Packaging buyers are scrutinizing their purchasing decisions like never before. Although it offers a multitude of benefits, the corrugated box is either losing out completely to other forms of packaging or being pushed down on the packaging priority totem pole. Some examples of this trend:
• Office Depot is replacing about 5 million corrugated boxes with bags. The plan is to eliminate about 4.5 million pounds of boxes (average 0.95 lbs per box) with about 0.9 million pounds of paper. See sidebar for more details.
• In 2011, MillerCoors decided to eliminate disposable corrugated dunnage to protect products and center loads. Instead it used a line of reusable plastic cargo protection products. It saw savings of more than $8 million annually.
• Also in 2011, auto maker Honda eliminated 2.2 million pounds of corrugated packaging material.
Did Walmart Start This?
This concerted effort to eliminate packaging of all sorts (including corrugated) isn’t new. When did it start? Some might point to 2008 when Walmart, the largest retailer in the world, proclaimed it would reduce packaging 5 percent globally by next year. It developed a packaging scorecard and to date has collected packaging information on 329,000 of the items carried in its stores. This is an ongoing project.
But while Walmart was definitely a component of this shift, it’s predated by U.S. manufacturers looking to relocate their operations in a response to rising labor costs back in the 1990s, says Brian O’Banion, vice president, Fibre Box Association, Chicago.
“The [manufacturers] that stayed here had to find other ways to remain competitive and reduce their cost base,” he states. “At some point, probably in the late 1990s, market prices for goods stayed the same. There was increasing cost pressure to hold the line. So [box] suppliers began to feel more and more pressure to reduce their costs.” It’s important to remember that nowadays more and more manufacturers are studying their distribution systems and understanding them better, he adds. With that comes the opportunity to reduce their use of corrugated packaging, a move they could have made years ago if they had taken the time to better understand how their products move from their factories to the consumer.
No matter where the pressure originated, it’s here to stay. Early this year, NMI, a global market research and business consulting firm, reported in its annual study that 75 percent of Americans believe many consumer products are over-packaged.
Do designers at corrugated box plants feel these packaging pressures?
“It’s a common request,” says Kyle Desautels, designer, Box Maker, Inc., Kent, Wash. “Our customers not only want to reduce their impact [on the environment] but they also want their costs to be reduced. Most commonly what I get is customers wanting corrugated to replace other materials, to reduce the total amount of material versus reducing the amount of corrugated.”
Customers desiring to dispose of foam inserts or plastic in their current packaging is always good news for the corrugated box industry, which has been rightfully touting sustainability and recyclability for years now.
But as the FBA’s O’Banion notes, some box buyers have been used to ordering the same box (or boxes) for their product (s) for years.
“Sometimes you can look at [a customer’s corrugated box] and say, wow, we can really reduce what you’re using here,” Desautels states. “Maybe up to a 50 percent reduction in material. But more commonly it’s a few percentage points reduction, just making it a little bit smaller.”
In 2011 The Box Maker won a first place award as part of the Association of Independent Corrugated Converters’ design competition for the category “best use of corrugated replacing other substrates.” One of its customers had been using a miniature version of bed frame displays made out of wood and plastic. They would be used at trade shows. The Box Maker developed a completely corrugated bed frame display that was lighter and cheaper.
Peter Ledwinka, structural designer, Packaging Technologies Inc., Toronto, has dealt often with pizza carton customers who want to reduce corrugated use while maintaining the integrity of the carton. Designers usually meet this demand by shrinking the linerboard combinations, which reduces total fiber consumed.
“If they can advertise that they’re using less material, that’s always good for their profile, to say that they reduced packaging material,” he says.
Mid-Atlantic Packaging, Montgomeryville, Pa., has been reducing linerboard combinations, or lightweighting, for years now. Brian Tibbels, design manager at the independent box converter, agrees with the FBA’s O’Banion that old buying habits die hard.
“Customers get into a comfort level and they just keep ordering the same materials,” he says. “As long as pricing is in bounds, they’re fine. If the purchasing agent also has a couple of other duties, they’re fine with their boxes. They’re not collapsing so they just order them.
“But we found that old specs come in with real high linerboard basis weights that really aren’t needed. So we try to find lightweight linerboard or give them alternative designs that are stronger than what they’re using now.”
Corrugated point-of-purchase displays can take a lot of assembly time. For a retailer, that translates into labor costs. If a box plant can make a display easier to assemble and reduce corrugated board in the process, it’s a hero.
For example, Bennett Packaging, Lee’s Summit, Mo., had a customer present it with a toy display that had a lot of pieces and parts. It was able to eliminate about a third of the corrugated going into this display just by changing the configuration ever so slightly while keeping the same footprint and product count. In addition, removing those pieces and parts reduced costs.
Don’t Kid Yourself
While customers might tell their packaging suppliers that they want to have less of an impact on the environment, box designers see through the talk and know that cost reductions will always rule.
“It’s all driven by cost,” says Richard Prohl, a designer at Jet Container, Columbus, Ohio. “ Customers say, ‘Hey, we want to keep our costs down. Do as much as you can with as little as possible.’”
Of course, Prohl and his designing peers know that it does no good whatsoever to cut costs on a package’s design and then learn that package failed in the field. That’s why Jet Container has access to a testing lab.
“When we don’t need to go to the level of having a certified lab, we’ll simulate [tests] here,” he says.
“Certain customers do extensive testing,” states The Box Maker’s Desautels. “Some go to the point of testing every product. We can also test with the customer, drop it on the ground, interact with it.”
Mid-Atlantic Packaging has a certified lab (run independently from the company) that it uses to conduct production trials, build modules, and run specialty shipping tests. So it can provide its customers with pretty solid performance assurances.
Sustainability and the push to reduce packaging (including corrugated boxes) is no fad. At least once a month a major packaging user reveals how it has cut its use of protective materials. Corrugated box designers’ value lies in making certain these companies continue to get their products into the hands of consumers without any damage. PBP