In the board game Yeti in My Spaghetti, participants carefully remove the noodles one-by-one, hoping the Yeti doesn’t fall into the bowl, thereby losing the party game. As more beverage facilities add automation to their operations, they also are being careful to consider all ancillary steps that could be impacted if one aspect falls out of place.
“As more companies continue to integrate automated solutions into their operations to keep up with labor challenges and meet consumer demand, they need products that will interface with these systems,” says Christopher Wood, product manager for ORBIS Corp., Oconomowoc, Wis. “In the same way that automation can address the labor shortage, it also can help companies eliminate human error to improve accuracy, productivity and efficiency to get products in the hands of consumers more quickly.”
One aspect well-suited to adapt to automated operations is the use of reusable packaging systems.
“Reusable packaging solutions, unlike traditional wood pallets or corrugated packaging, are dimensionally consistent and create a smooth interface between automated systems and product loads to reduce system downtime and drive repeat performance,” Wood says. “The standardized nature of reusable pallets and totes allow automated systems to run smoothly, reducing jams and improving the flow of product along the supply chain. These solutions also have no loose boards, flaps or debris that can lead to system downtime.”
Wood also touts other benefits of reusable packaging in association with automate operations, including cube efficiency, frequent use cycles, labor-friendly attributes like fingertip handles, as well as being able to incorporate drain holes and automation locators.
This comes as the global reusable transport packaging (RTP) has reached $100 billion in value, based on the 2020 “Reusable Transport Packaging: State of the Industry Report” conducted by the Reusable Packaging Association, Washington, D.C. Among its segments, pallets (all materials except for paper-based because they cannot be reused) account for 62% of RTP, while containers, crates, totes, reusable boxes, and reusable or returnable plastic containers account for 30% of the RTP market. Intermediate bulk containers such as tanks, drums and barrels account for 7%, with the remaining 1% being “other” types of RTP solutions.
However, automation is not the only technology innovations that is having an impact on the reusable packaging market. Citing plastic packaging’s durability, Wood notes that these reusable containers can be equipped with RFID and other technologies for tracking purpose and works seamlessly in automated systems while reducing inefficiency and waste.
“In today’s complex supply chains, it is critical that packaging is available when and where you need it,” Wood says. “Effective packaging management helps food and beverage suppliers experience the benefits of plastic pallet systems while eliminating the upfront investment and day-to-day complexities of managing, tracking and cleaning packaging.
“For example, ORBIS Reusable Packaging Management significantly cuts the time and effort needed to track, retrieve, clean and inventory packaging assets,” he continues. “This system gives companies the freedom to focus on core competencies and positively impacts business operationally, financially and environmentally.”
Sustainability’s growing influence
As much as reusable packaging systems can support automated operations, the growing influence sustainability is having on businesses also has put a spotlight on the systems’ benefits.
“Consumers are focused on increasing sustainability in the supply chain, and this preference is pushing companies to reevaluate their current supply chain packaging and explore reusable packaging solutions,” Wood notes.
Tim Debus, president and CEO of the Reusable Packaging Association, denotes the numerous factors that businesses must take into account when it comes to environmental sustainability.
“When you look at sustainability in the traditional sense of protecting Earth, environments and such, there’s been a lot of activity in looking how society can improve and correct some of the major problems that we have around the world,” he explains. “Whether it’s solid waste generation, pollution, it’s certainly in terms of plastics into the environment and the waterways, climate change, energy resources and material consumption in terms of replenishment of natural resources.”
Debus notes that supporting a more circular economy is elevating business efforts regarding sustainability. However, he notes that in various locations, particularly Europe, legislative practices also are spotlighting environmental sustainability, but the United States also is seeing a rise in legislation.
“You see this in the United States with extended producer responsibility laws and several states, most recently California, really shifting the financial accountability of waste management to those providing the waste ― going back to the suppliers of packaging products and therefore incentivizing those companies that have been used because the product doesn’t go to waste it’s continuously used ongoing,” he explains.
“When you look at policies such as that, and what’s taking place in Europe more aggressively, in terms of establishing hard metrics or hard thresholds of reuse and recycling for example policy is really starting to step up in reaction to environmental sustainability and therefore incentivizing the market to explore and adopt reusable packaging and as a means to reduce waste to eliminate pollution, lower greenhouse gas emissions, to conserve natural resources,” Debus continues.
Given all these factors, Debus highlights how reusable packaging systems can support this circular economy.
“Reusable packaging has an opportunity to be very positive to those negative environmental trends that we’re coping with as a society around the world,” he says.
In addition to its sustainability attributes, Wood adds that the durability of reusable packaging solutions, including shells and pallets, allows these transport products to better protect products and reduce transportation costs.
“Reusable beverage shells have a long service life and provide beverage companies with a fully reusable option for shipping bottles into retail,” he says. “This reusability helps beverage companies save money over the life of the packaging, when compared to single use corrugated packaging. This also eliminates the disposal of the single-use corrugated packaging and wrap at retail.”
By implementing reusable solutions, Wood explains that beverage operations can reduce not just their shipping and waste disposal costs by the impact they have on the environment.
“Reusable packaging supports the three Rs in the environmental hierarchy by designing out waste (reduce), keeping products in use longer (reuse) and repurposing packaging at end of life (recycle),” he says.
Wood notes that some reusable packaging solutions have elevated their sustainability approach by utilizing alternative materials such as recycled content.
“This can include ocean-bound plastic waste, post-industrial plastic waste from a customer’s own manufacturing operation, or post-consumer plastic waste that’s then reprocessed into new reusable packaging solutions to further drive the circular economy,” he says.
Because reusable containers can feature collapsible attributes, this also can support financial and sustainable goals in regards to transportation.
“With rising fuel prices and trucker shortages, finding transportation efficiencies has become a major priority for today’s companies across all industries,” Wood says. “With stackable, nestable and collapsible reusable packaging solutions, companies can save space and reduce their transportation costs, especially in return logistics.
"For example, stacking containers to a truck’s full capacity improves cube efficiency to reduce the number of trucks needed,” he continues. “To minimize return transportation costs, reusable packaging often nests or collapses when empty to optimize the trailer.”
The Reusable Packaging Association’s Debus also points to the economic sustainability that comes with reusable containers.
“I mentioned sustainability from an economic standpoint, and I think it’s important to bring out that when you’re talking about sustainability of a business or corporate sustainability that looking at what COVID revealed to us about the challenges we have in our economy in our supply chains and sourcing of products when there are shutdowns and disruptions and we’re still battling that in what it can do in terms of a business not having access to resources as they traditionally would ― packaging included,” he says.
Debus explains that economic sustainability can be achieved thanks to the durability of reusable packaging.
“Once you build it, once you buy it you have it for continuous long lasting use,” he says. “You don’t need to continue to source new packaging for your business you have it already available so there’s a high level of resiliency associated with reusable packaging and that resiliency allows companies to weather storms. It reduces the volatility of them having to outsource raw materials to run their business when they have those products already in inventory for use in their business it creates that resiliency that we’ve observed for business sustainability and some would say survivability in the future as more of these disruptions are expected.”
So when operations are looking at what sustainability means to them, it might be vital to look at how economic and environmental sustainability can create a symbiotic existence.
“Sustainability is having a big impact but I would like to tie both as saying it’s both looking at the protection of the environment and the Earth systems how we operate but also how businesses need to look at their operations differently in the modern world and the future in terms of being more efficient with the resources that are used for their business practices and I think they both have a role in terms of long-term sustainability,” Debus says.