Eric Hiser, vice president of ISTA, the International Safe Transit Association, talks about finding the right balance in packaging. 

Huge pressures are being placed on businesses across Europe, from governments and consumers alike, to reduce usage of non-recyclable plastics. One quick step that companies often take to reduce plastics is to cut levels of packaging. 

It can seem effective and prove a bold statement – packaging is very consumer-facing and years of overpackaging can mean that a reduction in levels of packaging materials is extremely noticeable and perceived as favourable. However, as companies make quick decisions and shift from using too much packaging, they can arrive at a problem of underpackaging, which rather than improving environmental compliance, has the opposite effect.

What matters is the overall system of how the components that make up packaging work together in conjunction with the product. A common trend in the industry is there’s too much focus on the volume of packaging materials used. If companies want to reduce waste and their environmental impact, it’s more effective to take a strategic view of packaging. There’s four key areas to striking the packaging equilibrium: damage prevention, cube optimization, material choice, and collaboration and evaluation. Achieving this balance can reduce costs and resource usage. 

Damage prevention

Striking the balance between product protection and sustainability can be a daunting task especially when product damage is the least sustainable packaging option. A complete loss of both the product and packaging can be avoided however, when the correct design tools are leveraged such as pre-shipment distribution testing. Pre-shipment distribution tests enable a means of validating a packaging design prior to going to market and avoids exposing not only your product but the brand image from potential supply chain blemishes.  

In addition, pre-shipment distribution tests aid in optimizing packaging by establishing a means of evaluating multiple designs and materials to a standardized performance threshold. Distribution test standards set performance thresholds for complete packaged-product systems by translating real world hazard levels into controlled laboratory tests. They are predictive tools that help packaging professionals understand the risks within a particular supply chain. 

Cube optimisation

Reducing packaging volumes can mean more products are transported per square metre. This is a win, win for companies throughout the supply chain as fuel efficiencies are realised. Carbon footprints and direct costs can be significantly reduced, while delivery times optimised as transportation becomes streamlined. To achieve cube optimisation isn’t as simple as cut packaging, save space. It requires robust testing and analysis to simulate the whole supply chain – storage, handling and distribution - to determine the stresses a packaged good will be exposed to and what performance characteristics are required of the packaging. 

Material choice

The common mistake that many companies make is to pick a material based on one desirable characteristic. For example, they may decide to switch from plastic materials or foams, believing these to be less environmentally compliant. However, such packaging solutions may use less resource during their production, reduce the volume of packaging required to deliver product protection and can even be reused. By considering the full life-cycle of the packaging material, the environmental and economic costs of producing it, and how reusable or recyclable it is when it has served its purpose, businesses can make an informed choice. 

Collaboration and evaluation

All elements should be considered in equal value when it comes to designing packaging solutions, then evaluated in turn. Installing a standardized framework, such as the International Safe Transit Association’s (ISTA) Responsible Packaging by Design (RPbD) Guide, to provide guidance through responsible considerations at the design stage will ensure positive results are achieved across these areas of the packaging system. It will also provide an overall more efficient and sustainable packaging procedure for a business.

Working towards a packaging equilibrium

Each product is different, with chance of damage during transit varying. The real thing to emphasise is that using less plastic packaging will not necessarily reduce environmental impact unless all the proper considerations are considered. By being forced to reproduce an item, the cost of which vastly outweighs any benefit of underpackaging, is a real consideration business need to look at prior to implementing design changes.

Europe is a hub of international trade, and here at the International Safe Transit Association (ISTA) we are helping our members across the continent and beyond find this packaging equilibrium that will help the industry do their part for the planet in the long-term.