We are all too aware of the damage done by single-use plastic to the natural world, with life in the world's oceans being at particular risk. According to National Geographic, new plastics waste is created at the rate of 275 million tonnes per year and, staggeringly, 75 per cent of all the plastic ever produced has become waste. While the EU's Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD) has had some positive impact – with plastic straws, cotton buds and cutlery banned, for example – there is a long way to go. And the supply chain, where plastic pallet wrap is a large source of single-use plastic, has largely slipped under the radar. It takes roughly a football-sized amount of stretch wrap material to secure an average pallet load and, once used, this plastic is then discarded.
Disadvantages of pallet wrap
If environmental gains alone are not sufficient incentive for companies to switch away from using pallet wrap and plastic banding, there are other benefits too. Firstly, the cost of stretch wrap soon mounts up, with an average roll costing 8 euros and each roll wrapping an average of 12 pallets. Then there's the time taken to perform the wrapping process, as well as unwrapping the load later in the supply chain. Manual wrapping can lead to strain injuries and loads being improperly wrapped, which can result in costly product damage. While automated wrapping machines largely avoid these issues, the process still takes around a minute to perform. An alternative to pallet wrap is provided by multi-trip pallet lids, which can feature retractable straps with integrated tensioning mechanisms, allowing the load to be fully secured in only 20 seconds. This is just one example of returnable transit packaging (RTP), which is generally manufactured from a durable material, such as moulded polypropylene or corrugated plastic.
Recent research predicts the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of the RTP market to be over 7% for the period 2021-2025, with growth in the food sector and pharmaceutical market (through an ageing population) being among the factors at play. The role of the pandemic, which has accelerated the growth in e-commerce, is less clear. While the health crisis and lockdowns meant higher demand for RTP in pharmaceutical supply chains, grocery home delivery and click-and-collect services in general retail, this has been somewhat offset by the increased demand for single-use packaging for most e-com deliveries.
This highlights the key barrier to the adoption of RTP: the supply chain needs to function in a closed loop for RTP to be a viable option. Where supply chains are linear – generally with a consumer at the end – the switch to RTP is harder to implement. RTP has been established for years in certain sectors such as the meat trade and pharmaceutical wholesale because they operate closed loops, where the totes or trays can be returned in an economical way and the original investment in multi-trip transit products can be recouped. What the final impact of the growth of e-commerce will be is not yet clear. As the network of High Street shops declines, so does the role of RTP in the form of totes and dollies being shipped to retail stores. On the other hand, however, the rise in e-com orders – which are relatively labour-intensive to fulfil – is boosting demand for warehouse automation, which in turn increases demand for standardised containers in distribution centres, as automated systems perform well with this type of RTP, which can also be specially designed for smooth and silent running on conveyor systems. If the future retail landscape sees the rise of hyper-local fulfilment, this will no doubt boost demand for RTP to keep micro fulfilment centres in urban areas supplied with goods.
Benefits of RTP
Although single-use packaging has a lower upfront cost, is more flexible for product changes and generally requires less storage space, RTP brings environmental gains via lower energy use compared to the manufacturing and recycling processes necessary for single-trip packaging. It also affords greater product protection – unlike cardboard, which is susceptible to moisture and impact – so results in less product damage in transit. For even greater green benefits, RTP can be produced from recycled materials. Some 70% of Loadhog's products are manufactured from recycled material, for example, and RTP can itself be recycled around half a dozen times before its strength is diminished.
Although there is not, as yet, regulation in place to incentivize companies to implement RTP in their supply chains, some organisations have decided to do it in order to meet their own sustainability objectives. It requires some determination and innovation to implement a circular process but it can be done. For example, some of the largest e-commerce companies are requiring their suppliers to deliver goods to their warehouses with pallet lids instead of pallet wrap, with 3PLs being required to return the lids to suppliers. Perhaps governments need to shift some of the focus from waste reduction to other ways of achieving environmental gains, including increasing the amount of RTP used in supply chains.
As the UK’s leading authority on automated material handling with over 60 members, AMHSA seeks to accelerate the adoption of world-class intralogistics automation across the UK supply chain. Visit www.amhsa.co.uk, call 07517 610514 or email [email protected]