Bioplastic shipping containers used for consumer electronics repair may cost more per unit, but they can be cheaper overall because they're reusable and can be recycled back into the supply chain in a closed-loop/reverse logistics setup. (Source: Ecospan)
Great story, Ann. Shows there is a lot more to sustainability that simple materials replacement and new technology. Re-engineering key business processes is central to any initiative and this closed-loop, reverse logistics setup is a perfect example. Hope it inspires others to rethink their processes and look at the bigger picture.
Thanks, Beth. Several bioplastics companies I've spoken with, including this one, have mentioned the need for a complete closed-loop system. That idea has been around for awhile, but is probably more likely to become a possibility with bioplastics than with petro-based ones. It's an opportunity to build a whole new infrastructure.
Rob, good point. The bioplastics companies are very interested in building separate, alternative infrastructures like this closed-loop reverse logistics system. But OEMs must be convinced first. Persuading them to engage takes clear ROI savings, as in this case.
Well, the timing seems right Ann. In just the last few years, companies have started to track their reverse logistics costs. They're started to appoint reverse logistics executives to keep the costs trim. Any savings is going to get their attention.
Rob, that's interesting feedback. What's your understanding of how common reverse logistics is? And do you have a sense of how often it's being combined with close-loop recycling? My understanding is that closed-loop recycling still isn't common for any plastics.
Reverse logistics has become important in recent years, especially with consumer eletronics. While most of the return packages I see are cardboard, I wouldn't be surprised to see plastics become popular.
Reverse logistics has its own trade magazine now, as well as conferences. For decades, most companies saw it as a necessary expense and shrugged it off. Then a few companies -- like Dell -- revamped their reverse logistics and saved millions. Now it's a niche study within supply chain managementm with its own professors. My years of supply chain management coverage are showing.
It's gone through its own outsourcing pattern. Off to China, and now "near-shoring" is all the trend.
Thanks for the input, Rob. Good to know that reverse logistics has been integrated into supply chain management, which makes sense. I haven't seen plastic return packages, either, so I don't think they're very common yet. Another reason this looked like a groundbreaker.
Yes, it probably is a groundbreaker, which fits with your coverage. Environmental advances seem to be all over the place these days. And more and more, the green avenue doesn't seem to be a cost-added road. That's good news.
I can easily see why so much money is saved. Consider how people tear open boxes containing electronics. It's usually pretty careless. The flaps get torn and the main part of box itself gets damaged. I would be surprised if the cardboard boxes were getting more than one reuse. Great story, Ann.
Thanks, Chuck. I was surprised to hear that ship-back cartons were still made of cardboard. Details about cardboard type weren't available, but I'd guess that it must have not been the corrugated variety.
Could you clarify your statement, "I haven't seen plastic return packages, either, so I don't think they're very common yet."?
The reason that I ask is that the company I work for designs and manufactures injection molded returnable systems. But before I describe them in more detail, I wanted to make sure that it is those systems that you meant and not something else.
I am the Senior Designer of Plastic Products for Schaefer Systems International. One of our largest divisions is Returnable Packaging Solutions, which sells Close-Loop returnable solutions. Mostly plastic, our products replace disposable, easily damaged products (i.e. wooden pallets, paper corrugated boxes). These systems include plastic pallets and top caps with matching, multiple sized injection molded totes.
A primary user of such systems in the U.S. is the automotive industry. Their first tier suppliers are required to deliver their components to the assembly plants in approved packaging. This usually consists of: a plastic tote, reusable dunnage (packaging within the tote, i.e. the cardboard partition set inside wine cases) and labeling with tracking and routing information.
These filled totes actually travel to the workstations within the assembly plant. The totes are emptied one part at a time as each component is installed in a car or sub-assembly. The palletized empty totes are returned to the supplier to be restocked and reused. This makes up a closed loop.
These packaging systems are bought en masse at the beginning of a car program and, barring forklift interactions, last the lifetime of the car model. At the end of the program, all of the boxes/pallets/top caps can be ground up and recycled to make new product.
As in your bio-plastic example, plastic returnable systems are usually more cost effective than disposable systems. The upfront costs are higher, however, and saving money short-term sometimes gets in the way of real savings.
If you'd like more information, please ask. I tried to keep this answer short. :)
I didn't see a way to email you other than choosing the "reply" button. However, this screen looks remarkably similar to the posting screen. We'll see if this goes to only you or if it ends up out on the message board.
I would be more than happy to speak with you. After we establish that this is a method that goes directly to you, I can send my phone number.
Clinton, this is the comments board. For off-list communication about a possible story, you can find my email address on our website at Contact Us/Editorial & Production Directory:
Good point Beth. By applying some smarts to the whole process, and the technology of the packaging, they have been able to come up with a great savings. These savings go beyond the basic use of the container, since these are more environmentally friendly materials. This is a great engineering design story.
