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Reusable insulated shipping packaging : how do they benefit the environment?

05 December 2017

In a previous article, we saw that the financial benefits of a reusable cold chain packaging, when compared with a single-use packaging, are not as obvious as they may appear. However, there is another point to be considered: what is the true impact of a reusable temperature-controlled packaging solution on the environment? Here are a couple of examples.

refrigerating packaging, reverse logistics cold chain, environment

A lower carbon footprint with reusable cold chain packaging

As a source of reference for this article, we have chosen the study by Kai N. Goellner & Eph Sparrow: 'An environmental impact comparison of single-use and reusable thermally controlled shipping containers'. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the environmental impact of a reusable packaging solution transported via the cold chain in comparison with a single-use solution . The study takes account of the extraction of raw materials, the  manufacture, assembly, usage, transportation and management of the end-of-life of the temperature-controlled packaging.

Overall, this study demonstrated that, throughout the life cycle of insulated packaging (production, usage, end-of-life management), reusable packaging solutions emit significantly less CO2 than single-use solutions , regardless of whether they are made of polyurethane or polystyrene.

sustainable insulated packaging boxes, reusable packaging, environmental impact

Comparison of the environmental impact of a reusable packaging solution and single-use solutions made of polyurethane (PUR) and polystyrene (PSE) throughout their life cycle.

Mono- or dual-configuration insulated packaging: any difference as far as the environment is concerned?

In order to reduce transportation costs and to simplify usage, pharmaceutical laboratories and the 3PLs (Third-Party Logistics companies) tend to use reusable mono-configuration solutions. These can be an attractive alternative if the cold chain packaging are not being transported empty and provided that they are not subject to thermal failure while in use.

However, from an economical and ecological standpoint, the most practical insulated packaging solutions are bi-configuration temperature-controlled packaging.

It should also be noted that the environmental aspect is not confined to the way the box is used. Indeed, temperature-controlled reusable mono-configuration packaging solutions require materials whose production and recycling have a significant ecological impact, that is to say that their emissions of CO2 can sometimes be as much as 10 times higher than a multi-configuration insulated packaging solution.

The bi-configuration insulated pallet shipper: an ideal solution

reusable insulated pallet shipper, temperature-controlled bi-configuration container

Multi-configuration reusable insulated pallet shipper

In some instances, the reuse of insulated boxes can enhance profitability and their carbon footprint. Let’s take the case of a Swiss laboratory, which despatches pharmaceutical products via the cold chain – by air – from France to the United States and from the United States to France.  As we were told by the Quality Manager of the pharmaceutical laboratory, the objective is twofold: 

“Our aim with these consignments is to be in a position to reduce transport costs while simultaneously reducing our ecological impact. In 2015 we decided to opt for a very large reusable bi-configuration pallet shipper. Mono-configuration packaging solutions often represent ‘overkill’ in terms of quality and this is not always necessary as it means that the packaging solutions are heavier and more expensive and, therefore, economically unattractive.”

The insulated containers were used five times, with a quality check on each journey performed directly by the laboratory staff, trained beforehand by the Quality Department: 

“On each journey we carried out a precise check of the temperature, allowing us to guarantee the conformity of the method of transportation.”

This reusable insulated packaging solution enabled the pharmaceutical laboratory to optimise its logistical costs while minimising the quality requirements. According to the Quality Manager: 

“This project is a real success for our laboratory. It has enabled us to reduce our transport costs by 30%, thanks to this bi-configuration solution.”

#EliteWorldTour: very positive feedback for a reusable mono-configuration insulated packaging 

mono-configuration packaging, cold chain box

The route taken by the Elite reusable insulated packaging

In September 2017, Sofrigam launched the #EliteWorldTour operation: a reusable insulated packaging from our Elite product range was transported around the world in order to test its strength and its thermal efficiency during successive shipments. 

The packaging, comprising a polypropylene outer casing and a combination of insulating materials made from polyurethane and VIPs (vacuum insulated panels), was fully capable of withstanding specific handling, storage, loading and unloading operations. A quality check, based on a precise process, was carried out at each stage in order to guarantee the thermal efficiency of the insulated packaging prior to its next shipment.

Feedback from our thermal efficiency experts concerning this #EliteWorldTour operation demonstrate that the reuse of a temperature-controlled packaging can be viable if a strict quality process is applied, with regular checks of the packaging by qualified staff. 

Nonetheless, from an economic and ecological standpoint, a preliminary study of the logistical circuit of the packaging is necessary in order to determine its profitability.

Having trouble deciding which insulated packaging solution? Contact our experts to discuss your requirements!

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