Sustainable Packaging in The Automotive Industry
3/3/2023 Industry Article

Sustainable Packaging in The Automotive Industry

Packaging in the automotive industry accounts for an important share of the industry's CO2 emissions. Reusable is becoming more important, but disposable solutions are also becoming more efficient.

The purpose of the solution is to protect the delicate MKC1 brake boosters manufactured by Continental during transport to Volvo Cars facilities around the world. The purpose of the Mondi solution is to protect the delicate MKC1 brake boosters manufactured by Continental during the transport to Volvo Cars facilities around the world.

If you want to make the automotive industry sustainable, you also have to think about the supply chain. According to estimates by the London-based non-profit organization Carbon Disclosure Project, around 18 percent of the industry's CO2 emissions are generated here. In addition, automobile production generates considerable amounts of waste. An average car contains around 10,000 parts. The parts are often produced in very different parts of the world and need to be transported considerable distances, for which packaging is needed. These must meet certain requirements, such as protection against impact or corrosion, transport of parts that are sensitive to the environment, but also process-optimized removal options in mass production. "These requirements can make it difficult to find packaging that is sustainable and at the same time efficient enough,” says Jan Oppermann, Head of Sustainability Practice at logistics consultancy 4flow.
So new solutions are needed. At first glance, reusable packaging  is in the lead sustainability-wise. Producers of disposable packaging, however, argue that cardboard boxes are the most sustainable for long transport routes. They are usually easy to recycle, are made of renewable raw materials and do not have to be transported further once they have fulfilled their purpose.

Reusable or disposable? It depends.

Johannes Fottner is a professor of Technical Logistics at the Technical University of Munich and works in the field of circular economy, among other things. In his view, whether reusable or disposable solutions are more sustainable depends entirely on the circumstances. “"Without Euro pallets and without the ISO standard container, global trade would not even be possible. And that's obviously reusable packaging.” On the other hand, he says, it makes no sense to ship reusable packaging empty halfway around the world again first in order to reuse it. “"No ship takes back 23,000 empty containers.” If you want a circular economy, you need a coordinated system, he says.
On the other hand, simple cardboard packaging is often not enough for many goods in transit, he says. “Think of bumpers, you need sturdy special load carriers for that,” says Fottner. The professor also disagrees with the argument that disposable packaging does not require further transport after use. The carton itself is disposed of after use. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have to be transported further. “After all, recycling rarely takes place on site.” Recycling also requires a lot of water and energy.

Thinking about the recyclable materials cycle

For Johannes Fottner, it's clear that the materials cycle must be considered in logistics. How can the packaging be reused by the recipient of the delivery? Can it be reused in a valuable way? “As soon as fewer resources are available, this will also have an impact on  prices, so the economic viability of reusable packaging will continue to rise,” says Fottner.
One approach is packaging pooling, which is increasingly being used in the automotive industry. Here, the same packaging is fed back into the cycle again and again and can be used by different companies. However, taking over these processes themselves is too costly for many manufacturers and suppliers. That is why certain service providers have specialized in providing reusable packaging for the automotive industry. The packaging is collected from the recipient of the goods by the service provider, cleaned, and repaired if necessary, and then returned to the cycle.

Innovations in design and materials

However, disposable packaging is also making great leaps  in development: one example is the Brakebooster Box by Mondi Wellpappe Ansbach, which won the Corrugated Board Innovation Award. Thanks to its special design, 18 brake boosters can now be packed instead of twelve using the same amount of material. This saves material and transport journeys. For Jan Oppermann from the logistics consultancy 4flow, there is still a lot of potential in disposable packaging. For example, lighter materials could be used to achieve greater sustainability: “For example, cardboard instead of metal or wood reduces weight and thus emissions while maintaining the same stability.” Filler material could be eliminated through improved packaging geometry or inflatable inner padding. In addition, more work should be done to specifically reuse disposable packaging -– in other areas or industries. Another starting point is the origin of materials. Here, for example, paper from sustainable forestry could be considered.
When it comes to reusable packaging, Oppermann sees many advantages in packaging made of expanded polypropylene (EPP), especially for sensitive goods in transit. “The material is 96 percent air, which also makes it very lightweight,” Oppermann says. “It is ideally suited for reusable transport packaging because almost permanent use is possible, even under harsher climatic conditions.” In addition, EPP is 100 percent recyclable.