Weighing All the Options

Returning and reusing transport containers can help supply-chain partners minimize waste, but is it always the most sustainable approach?

“Any time a company uses fewer natural resources, it is a good thing,” says Daniel Littlefield, a principal of Modality Solutions, a provider of cold chain management consulting for the biopharmaceutical, health, nutrition, and other industries. “Reusable packaging can be a good option, but companies need to do the math to ensure that it makes sense in all scenarios.”

“Doing the math” entails conducting “a thorough assessment of a product’s logistics network,” explains Modality Solutions President Gary Hutchinson. “Companies should assess their networks and look for opportunities. They should fully understand all environmental inputs and outputs.”

Littlefield advises companies to begin with ISO 14000 as a framework, citing ISO 14040 for a life cycle assessment. He also points out the software program RECIPE 2008, which can be used to generate an environmental impact assessment of all options and to quantify environmental benefits. Littlefield counsels companies “to look for their biggest environmental footprint or impact. Then opportunities can be prioritized.”

Hutchinson says reusable packaging’s benefits depend upon the shipping lane. “It makes the most sense in closed-loop scenarios where it is easy to return the package. Strong reverse logistics are needed,” he said.

Littlefield agrees, pointing out such an approach detailed in LifeCell’s case study at the IQPC’s Cold Chain & Temperature Management Global Forum in September. Scott Lansdale, packaging engineer for LifeCell package engineering, explained his company’s pilot employing the MTS Credo thermal packaging system for shipping human tissue to hospitals.

“Moving items in a well-disciplined program such as LifeCell’s is a good use of reusable packaging,” says Hutchinson.

Returnable systems may not work as well in last-mile logistics to patient homes or with small parcels. “The package-to-payload ratio must be considered for unit-level drugs,” he says. “Reusable packaging makes more sense for bulk drug shipments.”

Hutchinson adds that in some instances, reusable packaging might be bulkier and heavier than single-use products. “You have to consider how the extra weight will impact the carbon footprint of air transport,” he says. “You might be trading waste stream reduction for an increase in carbon footprint.”

Hutchinson also says that companies need to “take a hard look at the number of times a container can be reused as well as what sort of testing is needed to ensure that the packaging still offers thermal control and protection despite the rigors of transport. You have to know what the ‘useful life’ is.”

But Hutchinson and Littlefield still encourage development of returnable solutions. “It is a good idea for suppliers to offer returnable options,” says Hutchinson. “It is another tool in their tool box.”

And companies are considering sustainability as they prepare their products for the supply chain. “Sustainability is definitely part of our proposals today, and we do compare reusable versus disposable packaging. We find, though, that companies are looking mostly at the economics. If ‘more-sustainable’ options are break even or cost less, customers always take the sustainable option.”

Modality Solutions provides solutions that define, minimize or possibly eliminate transportation environmental hazards in the supply chain. Consultants provide engineering/logistics consulting, systems integration, and simulation laboratory services from discovery through distribution.

For more information, go to http://www.modality-solutions.com.

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