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Why and How Logistics Could Be Your Best Sustainable Packaging Solution

I bet you have seen one of those pictures of beaches, rivers or seas covered of filled to the top with plastic. Or one of the pictures of fish bodies open and inside, guess what? More plastic. Even if you are not a person usually connected with environmental causes you most probably have seen one of those. Plastic has become one of the key enemies of the world when it comes to sustainable activism.

Plastic, aluminium, cardboard, paper and all the packaging we use (in abundance and in many cases in exaggeration, especially in the developed world) have always the risk of being wrongly and irresponsibly disposed. We, as society, fail to have enough or good enough collection and recycling frameworks in place, free of exploitation and corruption (that more the case of emerging countries). The solution may not be in changing the material of the packaging to more degradable ones.

Of course, in sustainability, all solutions are welcome. We need them all! And I praise the plastic and packaging industry for their most noble attempts. The Sustainable packaging Coalition alone has a dozen of projects going on their website at the date of this post. But, have you thought that your solution for your packaging problem may not be within packaging innovation? That maybe you don’t even need an innovative packaging.

Image by H. Hach from

Bioplastics, collection and recycling are good solutions and some companies are doing a great job innovating in sustainable packaging. You can learn about 26 start-ups on sustainable packaging in just one article. Businesses that used to be small startups are flourishing providing solutions like TerraCycle. All this is happening, although in many cases not without generating other problems as unnecessary land use, more CO2 emissions, competition for resources, excessive water usage, incremental agricultural negative impact, etc. But there are, depending on your business model (or possible future business model) and the size of your company and the design of your distribution network, other solutions that can be immensely more positive in its results. Solutions from LOGISTICS. TerraCycle itself includes a big work on logistics as part of their solutions and they are testing many more.

For small or medium size business, in particular for local business, logistics can play a decisive and definitive roll in eliminating the sustainability issues from the packaging of your product. This is even more true if you add the usage of small and alternative e-vehicles covering the last mile. Or at least reduce them into much smaller or simpler ones. You can read the words of Tom Szaky himself saying, “Refill has really hit a nerve; people are taking it quite seriously but also getting – and staying – excited,” and this can only be possible with logistics.

I am not only talking about selling products on bulk and refilling though, which many may argue that is not practical, although as mentioned above, that is an argument in many cases being debunked. It has been proved as possibly practical. And cheaper. I invite us all to not limit our thinking here. Below I offer three possible alternatives to make your business more sustainable and to get hidden of the burden of packaging as a pollutant.

Re-filling logistics service: yes, you saw that one coming, but… why is this not happening more? There is the convenience barrier to overcome, sure that. Now if you are a local business, and can get to know your customers very well, you can invest in creating a comfortable, convenient and satisfying logistics service for cleaning and refilling. This can work with personal care products like your sustainable, all-natural shampoo line or for home-made food items. It can work for beverages like to the local brewed beer brand or that locally roasted special coffee blend. It can work for cleaning products. Have you ever thought about making your food-delivery customer loyal by moving the container back and forth at each delivery? Well, that is possible.

IoT improved replenishment service: this is already coming with smart refrigerators and similar, but how this can be a logistics solution against packaging waste and pollution? If you are a retail chain, you can invest in servicing customers through a well-developed platform of combined-by-geographical-area demand and delivery plan that can be connected to IoT. You will become the seller of the choice now for a long time in the future. With that you can save a lot of packaging that otherwise would go with every individual order. You get it to be even more efficient when combining it with the usage of returnable containers. Just the fact you can consolidate orders in a neighbourhood making the deliveries to your customers before they even notice they would need what you are delivering will make them love you. That requires much less or no packaging.

Home-served (or other model) repair service: some countries like Sweden are promoting the re-use of items and stores selling repaired goods from clothes to furniture. This may require a complete shift in your business model in even a more radical way than the previous exposed options, but it can be tremendously positive impacting for the environment and socially, as repairs need hand labour which means jobs. This solution breaks the cycle of buy-use-dispose-buy_new and its endless packaging usage. It enables a new cycle of manufacture with quality and keep it, recuperating it many times, maybe even upgrading your product at each opportunity. This can be applied not only for clothes, shoes and furniture, but for many items as utensils, devices, tools, bikes, toys. You may now be thinking that this applies only for very small business, right? Or that this is a silly idea. Well, even IKEA is working on this direction and that is not such a small business is it? I would not call them silly either. These ideas do not eliminate all packaging, but surely they reduce its consumption.

I have many other ideas in my creative mind, some combine logistics with sharing-economy business models, others anticipate the evolution of 3D printing and other technologies, in a near future when maybe we all can become manufacturers using the service of workshops down the road from our house to bring home what we just bought as a code at an online shopping. No need for any packaging at all. Of course, you can tell me this is all beautiful, but it is not the world we live in today. I agree. Just I am in the business of creating a new world, one that is impossible now, and will become possible with ideas like that and people who believe in them. I can see the reality before it is created, and so can you. If you want to.

Of course, I don’t try to make my clients change it all night-to-day, transforming their business into some crazy futuristic disaster, but this is the kind of thinking I believe we need to enable. From smaller and simpler solutions: a change from plastic to paper here, a sustainable bioplastic usage there, an innovation in the product in the next case, and we can start thinking beyond. I try to help businesses with all those alternatives. I try to envision with my customers their business as the future will need them to be. Then, we create a step by step plan.

Do you have any challenges in making your packaging more sustainable? There are options out there. Maybe a new and innovative packaging. Maybe a new e-vehicles fleet equipped with IoT and returnable containers. Whatever it is you can do, know that there are alternatives. I am looking forward to hearing your opinions, ideas or about your problems.

Karime Abib is a sustainable business designer and the founder of AdvantiKA GmbH. You can know more visiting AdvantiKA’s website.

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