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Packing away the cardboard box – why the future of transit packaging is plastic

I denna krönika av Jon Walkington, Retail and System Integrator Sales Director, på Schoeller Allibert UK, får vi ett annat perspektiv på hållbarhet.

From raw materials to final destination logistics, supply chains are under more pressure than ever before. Whether retail, food manufacturing, pharmaceutical or beyond, the drive towards more transparent and sustainable operations is taking absolute precedence.

However, as we know, it’s not that simple. In the wake of a global pandemic, we are still seeing significant shifts in consumer behaviour and purchasing trends, which means speed, volume and consistent supply are still absolutely vital for commercial success. Competing in today’s fierce and rapidly evolving market can be a real balancing act.

One side effect of the global pandemic – which has streamlined many businesses by necessity – is a closer look at operational efficiency. With headcounts reduced to create more Covid-safe working environments, there has been fresh opportunity to analyse logistics and how effectively equipment is used.

For years, the plastic versus cardboard debate has continued for brands of almost every sector. When we look at the evolution of containers used to transport goods around a busy production floor or further through the supply chain, there have historically been advantages to both approaches – but the scales are continuing to tip in favour of plastics.

But why is that? Why are brands now seeing refreshed value from durable plastic containers in roles that have previously been filled by cardboard and cartonboard? The answer lies in changing conversations around sustainability and circular economies.

A more complex sustainability story

Like paper, cardboard is often perceived as more sustainable due to its biomass origin – but is that really the case? 

One of the most significant drawbacks to cardboard containers that are still found in intralogistics is that they have a very short lifespan. An unavoidable problem with cardboard is that it’s inherently less robust and durable than plastic. A simple route to disposal and recycling is great, but each time the production loop for the humble cardboard box restarts, it takes energy and CO2 in the recovery process itself, production and transit of the product from supplier to customer.

In this way, seeing cardboard as an inherently more sustainable product is somewhat of a false economy – it may be much simpler to recycle, but it’s undergoing this process much more often when compared to durable plastics. The Carton Federation of France estimates that through its lifespan, one ton of corrugated cardboard generates the equivalent of 538kg of carbon dioxide. In comparison, research conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency found that on average, the amount of energy used to create plastic is 40% lower than that of cardboard or cartonboard.

We must of course also consider the environmental impact of deforestation in the production of virgin or hybrid cardboard. While a lot of today’s cardboard is sourced from renewable purpose-grown forests before being felled, boiled or mixed with chemicals to create pulp, this isn’t the same across the board.

Like the consumers they serve, brands are getting under the skin of sustainability and understanding it on a deeper level. We see cardboard and assume that it’s automatically more sustainable than plastics, which have typically been scapegoated in media. The reality is that sustainability is complex and life cycle assessments (LCAs) matter. Cardboard being ‘greener’ isn’t necessarily true, it’s all a matter of perspective and how we’re measuring sustainability.

Cardboard shortages

One of the major benefits of cardboard for brands and their supply chains is its availability. Cardboard has been in commercial use for a long time, dating back to 15th centry China. Purpose-built cardboard boxes first came into use in the early 1800s, predating almost all other technologies we see today. It’s held enduring appeal – so it’s no wonder it’s still so common today.

This has seen as limitless potential – after all, trees can always be grown to create new cardboard. However, there has been a well-documented roadblock in the UK market. Through 2021 and beginning as far back as October 2020, corrugated cardboard has been in short supply, creating logistical issues and increasing prices. The knock-on effect for businesses has been sizeable as suppliers struggle to get raw materials and cardboard packaging back out into the supply stream. For many businesses that rely on swift, accurate and consistent internal logistics, no cardboard simply means no supply chain. In this commercial climate, durable plastic packaging has shone as a much more accessible alternative.

Focus on use and re-use

Both plastic and cardboard packaging can be employed in a closed-loop economy, putting them largely level in this regard. Where they differ is that durable plastics, such as the ones used to create Schoeller Allibert’s collection of nesting containers, IBCs, pallets and dollies, have a much longer lifespan of use.

Cardboard has certain advantages for the supply chain, but it relies on high volume of incoming packaging along with fast refuse collection. Aside from the increased energy requirements mentioned earlier, this takes time away from the workforce with additional processes and administrative steps. 

Speaking with our customers that have ‘made the switch’, durable plastic packaging can be a ‘set and forget’ solution, once in place it will last a long time before it needs to be replaced. Of course, when it does need replacing, Schoeller Allibert has recycling infrastructure in place to collect and recover it into new packaging. In fact, our business has become the first returnable transit packaging manufacturer to attain EFSA accreditation for its recycling process.  

In summary, we are seeing cardboard become a less attractive proposition for brands as the argument for recycled plastics becomes stronger. It’s no secret that the umbrella term of plastic has been treated as a villain by the media when it comes to sustainability, but this doesn’t tell the whole story. Brands that have moved their internal logistics to plastics are seeing real-time benefits and better protection of business operations.

At Schoeller Allibert, we specialise in helping businesses find the ideal solution from the production line to the warehouse and shop floor. With over 60 years of innovation, Schoeller Allibert’s product portfolio makes it easy to meet the changing needs of the market, uplift efficiency transparency and safety and create a more sustainable supply chain in the process.

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