The drive for more circular logistics

Plastic is often painted as the villain of pollution and wastage but all kinds of packaging material, including board, paper, shrink and bubble wrap, are wasted and discarded, every day. In a recent article, Ruari McCallion writing for Eureka, the online magazine for the materials handling professional, investigates the issues and looks at the latest sustainable solutions and implications for materials handling and logistics. Below is an abridged version of the original article.

Whilst the industry has benefited enormously from the growth in plastic packaging, the environmental cost has been huge and continues to be, and a number of developments mean both logistics and materials handling are now under pressure to improve their game. Only 30% of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is currently recycled despite efforts for kerbside collection, so major users such as Coca Cola are investing in systems to make packaging easier to recycle and improve collection. This will be welcome news to eco-conscious consumers and the environment, but the development of genuinely circular logistics requires a far stronger collection infrastructure and maybe an abandonment of previously cherished technologies. New ones need to be investigated, such as MarinaTex, an alternative to LDPE (low density polyethylene) based on fish skin and scales, and compostable with normal garden rubbish.

A number of manufacturers are putting forward a return to cardboard, paper and paperboard as appropriate in environmentally sensitive times. While superficially appealing, there are a few challenges to overcome with these, such as leakage. To make the packaging capable of handling liquids it needs to be built into a composite structure, to include a waterproof layer, usually a polymer. If the proportion is more than five per cent then the material will not be considered recyclable and so some companies are now looking into developing solutions to deal with this, such as Sonoco, working with Kellogg’s in the UK.

The infrastructure is developing, and there is room for more active involvement by the logistics and materials handling industry. However, it won’t necessarily be simple. Changing from the familiar plastic packaging – which is a robust, easy-to-handle delivery medium, to softer materials and maybe more complex and fragile packaging – could be expensive and time-consuming. It could also require investment in capital machinery to achieve it.

Whether it is simply a matter of introducing a collection and baling operation, paying someone else to do it or developing new activities to open new revenue streams, the reality is that logistics and materials handling professionals must pay attention to the challenges of reducing waste in the first place and then building the circular logistics economy.

To read the full, unabridged article on sustainability and the drive for more circular logistics, please visit the online magazine Eureka.

Recycling requires collection and sorting of materials
Recycling requires collection, first, and then sorting of materials.
MarinaTex is a compostable plastic based on fish skin and scales
MarinaTex is a compostable plastic based on fish skin and scales.