The world population today is 6.7 billion and is projected to double by 2067. This means that twice the food and other resources will be required then to sustain humanity. Since much of the world population today suffers from hunger and starvation, what about 60 years from now?
Some people are urging a return to local farming as the definitive means to resolve issues of excesses in energy, petroleum, and resource consumption. They are advocating sustainability— the ability to provide for today’s needs without subverting the ability of a future generation to provide for itself. Part of their approach is to call for reduced use of packaging. However, in concert with far-flung sourcing, processing, and distribution, food packaging has proven to be the most effective mechanism ever to preserve food and ameliorate hunger. In simple words, packaging is indispensable to food protection.
How might the forces of food delivery reconcile with the contemporary drives toward diluting packaging in the quest for sustainability? This question was posed and discussed during a thoughtful presentation by colleague Henry Wischusen of Integrated Development ([email protected]) at the Conference at Pack Expo last October in Las Vegas. He said that packaging must be viewed in total perspective, that all life-cycle analysis must begin with essential human needs: water and safe, abundant food. Here’s a synopsis of what he said.
Historically, packaging has ascended from basic heavy and energy-intensive glass, steel, and wood to lighter weights to almost whisper-mass plastic—all while enhancing food preservation and accommodating the ever-escalating consumer demand for food product diversification and convenience, and to the retailer manifest of virtually just-in-time materialization. Chronologically, material handling has transformed from rolling barrels and hoisting bags to today’s pallets and forklifts.
• The Boundaries of Packaging. The limiting boundaries of distribution packages today are the dimensions of truck bodies and rail cars—which are in turn dictated by the width of highways, roads, and rail tracks and bridge heights—and the decks of container ships. And the dimensions of primary packages—which almost all of us have thought of as consumer or retail shelf size driven—are in large part directed by the perimeters of the distribution package.
Reverting to the sustainability agenda— reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover—requires the integration of protection. Any concession in the pursuit of sustainability will have the opposite effect: compromise of protection in the name of sustainability will increase damage and loss. And food waste will grow exponentially as protection by packaging is diminished.
Food products require primary packaging for protection against a perpetually hostile natural environment. Most food products are unitized for distribution, and most distribution packages are unitized on pallets—whose dimensions are bounded by transportation vehicles.
This is easy enough to comprehend, but another major issue looms: relatively few truck, rail, or seagoing container loads are single product—most are mixed load, meaning jumbled, especially when the movement is from distribution warehouse to retail outlet and shelf.
• Virtual Pallet. In the United States, the most common pallet size—standardized by the grocery industry—is 40 in x 48 in. This requires that all distribution packages, regardless of primary package count or dimension, be confined to this size. The height of a single loaded pallet, dictated by truck height, is 52 in. Double pallet stacking is limited to a maximum of 110 in (including the pallet height) because of bridge heights over roads. Based on the maximum truck weight of 53,000 lb, the maximum weight of a single pallet load is about 800 lb.
The bottom layer of the pallet must be able to withstand the weight of all the cases above it. When corrugated fiberboard is employed as the distribution unitizer, as it is most often, each case must withstand seven times the static load. Because we have not yet figured out how to individually package for pallet position, the bottom package must survive the severe dynamics of road, rail, or sea transit.
• Wood vs Plastic. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the old staple wood pallet is the absolute worst of all distribution unitization alternatives, except for all the others. Wood splinters and fractures and is very sensitive to humidity. But wood pallets are relatively inexpensive, especially when they can be returned, repaired, and reused.
Plastic pallets have been with us for decades, at a cost about ten times that of the wood pallet. Throughout the history of plastic pallets, accountants have computed the financial benefits of the long-life pallet but are daunted by initial capital investment and that bugaboo of distribution, theft—the mass of high-density polyethylene in pallets today renders them economically susceptible to disappearance into the plastic recycling system.
