Sunday, December 13, 2009

Put Packaging On A Diet

Are you frustrated with wasteful product packaging received from your IT equipment vendors? Then you share a concern voiced by most everyone I talk with.  Yet zero waste packaging is achievable with a focused effort by our IT equipment suppliers to:

1. Eliminate unneeded items

2. Right-size the remaining packaging

3. Sustain with green packaging that is reused or recycled. 

Voice of the Customer

"We have had to hire a prt time person one day a week just to dispose of this stuff in as green a manner as we can." Rick, Government Agency

"Software licenses were sent in a large box bubble wrapped inside a cardboard envelope! Surely in this digital age something like this could be communicated electronically?"   Steve, IT Service Provider


"Plastic bubble wrap, empty cardboard spacers inside of cardboard boxes, surrounded by foam peanuts, and topped off with documentation that nobody will ever read or use - it's ridiculous! Maybe we need to start packing this excessive waste up and ship it back to the manufacturers just to make a point." Stephan, Large DC operator

"A typical server arrives with about five pounds of wasteful metal and paper. The extra manufacturing and shipping costs are extremely wasteful. If we, as customers, can figure out their motivation for adding these parts and not being more conscious of their packaging then we are more likely to be successful in pushing for a change." Simon, Financial Services


Letting the Bottom Line Go To Waste

Simon's comment --- The extra manufacturing and shipping costs are extremely wasteful --- is perceptive. If tracked in the ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system, the impact of packaging waste to the equipment provider's bottom line should become painfully obvious. But often, the packaging costs are buried and invisible making change difficult to initiate. The good news is that once engaged, many IT equipment providers utilize Six Sigma or other process engineering practices which is perfect for resolving this packaging problem.

Zero Waste Best Practices

1. Eliminate unneeded items from the shipment
  • Deliver all items virtually wherever possible (documentation, shipment info, licensing, etc)
  • Allow customers to exclude from an order any items that the customer will discard such as consumable components including cabling, grounding straps, and power cords.

2. Right-size packaging
  • Consolidate items and shipments to reduce total amount of packaging. Some suppliers provide services to assemble pieces or consolidate orders. To be effective, the vendor should offer consolidation for small number of units.
  • Protect product without over-engineering the packaging. Many packaging engineers are confident that all the packaging is needed to protect products from damage. They correctly assert that a damaged product is  also a type of waste that should be avoided. I agree, but suspect that there may be a bit more opportunity --- even if it is just educating those packing items to put items in the correct type of packaging and the smallest size package as possible. It would be great to never to see an item in too big of a container that then needs to be cushioned by extra materials. When assembling products in a rack, the rack itself provides protection and the standard packaging may be excessive. Static electricity protection bags (those pink bags) are redundant if using a static protecting box (or vice versa). 

      3. Sustain packaging
      • Use non-toxic materials that can be either continuously reused in primary commercial process without losing quality or composted to become nutrients for the soil. C2C (Cradle to Cradle) or similar certification.
      Eliminate all packaging that cannot be recycled.
      Consider packaging that can be reused. Most of the packaging is cardboard based, which has good recycling opportunities. But another approach is to use packaging that can be reused. A study found that a plastic crate that is reused has a much smaller carbon footprint then cardboard crate that was recycled. 
      Eliminate toxic chemicals used in manufacture of packaging such as glues and ink. For example, When cardboard is recycled, it first needs to go through a cleaning process to remove ink and other binding agents. Most traditional cardboard boxes use toxic inks and other agents and those toxic materials end up in the water. If the cardboard is not recycled --- about 35 percent of corrugated cardboard is not according to EPA studies --- it ends up either incinerated where those toxic chemicals are released into the air or in a landfill where those toxic chemicals leach into soil and ground water.
      Increase amount of recycled product to 100%. Although cardboard can be recycled, even if a business or individual diligently puts in on the curb for recycling, it may not be recycled if there is not a market for it. By purchasing recycled cardboard, a business supports a viable market for recycled cardboard.
      • Help customers to reuse and recycle by 
      Making boxes and other packing materials easier to breakdown.
      When processes are immature, work together with other technology vendors and recycling service providers to establish new recycling methods. For example, pallets are not mainstream and are sturdy enough to be reused often. Some technology providers provide packaging pick-up, but it is difficult for customers to sort and segregate each vendor's packaging. Another approach would be to uncrate when delivered so packaging is returned immediately for recycling.
      • Provide a mechanism for customers to provide feedback.
      • When reviewing options, we all need to ensure that environmental impact is reduced and not shifted to another process.
      Next Steps

      At my day job, I have partnered with the IT Director to work with our vendors. Stephan suggested that a dramatic act is required to get the vendor's attention --- Maybe we need to start packing this excessive waste up and ship it back to the manufacturers just to make a point. We agree that it is always effective to make an abstract concept concrete; so we plan to take pictures of the excessive waste as we receive orders and share those with the vendors. Sometimes it is difficult to imagine what is possible, so we are hoping to find  examples of green packaging as well. 

      In addition to the individual follow-up with our vendors, my goal is to work with industry organizations to consolidate customer feedback, recommend best practices and share with IT vendors. Mark Thiele, Founder and President at Data Center Pulse, a non-profit focused on data center best practices, has agreed to help champion this with IT DC vendors.

      For any IT vendor readers, I realize many are interested in improving packaging and some have started dealing seriously with this issue. The community would be thrilled to hear the results of your efforts and plans.

      Join with me to share your stories and recommendations on how to improve packaging. Working together, we can achieve Zero Waste. 
      Data Center Pulse An open source community where data center operators share best practices, work together to define innovative solutions to influence the broader community 
      Study comparing carbon footprint of plastic to cardboard
      ZeroWaste organization

      Related Posts:
      eBay helps its sellers to green their packaging

      Amazon thinks outside the box to eliminate "clamshell" and other excessive packaging

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