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The Total Package

by Cliff Kuang

November 27, 2008

The forgotten carbon-cutting effect of a product's container

Among all the services and gadgets aimed at cutting carbon from our daily lives, it's easy to overlook the effect that a product's packaging has on the environment. A tiny change in the shape of a ketchup bottle, for example, ripples outward from the store shelf to the truck that delivered it and-for more exotic items-the ship that ferried it.Every year, the shipping industry-including trucking, traveling on container ships, and air freight-emits six percent of the world's greenhouse gases, including 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide, twice as much as commercial aviation. If a goofy-looking bottle allows 20 percent more ketchup to fit in a box, it can reduce the energy burned in shipping that ketchup by up to 20 percent, according to packing managers at Procter & Gamble, 3M, and Wal-Mart. The trucks go out more fully stocked, and fewer trucks are required to ship the same volume.Time was that only a few companies took their shipping efficiency to a logical extreme. Ikea, for instance, kept its prices low in part by jamming massive quantities of furniture into tiny containers, using flat packing--whereby products are shipped disassembled and "flat," with no empty space in the package. Other companies are, however, finally taking note."Packaging materials and shipping weren't always such significant costs, but now commodities prices are high," explains Anne Johnson, director of GreenBlue, a non-profit that develops sustainable packaging guidelines. "Companies are realizing that you can save significant money in transportation."Going green often costs money-say, for example, the price of panels necessary to switch to solar power. In transportation, however, saving money-by putting more stuff in smaller containers-translates directly into burning less carbon. More efficient packages are easy to spot on the shelves, allowing you to vote with their dollars for both aesthetic and/or carbon footprint. Here are some examples:Milk Jug Wal-Mart is a perennial leader in efficient transport-in fact, in 2005, it started grading its suppliers on packaging efficiency. Using software that simulates packing arrangements on the shelves and in a shipping container, they can easily tweak product designs so that they'll "cube out" more efficiently. One of their recent successes: the iconic plastic milk jug.The new, Wal-Mart (and Sam's Club) jug (pictured above) is more square-shaped than you're used to seeing. The savings: 50 percent more jugs can fit on a shelf-which translates to half as many delivery loads. Trucks can also fit 10 percent more milk on every trip.
Spaghetti JarOne of the biggest recent advances in eco-shipping has been the Tetra Pak packages-those bendy pouches, made of layered plastic, which now contain everything from tuna to wine. Last spring, Ragu changed the packaging of its sauces, shifting from 385-gram, glass jars to a 59-gram pouch. For the suppliers delivering new containers to the sauce maker, the savings are even more dramatic: They used to deliver just 50,000 empty jars per truckload; now, they pack in 1.3 million pouches.Tetra Pak pouches and cartons, for all their benefits in saving shipping-related fuel, is still a work in progress; they're not yet collected for recycling. Organizations, such as GreenBlue, are lobbying for that practice to change.
Detergent BottleSeldom does a new product design overhaul an industry as quickly as super-concentrated detergent revolutionized fabric care. In 2005, Unilever unveiled its first triple-concentrated detergents, which provide enough liquid to clean the same number of loads in a container one-third the size and one-third the weight.The environmental impact is profound: Each year, shipping and manufacturing detergent requires 24 million fewer gallons of water, 1.3 million fewer gallons of gas, and 6,000 fewer truckloads. The packaging also saves 10 million pounds of plastic per year. Competitors have eagerly been following Unilever's example: Procter & Gamble unveiled its first double-concentrated products (its High Efficiency Tide pictured above) last April.(Photos: Milk jugs courtesy Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.; Ragu pouch courtesy Unilever USA; and Tide bottle courtesy Procter & Gamble.)
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