Primary vs Distribution Packaging
The distribution chain today—and almost assuredly Tomorrow—is a complex sequence of processing to production warehouse to transportation to distribution warehouse, order picking, in and out to transportation to retailer receiving dock to back room and so on. How many times is a single distribution package handled, moved, and shelved? How often is the packaged product on a fully loaded pallet, and how many times jumbled on a mixed-load pallet? How much shock and impact does today’s distribution package—and therefore the primary package—undergo in today’s distribution channels? The package typically undergoes more than a dozen transfers—and even more, for many food products—not counting consumer take-home abuse. Unbelievers are invited to their local grocery store to observe direct delivery operations. Who dares suggest compromises of packaging without full disclosure of the consequences?
The food product within the primary package must be protected, and the primary package in turn must be protected. Criteria that must be considered in distribution packaging of food include the primary package orientation, effective specific gravity, vertical load capacity, marketing demands (shelf placement, price points, slots, unique shapes), retail display demands (perceived values, space allocation), consumer access, consumer convenience, economics, sustainability, and more.
As with so many food packaging improvements, most of those with profound influence have passed unnoticed and unheralded for their holistic enhancements to the system. Among them are delivery of carbonated beverages in returnable, reusable plastic crates; delivery of case-ready fresh red meats in returnable, reusable plastic crates; delivery of fresh produce in returnable, reusable plastic crates; barrier bags for boxed beef; unitization of milk bottles and cartons in returnable, reusable plastic crates; cubic milk bottles to obviate crates and to permit entire pallet loads bound with stretch film; delivery of salty snacks in returnable, reusable (to a limit) corrugated fiberboard cases; unitization and stabilization of pallet loads with plastic stretch wrap; and unitization of canned foods, dairy products, and ice cream in plastic shrink film.
All of these and many other enhancements have resulted in major savings regarding package material mass, volume, energy, product losses, and cost. Not coincidentally, most employ plastic materials, and all were driven by distribution efficiencies.
Distribution costs represent more than 40% of the retail price of food. The old saw “I can get it for you wholesale” disregards the reality that the distribution of food products from farm to consumer requires intermediaries—to control, process, optimize order size, store, transport, inventory, order pick, unitize, shelve, and, unavoidably, generate and transmit information that leads to financial transactions, in the absence of which the system would collapse.
Primary packaging—cans, bottles, pouches, paperboard cartons, etc.—on average represents 70% of food package material mass and cost. Although primary packaging is never at its irreducible minimum, it receives at least 70% of the attention in development striving to balance the conflicting desires of protection, marketing, consumers, convenience, regulatory compliance, and costs—and, by the way, concern over the environment. Thus, the highly publicized assaults on distribution packaging would not materially reduce total package mass.
Optimizing the Virtual Pallet
Restricted by all of these issues, how might the virtual pallet be optimized? In simple terms, it would be by determining the dimensional constraints of the packaged food product, including the effective weight per cube, then exploring the orientation, footprint, cube, vertical load, and marketing needs—all together.
Do not develop packaging by the traditional methods of developing the product and add packaging as a late afterthought; rush into a primary package to satisfy marketing; throw the primary package into a corrugated fiberboard case; and apply a computer program to develop a pallet pattern.
Almost all advances in reducing package mass have resulted from intelligent integration of primary and distribution packaging development. Thus, the forces of sustainability must first address food product protection—recognizing that the greatest sustainability gains have arisen from improvements in primary packaging. Optimization of distribution packaging—today’s apparent direction—might be more visible, but would be of far less consequence.
Although sustainability advocates have focused on plastic materials as producing greenhouse gases and depleting planetary resources, almost all gains in packaging energy and mass reduction have resulted from the judicious application of plastics. Not incidentally, plastics for packaging constitute only one quarter of one percent of all oil use. Narrow focus on one specific material because of false rationalizations that one material obviates tree loss, or reduces dependence on petroleum, or is compostable has led to failure of function. To achieve truly effective mass reductions for sustainability, primary and distribution packaging developers must collaborate.
Where Are We?
Sustainability is not a simplistic reduction in net mass or energy or greenhouse gases; if the food product is not protected, our next crusade will be to reduce the food waste to enable us to feed ourselves. Sustainability cannot proceed absent incorporation of protection without seriously disrupting our distribution infrastructure.
by Aaron L. Brody, Ph.D.,
Contributing Editor, President
and CEO, Packaging/Brody, Inc.,Duluth, Ga.