Sustainable By Design: Reducing Waste, Coming And Going

Conscientious manufacturers are cutting back on shipping materials to trim waste for customers.
Conscientious manufacturers are cutting back on shipping materials to trim waste for customers.

Sustainable By Design: Reducing Waste, Coming And Going

Sustainable By Design: Reducing Waste, Coming And Going

By Anne Cosgrove

Published in the February 2008 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Have you ever gotten a sinking feeling as you open a product that is 6″ x 6″ but has exterior package dimensions capable of housing an item much larger than that? After you get through the cardboard box, packing materials, paper inserts, and plastic strapping, you come to realize the packaging may actually outweigh the item you just purchased. If your building has a recycling program in place, that helps to reduce the impact on the environment. But if you do not recycle those materials, they go in the trash destined for a landfill.

Of course, suppliers need to ensure their product is delivered to the consumer in pristine condition; hence the plethora of protective materials. But do you ever think there must be a better way?

Some product suppliers have recognized the benefit that reducing their packaging waste has on the environment (and sometimes their bottom line). By decreasing the collateral materials used to ship their products to customers, they can prevent tons of waste from entering landfills.

In response to this overpackaging trend, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched WasteWise. This voluntary program, introduced back in 1994, provides free technical assistance to organizations that want to eliminate their municipal solid waste and select industrial wastes. The program also enables organizations to develop waste reduction programs tailored to their specific circumstances.

Part of the EPA WasteWise program is the Transport Packaging Challenge. The EPA defines transport packaging as any material used to protect or contain materials and products as they are moved from one point to another. Targeted items include boxes, pallets, wraps, slip sheets, bins, totes, drums, and bags. For this program, transport packaging does not include boxes, bags, bottles, or wraps that directly cover or protect the product and are not used specifically for transporting the product. Selected goals of program participants included eliminating unnecessary packaging, switching to reusable packaging, and reusing incoming packaging for outgoing shipments.

Virco Inc., a Torrance, CA-based manufacturer of furniture for education, joined WasteWise the same year the program was launched, and the company was designated a charter member of the WasteWise Hall of Fame in 2003. Through 2007, Virco had recycled more than 293 million pounds of materials; this figure represents all operations, not just transport packaging.

Randal Smith, vice president of marketing for Virco, explains one strategy the company uses to reduce packing materials. “We minimize transport packaging whenever possible by using a combination of cardboard and shrink-wrap that we call ‘no-pack.’ In contrast to enclosed cardboard cartons, ‘no-pack’ enables us to ship a greater number of units, with reduced packaging, for customers who specify this configuration.

“For example, we can ‘no-pack’ stacks of up to 18 four legged chairs, depending on the model; on the other hand, a typical enclosed carton will contain no more than four of the four legged chairs,” continues Smith. “Customers who repeatedly request ‘no-pack’ are happy with the way this packaging configuration performs for their shipments.”

Another furniture manufacturer that has been proactive in reducing packaging is Allsteel. Through a Rapid Continuous Improvement approach, the Muscatine, IA-based company has applied a variety of reduction strategies. When appropriate, products are bulk packed or blanket wrapped to minimize waste.

Over the past several years, Allsteel has reduced packaging for its overhead storage units by more than 90% due to bulk packing. More than 25 of the company’s product lines can be bulk packed.

Keri Luly, stewardship coordinator for Allsteel, explains that when chairs are blanket wrapped, one truckload accommodates 400 of those products, compared to less than half that number when using conventional packaging. The company has calculated that this method eliminates more than two tons of corrugated packaging per load. With this approach, “large orders need fewer trucks and use less fossil fuels,” says Luly, “which reduces greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the packaging left at the destination. It’s definitely a win-win situation.”

When products reach their end of useful life for a facility, there is once again the issue of waste headed for a landfill. Furniture and other items can be donated to needy organizations to prolong use. However, if that is not an option, or the products are too worn for another user, the ability to return them to the manufacturer for recycling is key.

Allsteel offers an end of life take back option for its #19 chair, a task seating product that is 88% recyclable. The company accepts any of these chairs back from customers to be disassembled so the parts can be reused or recycled to make new products.

Virco addresses end of life issues through its Take-Back program launched in 2006. The company accepts all manufacturers’ plastic chair shells, laminated work surfaces, and compression molded hard plastic components. (As part of this, Virco asks participants to commit to environmental education; to identify materials proposed for return; to prepare materials for shipment; and to be responsible for shipping costs.)

Smith recounts several Take-Back instances resulting in notable waste reduction. “Through a project with Palmyra Area High School in Pennsylvania, approximately 20 tons of steel were recycled. During our pilot project with Washington’s Kent School District, over eight tons of materials were recycled. And thanks to our project with the City College of San Francisco, 16 pallet loads of materials are now being recycled.”

To reduce a facility’s environmental footprint, specifying products made with environmentally friendly materials and processes is paramount. Facility managers can take one more step in the right direction by examining the waste diversion practices of their preferred suppliers.

Research for this article included information from Luly and Smith. To find out more about the EPA’s Waste Wise program (including what other suppliers participate), visit Also, find out how your facilities can reduce waste by becoming a WasteWise participant.

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