Cradle to cradle design has been around for a few years now. It's always good to see more examples.
How does Ecospan address the degradation of materials in the recycling process? Generally, products made from post-consumer recycled material isn't as strong/durable as the original without using some new material.
Why is the customer un-named? Wouldn't a company want to brag about this? But, if getting box use for six full repair instances per item is needed, maybe they shouldn't be named.
Nadine, the customer is truly huge and does not want to be identified. This is pretty typical in many industries. especially with public companies always worrying about their stock price. Regarding degradation, with plastics it all depends on the recycling process. This is mechanical not chemical so there will be degradation over time. But since bioplastics are essentially all custom formulations, that doesn't have to affect quality. The point here is reclamation instead of none, and not letting the end-of-life material go to landfill.
Thanks Ann-Maybe it's the tone of the quotes taken out of context. There's a repeated referral to a single big customer, who's using this very innovative approach. The need for confidentiality is unusual under the circuntances touted in the article. Maybe there's something more that I'm missing.
I understand that the key to the savings is the re-use of the shipping container. The article briefly mentions recycling and I wanted to know more. Thanks for the info.
Actually, I don't think the confidentiallity need is all that unusual. Given that it is a big company, we are probably talking about some substantial savings, even if it's just pennies per container. Basically, unless you have a substantial development, it's these incremental savings that can translate into the bottom line. Until this technology is more widely known and implemented, the company in question probably does not want its competitors to know how it got those few extra cents out of the cost.
Mydesign, answering that question would require a detailed lifecycle analysis comparison, which Ecospan did not discuss. Not turning trees into cardboard shipping containers and retaining their C02 sequestration function is more ecological than the reverse; beyond that we don't have data. Ecospan's website might have some answers.
Nice article, Ann. There is such a large shift away from paper these days (especially with books), I would think it would begin to affect the paper industry. We joke about saving trees by reading electronic books, but at some point, that becomes a reality.
Excellent article Ann. General Electric experienced the very same circumstances in realizing that moving from cardboard to plastic "returnables" was a tremendous savings—tremendous. At GE we used to compress our cardboard boxes and resale to a company that reprocessed the material. Now, GE requires the use of plastic and recycles those containers to the OEM sending components and other parts. GE basically owns the returnables or coops the cost with the OEM. What's unique about the article you posted is the Bio part. This is really interesting and I can see how cost reductions could further be realized with this accomplished. The containers we used measured 40 inches by 48 inches and had interpack suitable for insuring the parts did not rub together during shipment. Other returnables or "totes" measured 28 inches by 6 inches by 9 inches tall. Same concept. I suspect bioplastics have a shorter "life" than basic plastic; even so I can see a great cost savings when applied to the manufacturing and procurement process. Again—excellent article.
bobjengr, I agree: the "bio" part is the most unusual part of this story. But closed loop/reverse logistics systems that recycle products and packaging materials are not exactly typical, either. Thanks for telling us about GE's system. It's my understanding that bioplastics don't have a shorter life than petro-based ones; that's a common misconception.
The "bio" part of the plastic is certainly a unique variable in the story but the closed-loop nature of the system is the critical piece that allows this program to work. By itself, this aspect eliminates a lot of the uncertainty and costs of using recycled material because the entire material stream is controlled and verifiable.
Part of my employer's business is injection molding. Because of the recent climbs in resin prices, we have had to increase our use of recycled plastics the last few years. While using more recycled material was always an altruistic goal, it is a costly process if one has to go outside the company for recycled material. This is because there are few controls on the delivered regrind, even from long-term partners in the recycled plastic consolidation business. In any given delivery, we can have gaylords of PP or HDPE that perfectly match our specs, while others on the same truck have contaminants, i.e. ABS mixed in, PP and HDPE intermixed, metal shavings.
As our injection molding machines cost over a million dollars each, and the molds can easily top $200,000, it is critical to catch these impurities before they can cause any damage. Therefore, an on-site test lab had to be set-up and personnel trained to check each individual gaylord.
"Unfortunately" our products' durability preclude the ability to count only on our own waste stream. The closed-loop system in your article eliminates the necessity of these checks for this company.
Interestingly enough, even without the recycled plastic component, most of our customers show similar savings cited in the article when they switched from paper cardboard to our plastic returnable material handling products.
CL, I believe that more of the savings involved in this case study were due to the shift to plastic from cardboard, than due to the closed-loop recycling. Thanks for sharing your experience with us, especially for the perspective on issues surrounding the sourcing of recycled materials. The market for same is so new that there aren't many controls in place yet. Work is going on to change that.
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