Gateway reviews packaging options

The use of returnable transit packs is a clear way to reduce the environmental effects of packaging, a study for Gateway has concluded. But for primary packaging, the largest part of the packaging system in terms of both weight and energy consumption, there are no obvious solutions.

Gateway embarked two years ago on a programme to reduce the energy consumed by its packaging by 50% by 1996 (ENDS Report 192, pp 24-25). The company now seems unlikely to meet this target, in part because of the complexity of calculating the baseline, but more because of a change of emphasis from going it alone to working with the rest of the retail industry through the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD).

As part of Gateway's programme, the Landbank consultancy was employed to examine the use of packaging in its stores and identify areas where savings could be made. Some 4,200 tonnes of packaging pass through the company's stores every week. Information on a sample of 2,254 items was collected and analysed in Landbank's Paktrak computer model.

Primary packaging was found to make up 65% of the stores' packaging by weight, with transit packaging accounting for 29% and display packaging 6%. The grocery food sector was the major packaging consumer.

Landbank found a close correlation between the weight of the package and energy usage. It therefore concluded that the biggest savings in energy must be sought from primary packaging. And within primary packaging, plastics accounted for over half of the energy usage.

Besides light-weighting, use of single materials and simplification of design, there is no ready means of reducing the environmental impact of primary packaging. But Landbank has proposed that Gateway should set itself annual targets for a steady reduction in the environmental impact of primary packs.

Transit packaging accounts for 25% of Gateway's overall packaging energy consumption, with one-way paper and board contributing about 84% to the sub-total.

Reusable transit systems could provide part of the solution. But to make this work standardised transit carriages suitable for use on automatic production lines must be developed, says Steven Ridge of Gateway. The company is now working with other retailers on an IGD packaging source reduction committee to devise an industry solution. "We need to get the whole of the supply chain working together," says Steven Ridge. This may take some time because the IGD's work is at a very early stage. "If you want to get the whole supply chain along with you it will take a bit longer," says Kim Marrow at the IGD.

One pack being considered by Gateway is the MTS system developed by Schoeller International and the German retailer Tengelmann in 1992. This is based on a collapsible polypropylene box.

A life-cycle analysis just completed by the Fraunhofer Institute comes out strongly in favour of the MTS system for the German market as compared with corrugated boxes. Whether the same holds true across Europe is still being calculated, but Mike Coe, head of environmental packaging at Lever, expects the MTS system to be "environmentally superior to one-way systems."

But industry doubts have been raised. Lever, for example, questions the suitability of the system across Europe, and believes that the potential costs to manufacturers may be disproportionate to the environmental benefits.

Landbank's Paktrak model also looks at pollutants other than those associated with energy consumption, including releases to air and water and solid waste to landfill. It rates the various elements of the packaging system on "environmental impact points" (EIPs) - an approach based on the Swiss system of "ecological scarcity" on which there is some controversy (ENDS Report 209, p 21 ).

This approach to evaluating the environmental significance of Gateway's packaging gives a somewhat different perspective on plastics in primary packaging and paper and board in the transit sector. Plastics account for 54% of energy consumption but only 34% of the EIPs in primary packaging, while paper accounts for 84% of the energy usage and 96% of the EIPs in transit packaging. These figures highlight Gateway's quandary in basing decisions on energy consumption alone.

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