consumers looking for more environmentally friendly options, manufacturers can’t really afford to ignore the importance of environmentalism.  Developing a greener supply chain through the use of eco-friendly packaging is one simply option that can made a huge difference.

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