Packaging Engineering — Going Green and Saving Green

If you've read the latest Spend Matters Perspective on the intersection of packaging sourcing and packaging engineering, you already have some practical tips that can save money and help the environment in the process. But this sort of thinking is not just an academic exercise -- it's already in practice today at some of the larger retailers and CPG providers. Still, not everyone is smiling -- at least not yet. A recent New York Times article suggests that changes in milk jugs at Costco might be good for cost and the environment, but consumers aren't happily chugging down the changes. I should note before digging into the article that my family has been buying the new Costco gallon milk containers for the past few months and have had no issues with them (though I'll admit they take some getting used to).

The new milk jug design eliminates the need for manual stacking and loading of traditional containers and custom-transportation devices (not standard pallets). Rather, "a machine stacks the jugs, with cardboard sheets between layers. Then the entire pallet, four layers high, is shrink-wrapped and moved with a forklift." The entire process eliminates thousands of gallons of water that the milk providers and stores previously used to clean the old-fashioned containers and milk carts. But the real savings has come from labor and fuel. To wit, Sam's Club estimates that the jugs have cut labor by half and water use by 60 to 70 percent. More gallons fit on a truck and in Sam's Club coolers, and no empty crates need to be picked up, reducing trips to each Sam's Club store to two a week, from five -- a big fuel savings. Also, Sam's Club can now store 224 gallons of milk in its coolers, in the same space that used to hold 80."

Sam's has passed on some of the savings to consumers, lowering the cost of milk per gallon by 40 cents, at least in some stores. But not everyone is happy. Some customers don't like how the new jugs tilt and pour milk and argue that the new design can lead to spills. But I am personally quite satisfied with the shape, which fits better in my apartment-sized refrigerators where every inch counts. I'm more than willing to give up the gallon junk in favor of this new design given the green benefits. After all, there's no use crying over a few drops of the white stuff that result from the new containers as you get used to them. Still, I long for the recycled glass milk jug of old -- somehow, it made the milk taste better.

Other retailers and CPG companies can learn from Costco's and Sam's lead in the milk redesign. What other types of products are ripe for this type of thinking? All beverage products currently in circular glass or plastic containers present an excellent cost reduction opportunity. In addition, companies should consider packaging scrap programs that help recoup the excess material used by their suppliers -- sharing in the savings. You see, going green is not just about spending more and justifying the environmental cost / benefit of an investment. It's about saving money, even if it requires selling customers on change in the process. Curious to learn more? Check out the Spend Matters Perspective here.

- Jason Busch

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