Reducing the environmental footprint

The Canadian corrugated box has many environmental advantages: it’s made from a renewable resource that is sustainably managed; it’s high in recycled content; and it’s widely recyclable and compostable. It can also reduce its overall environmental footprint through innovative design.

Making do with less

It may seem strange that the industry would actively promote the use of less packaging. But in fact packaging converters are always striving to produce better overall value to their customers using less material. Many of the actions by national brand manufacturers to reduce their packaging have, in fact, been suggested by packaging converters keen to keep the business or to snatch it from a competitor. That’s life!

Packaging can be reduced by removing layers; introducing “high performance” board (strong but lighter); reducing the size of box flaps, and lessening the air space between the product and its packaging. While some of these changes may seem slight in themselves, they have a multiplier effect. Reducing the air space between the product and the package, for example, obviously reduces the size of the box and the amount of board used to make it in the first place. This is good for the environment and a cost-savings to both box makers and their customers. But it also means more products can be shipped on each truck (leading to greater shipping efficiency) and fewer truck journeys (lower energy use and emissions). Of course, the box still has to perform its main packaging function of being strong enough to deliver the product undamaged to the buyer.

Design improvements and innovation are continuously being adopted across the industry so it is difficult to single out individual companies for special attention. The following examples, however, have had industry-wide impact.

Let the box makers design the boxes!

Canada’s government-owned railways of the 1990s were receiving insurance claims for goods damaged in transit. Their response was to insist that all corrugated boxes used to ship products on the railways meet certain strength specifications. In effect, they forced the corrugated industry to over-design the boxes (using more board than necessary to protect the contents) in the hope that insurance claims would decline.

The Canadian paper packaging industry’s environmental council (PPEC) was aware of recent technical advances, however. One of these was the development of “high performance” or lighter board with similar strength properties.  PPEC proposed amendments to the corrugated rules that would protect the contents while at the same time slash the amount of corrugated needed by between five and 10 per cent. In essence the industry was saying, let the box makers design the boxes, not the railways. The railways endorsed PPEC’s initiative, opening the way for industry to achieve potential board savings of 100,000 tonnes per year (the equivalent of closing down a mill’s total annual production, permanently).

Performance is the key

A more recent design change (this time involving provincial government specifications) was PPEC’s success in persuading the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) to change its shipping rules for wine and liquor boxes. For years the LCBO had used a burst test (called Mullen) as a barometer for box failure and/or container breakage. In effect, the Mullen test forced box makers to make their boxes from virgin material or to include some virgin fibre. This in turn discouraged the use of recycled board (the predominant Canadian and global grade).

PPEC set up a technical committee; began outreach to the LCBO; and initiated some pilot laboratory trials where various types of boxes were shaken, dropped and slammed into hard surfaces to see how they performed. A 4-minute video (Shake, Rattle and Drop) was produced and shared with the LCBO. This led to further trials and the finding that the Mullen test was not a good predictor of actual box performance, regardless of whether the box was made from virgin or recycled material. The study also concluded that any performance-based testing procedure had to include all elements of the package, not just the outer box but also its partitions and the container inside.

In January 2013, the LCBO agreed to the use of an alternate testing method that PPEC had been promoting (the edge crush test or ECT). This allows for the use of recycled fibre, as long as it performs. Read the press release here

Canadian companies leading the light-weighting charge

Canadian mills have been lightweighting their containerboard for years.  Two recent developments are  Atlantic Packaging converting its Whitby, Ontario newsprint mill into a new 100% recycled linerboard mill producing low basis weights (lighter paper) with enhanced strength properties. Across the border in Niagara Falls, New York, the new Greenpac mill1 is also producing a lighter weight 100% recycled high performance linerboard.

Re-use is not always the better alternative

Re-using the same package for the same purpose sometimes seems to be a better environmental choice. Many companies, for example, use what are called corrugated re-trippers to move materials from warehouse to store, and back again. Why would you want to use new boxes when you can continually use the same ones again and again within your own operations, and then just recycle them when they get too beaten up?

When you move to another apartment or house, or another city, you will also find widespread use of corrugated re-trippers. These handy moving boxes come in various shapes and sizes and you can frequently sell any unused ones back to the moving or rental company so that they can offer them to someone else.

But re-use is not always the better environmental choice. Resources such as non-renewable fossil fuels and energy are required to set up and deliver some reusable systems. Water and chemicals are frequently used to wash reusable containers and there are air emissions and waste in constantly shipping materials around. As the plastics industry has acknowledged: “Lower environmental impact can often be obtained from the one-way, lightweight pack.”

Serious health issues have also been raised about re-using the same containers, especially when food is involved. For example, a recent University of Guelph study examined some of the reusable plastic crates (RPCs) being used to ship fresh fruit and vegetables in Canada. Crates pose significant risks of microbiological contamination, claimed the author, Director of Food Safety and Quality, Dr Keith Warriner. Human pathogens such as salmonella, norovirus and cyoclospora could be transferred to produce, he warned. Plant pathogens could also be transferred, resulting in premature spoilage. Using reusable plastic crates to ship food, he concluded, was a “recipe for disaster.”

Dr. Warriner followed up his initial study with a more robust investigation in 2014.  He found that almost half of the crates arriving at the growers’ farms failed basic sanitary standards.  Of particular concern was the high prevalence of good safety indicators, especially E. Coli, on 13% of the crates tested.

For further information on this issue there is a PPEC blog Re-use is not always the better alternative which has links to a press release and the study itself.  A video presentation by Dr. Warriner is also available here.

1 The Greenpac mill is owned by Cascades Inc. together with the caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, Jamestown Container and Containerboard Partners