A supporting role

15th of October 2010
A supporting role

Support services such as transport, distribution, logistics and storage all have an important impact on a company’s sustainability. Ann Laffeaty looks at how companies are reducing their environmental impact in these areas.

Many companies are now buying heavily into the concept of sustainability. They are sourcing raw materials wisely and taking care to manufacture their products with regard for the environment. Factors such as energy use, water use and waste management are being considered and organisations are increasingly focusing on their social corporate responsibility in terms of their employees and the wider community.

But once the manufacturing process has been completed, the distribution of the products can also have a major impact on their overall sustainability.

One organisation striving to play a part in reducing the impact of cleaning supplies delivery is INPACS. This distribution group has an extensive network of warehouses and lorries across Europe and provides integrated services with the aim of improving efficiency – in the economical and ecological sense.

According to managing director José Del Pino: "Sustainability plays a key role within INPACS' integrated procurement solutions. By using the full capacity of our vehicles and optimising routes we are able to minimise the environmental impact of our logistics.”

The lorries that arrive at INPACS’ warehouses contain products from one manufacturer only and the full capacity of the vehicle is used. “In order to fulfil customer demand we put all requested articles together in one batch at our warehouse,” said Del Pino. “This means it is possible for us fill these huge trucks while also using the full capacity of our smaller vehicles for local distances. Fewer trucks on the road means less pollution in terms of noise, CO2 and particulate matter as well as less fuel consumed.”

The organisation is always looking to improve its sustainable logistics solutions. For example, INPACS in Germany will be taking delivery of three trucks with hybrid drives next spring. These are said to combine the advantages of a classic petrol engine with the sustainable benefits of an electric system.

“The new vehicles will form part a nationwide project to determine the viability of this type of technology for commercial vehicles,” said Del Pino. “We have been asked to test the vehicles under urban transport conditions in which multiple stops are made. At the same time other companies will be testing the hybrid engines under different conditions - for example on the motorway, or driving in the mountains.”

Also aiming to provide sustainable transport solutions is Euroliance, a partnership between three European contract cleaning companies. OCS in the UK, Onet in France and Gegenbauer in Germany have formed the alliance to offer a group package to pan-European clients.

Develop a common approach

According to European sales director Sebastiaan Parqui: “Logistics and transport are carried out on a regional basis but the issue of sustainability is very much on the alliance’s agenda. We are trying to develop a common approach in everything we do.”

Euroliance is continually striving to reduce its carbon footprint and the organisation uses electric cars where possible. “Onet has taken the lead but the other two partners are following closely behind,” said Parqui.

Individual actions being taken by the three organisations include a 'green' company car policy by Gegenbauer. “When the company buys or leases new diesel cars they have to be 'blue motion’ or 'blue efficiency' cars with reduced fuel consumption,” said Parqui.

Onet has a policy of persuading employees to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The company insists on the use of cleaner cars and urges staff to use public transport and choose train travel over air transport where possible. OCS meanwhile, runs an internal eco-driving training programme for commercial fleet drivers and is eliminating 'empty leg' journeys for deliveries.

According to OCS’s strategic accounts director and Euroliance director Tom Staunton, vehicles are 'backfilled' to ensure that return journeys are never empty. “For example, Cannon vehicles delivering new products to the service centre network bring back waste products for recycling and reuse,” he said. “This includes old stock such as warm air dryers, air and soap fresheners and also cardboard, paper, metals and plastics.

“We also use vehicle routing software and our transport policy requires daily vehicle checks to ensure that weights are within limits, tyres are properly inflated and loads are properly secured.”

According to business logistics director for SCA Tissue Europe AFH Ulf Berggren transport accounts for between five and 10 per cent of the environmental impact of a product’s life cycle. “We still consider it to be highly important in terms of our overall sustainability policy and logistics are considered with every new product launch or modification,” he said.

The company outsources all distribution of Tork away-from-home products and has no vehicles of its own. “This is more efficient because it removes the issue of empty-leg return journeys,” he said. “All our transport providers are expected to have a green logistics policy and are asked to fill in an environmental questionnaire.”

The company is continually investigating ways in which to measure its transport-related CO2 emissions and is constantly evaluating its order-taking processes to optimise truck fill rate. Pallet fit is a major factor in reducing the environmental impact of distribution, says Berggren. The company uses pallet optimisation software to ensure that its cartons fit well on to the pallet and that empty space is kept to a minimum.

“We also ensure our products are packed in as compact a way as possible,” he said. “The combination of compacting products and optimising pallet fit directly reduces the number of journeys required, allowing us to cut environmental impact and costs.”

The company aims to achieve a common packaging footprint across all its products. “If a distributor is sending various products to a customer – such as toilet tissue, hand towels and soap for example - they are going to end up with a mixed pallet,” said Berggren. “We aim to standardise our boxes so that more will fit on to the pallet. Even if the distributor is delivering other companies’ products as well, our standardised cartons will create a flat base on which other products can be loaded.”

Standardised boxes are also a better fit in the warehouse or storeroom, says Berggren. “By avoiding any wasted space at the distributor’s or end-user’s storage facility we are helping them to optimise their own resources and avoid them having to heat or light a larger space than they need.”

Also factoring transport into its overall sustainability policy is scrubber dryer manufacturer Nilfisk-Advance. “Transport is a huge part of our business,” said CEO Joergen Jensen. “We have manufacturing facilities all over the world and when we enter an agreement with a distribution supplier, part of the evaluation process is on environmental impact.

“On a group level we have a transport policy that insists on minimised emission levels for all our service and company cars. Our staff vehicles also need to have a minimum star rating in terms of safety and security.”

Kimberly-Clark has reduced the number of vehicles it operates by reconstructing the railway to its factory in Koblenz, Germany. “This has allowed us to take 2,500 trucks off the road,” says washroom director Don Baillie. He said the company strives to maximise every square inch of loading space in its vehicles. “This doesn’t just help cut carbon emissions, it can also make handling and storage easier for customers,” said Baillie. “For example, we have compressed our Scott Rolled Hand Towels so that we can fit 50 per cent more into a case. This means we can load more cases into our trucks and put fewer trucks on the road.”

Compression removes air from finished paper towel products and allows more to be placed onto a roll and more towels to be put in a case. “Compression offers benefits both in terms of sustainability and practicality,” said Baillie. “From an environmental perspective, it means more towels per load and fewer trucks on the road, while packaging waste is also reduced.”

Chemical companies find the packaging issue particularly frustrating because they need to use fleets of vehicles to transport plastic bottles containing heavily diluted chemical solutions. As managing director of Bio-Productions Mike James puts it: “For years we have been trying to find an economical way of delivering products that are 90 per cent water, 10 per cent efficacy. But if you make chemical products too heavily concentrated they will be harmful to health.”

The company has now developed a 'wine-box' style concept consisting of a pouch inside a cardboard box. The inner pouch contains a chemical solution that is more concentrated than in a traditional plastic bottle while still being safe to handle. Once the formulation has been used up, the box can be squashed flat and recycled. James says this will be more sustainable because the amount of liquid being transported on the lorry is reduced while the volume of waste is kept to a minimum.

The new packaging concept is being launched this autumn and will initially be expensive to produce. “Three plastic bottles is cheaper than one bladder in a cardboard box, so it will cost us money to get it up and running,” said James.

“But the products will take up much less space. We estimate that 95 per cent of space in our delivery vehicles will be taken up with product in the new packaging.”


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