26/04/05 Returnable is the Operative Word (by: Clyde E Witt)
Mom said it was bad manners to interrupt when another person was
speaking. The guy
at the other end of a recent telephone conversation, however, was challenging me to
override mom's admonition. The problem was, he kept using the term "reusable"
synonymously with "returnable." It's a common error I usually ignore until it's my
turn to respond.
His argument seemed to be, given the expense of creating a returnable container
program at his plant, plastic pallets and containers were costing way too much
money. They exceeded the budget laid out by the consultant in the first half year
of the program. Shrinkage of containers in the plant was something they had not
anticipated and many more containers were required to fill the system. And
tracking! Tracking the containers was turning into a nightmare. He wanted to go
back to the old system of corrugated cartons and wooden pallets he could just throw
I hear this litany from a lot of first-time returnablecontainer users. What
from my nap was when he mentioned, someday, somebody was going to do a lifecycle
analysis and prove that using all those plastic things was bad for the environment,
and besides, plastic reusable container programs were too expensive for second-tier
suppliers like himself.
My window of opportunity suddenly opened. First, any container, regardless
material, is reusable if it's returned. Let's not condemn a worthy idea. And next,
while the definitive paper-versus-plastic lifecycle analysis study has yet to be
done, there are a plethora of studies that support the benefits of returnable
The most recent of these studies to cross my desk is one commissioned by the
Reusable Pallet & Container Coalition (RPCC), (Washington, D.C.). The study was
undertaken by Franklin Associates (Prairie Village, Kans.).
The results of this quantitative independent life cycle analysis shows reusable
¥ Require 39 percent less total energy.
¥ Produce 95 percent less total solid waste.
¥ Generate 29 percent less total greenhouse gas emissions than single-trip
You're right, I've drifted away from the paper-versus-plastic issue. I think
more important to establish any type of returnable program and stop arguing about
what the containers should be made of. RPCC tends to be material neutral in its
approach to the subject of transport packaging, pallets and containers for material
handling. It believes the issue of non-reusable pallets or containers is a national
concern that leads to millions of dollars in waste each year.
The Franklin study selected 10 produce shipping scenarios to study and analyze
a 12-month period. On average, the results of all 10 of the applications studied
showed that in this case, reusable plastic containers were the way to go for the
reasons I've cited above.
The choice of produce shipping scenarios was a good one. Produce is challenging.
requires added energy for refrigeration and large amounts of fuel. Produce is
generally shipped long distances to its destinations. Also, reusable plastic
containers require backhauling, or return to the point of origin. Even with these
harsh parameters, the use of reusable plastic containers in the study resulted in
lower environmental burdens.
Environmental issues have increasingly come to the forefront of U.S. businesses,
governmental organizations, and local, state and federal legislatures. David
Russell, president RPCC, also president of IFCO Systems (Bartow, Fla.) says, given
that produce applications present the most challenging conditions for favorable,
these results "bode well for other applications in which reusable transport
packaging is a current or potential packaging option."
The purpose of the study was to evaluate the energy, solid waste, and atmospheric
and waterborne emissions associated with reusable plastic containers compared with
display-ready common footprint corrugated boxes. It examined the entire life cycle
of each system, including extraction of raw material from the earth, material and
container manufacture, outgoing transportation of containers, backhauling and
washing of empty reusable plastic containers, recycling of corrugated boxes and
reusable plastic containers, and end-of-life disposition.
If it's objective, valuable data you need to make the most informed decision
possible regarding packaging options and the benefits of reusables, this study
deserves your attention. Jeanie Johnson, RPCC executive director, says RPCC will
continue to provide more studies, more data, and more industry information in a
credible, objective manner.
"With the results of the Franklin study," says Johnson, "we
can give policymakers
and potential end-users the information they need."
The report notes that one factor dominates the findings. Multiple trips in
reusable plastic container closed operating system lead to efficiencies that create
relatively low environmental burdens only partly offset by backhaul and cleaning
steps. Container reuse with closed-loop recycling at end of life is more efficient
in reducing not only solid waste, but energy use and greenhouse gas emissions,
compared to lighter-weight containers recycled after one trip.
An executive summary of the study and fact sheet are available on the RPCC
So I guess the argument remains: Why should you be interested in this if you
buy into the global warming issue or the importance of the Kyoto Protocol? The one
thing missing from the Franklin study is that adopting a returnable container
program makes common sense because it makes cents. Paying for something you already
own a second time, like shipping containers, doesn't make senseÑno matter how you