Can Your Shipping Platform Turn Your Supply Chain Green?

Jan. 30, 2008
Companies need to consider their choice of shipping platforms in their green initiatives.

As executives endeavor to reduce their company's environmental footprint, supply chains have increasingly become a key area of focus. Improvements in transportation efficiency, operations, raw material selection and packaging are all topping the list of "green" supply chain initiatives. However, one area that has yet to receive adequate attention is a company's choice of shipping platform even though it has a direct impact on the success rate of all previously mentioned supply chain initiatives.

Shipping platforms are a form of tertiary packaging. While primary and secondary packaging serve to protect an individual unit and a group of units respectively, tertiary packaging helps to ensure the safe and efficient transport of large quantities of goods. As the industry embarks on "green" strategies aimed at packaging reduction, a company's choice of shipping platform will become increasingly important to help ensure the safe transport of goods. Thin-wall containers and boxes are inherently less sturdy and do not stack as well as more bulky packaging. Primary and secondary packaging should be designed and tested in conjunction with shipping platforms to ensure product performance and stabilization during transit. Load and pallet optimization should be approached as a system, not an afterthought, or load failure and product damage will increase, thereby negating the effects of packaging reduction.

When selecting or evaluating a company's shipping platform choice, companies need to consider the following questions:

  • Is the platform created from renewable resources that can be processed with low energy intensity?
    • Why? Non-renewable resources such as oil are available in a finite supply and cannot be replenished once depleted. The extraction and processing of raw materials consumes energy and produces greenhouse emissions that factor in to the environmental footprint of the end-product.
  • Is the platform built to last so that long-term asset reuse is an option?
    • Why? The responsible use of raw materials decreases the future raw material demands for repair and new production, and the reuse of assets prevents them from ending up in society's waste streams.
  • Does the platform design contribute to a reduction in incremental environmental burdens by generating supply chain efficiencies and reducing product damage?
    • Why? Shipping platforms can be designed to improve trailer cube utilization and unit load configuration which translates to a reduction in transportation miles. Advanced designs can also create energy savings from warehousing efficiencies and reduce platform-related product damage which translates to a reduction in solid waste burdens, unnecessary reverse logistics and re-manufacturing inputs.
  • What is the life-cycle environmental footprint of the shipping platform in terms of solid waste generation, total energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions?
    • Why? The environmental impacts should be fully analyzed and understood in the context of a life-cycle approach to avoid unintended negative consequences of decisions based on partial information. ISO 14040, part of the ISO 14000 international Environmental Management Standard, addresses the importance of and methodology behind the science of Life Cycle Analysis (LCA).
  • Does my supplier attempt to further decrease environmental impacts through organized Corporate Sustainability efforts directed at component recovery/recycling and production, transportation and operations improvements?
    • Why? A company's supplier base should share the same commitment and values as the company it is supplying, and opportunities to partner for exponential improvement should be explored.

So how do common industry shipping platform alternatives stack up against these criteria? Pooled wooden block pallets still remain the most eco-friendly option when analyzed against this set of guidelines.

Pallet pooling is the shared use of high quality platforms in a closed system. All ownership rights and associated maintenance demands remain with the pool operator as the platform travels through the supply chain as a "rented" asset. Non-pooled shipping platform options such as one-way whitewood or pallet exchange typically use a lower quality pallet that is designed for limited use in the supply chain with little to no controlled ownership, maintenance, and end of life management.

The benefits of pallet pooling align with the commonly known "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" principle.

Pallet pooling reduces burdens on the world's lumber supply and waste streams through responsible use of wood in products that are designed for repeated use & greater supply chain efficiency. Decreased pallet-related product damage further reduces environmental burdens.

Higher quality platforms that have a longer useful life are built initially. Continuous inspection, maintenance, and repair further prolongs the useful life of pooled pallets.

Controlled end of life management and a clear sense of ownership in a closed loop pool helps to ensure wood recovery, reuse, and recycling efforts are maximized to keep waste out of landfills.

Due to these benefits, life-cycle based studies show significant environmental savings potential in all categories of solid waste generation, total energy consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions with pooled wooden pallets versus non-pooled wooden and pooled plastic shipping options.

Wood pallet pooling has been practiced around the world since 1946 and in the United States since 1990. Aside from the economic and efficiency gains that traditionally characterize pallet pooling, it is now widely recognized for its contributions to environmental sustainability in the supply chain. In addition to the environmental benefits inherent in a successfully operated pooling system, larger, nationwide players are able to optimize service and delivery networks, transportation requirements, and manufacturing economies of scale, which further increases their savings potential over regionalized pooling companies.

Businesses wanting to reduce capital expenditures and improve supply chain operations should consider pallet pooling as a strategic option. Pooling not only delivers efficiencies unavailable in other pallet management systems, but also plays a major role in helping companies achieve their environmental sustainability goals.

Candice L. Herndon is the U.S. Manager, Environmental Sustainability for CHEP. CHEP is a provider of pallet and container pooling services serving the consumer goods, produce, beverage and automotive industries. It has an asset base of more than 285 million pallets and containers. For more information about CHEP, please visit:

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