The Whole Package: 7 Ways Companies Can Reduce Packaging Waste

GM’s expendable packaging subject matter expert offers 7 tips to companies looking to reduce packaging waste.
Mar 24, 2015 11:35 AM ET

Packaging waste is an important issue businesses and consumers alike must address as it accounts for as much as 40 percent of all solid waste in municipal waste streams.

According to the U.S. EPA, residential, commercial and institutional users generate more than 75 million tons of container and packaging waste each year. Yet only about half of that waste is properly recycled, which means about 37 million tons of packaging waste ends up in a landfill.

At General Motors, we incur packaging waste as a result of shipping products around the country and overseas. But we’re committed to finding ways to reduce packaging waste before it even reaches our facilities. To learn more, we talked to Jeffrey Lazarz, a packaging engineer and GM’s expendable packaging subject matter expert, to give us the break down on how to cut down.

1. Lighten the load

Shipping materials, like wood pallets, can be heavy and add weight to an already large load. Extra weight equates to more fuel consumption and greater carbon emissions, not to mention extra shipping costs. Reducing packaging weight reduces impact on the environment and your wallet. In some cases we’ve swapped out wood pallets for reusable recycled-content plastic containers and have cut waste, weight and cost as a result. When they arrive, they can be reused throughout our network.

2. Use spatial reasoning

Rethink the way items are packed into a box to optimize space. For example, our team in Brazil added another layer of parts in a container, eliminating the need for 23 extra boxes. In another instance, they rearranged the packaging compartment design from a linear grid to a geometric pattern that took advantage of extra space, driving a reduction of 38 boxes.

3. Keep ‘em separated

If packaging materials are mixed, like a cardboard liner with a wood frame, stapling the two pieces together makes recycling inconvenient because the materials must first be separated. If mixed materials must be stapled, allow for “breakaway”: easy separation of the two parts. Stapling a cardboard post to a cardboard box, however, works because the staple will easily by pulled out in the recycling process.

4. Source responsibly

GM works with a supplier overseas that provides the wheels for GM vehicles. They are shipped to a warehouse in the states where the wheels are repackaged in recyclable contianers, and then sent to a plant. We’re working with this supplier to use recyclable material to ship the products directly to the plants. By eliminating the middle warehouse step, you also slash cost and waste.

5. Design before you sign

In his role as expendable packaging SME, Jeff has the opportunity to work closely with our suppliers to develop uniform shipping specifications. This allows both ends of the supply chain to align their processes and operate more efficiently.

GM also provides guidelines outlining how to maximize the storage capacity of delivery trucks and cargo carriers. And because shipping is a significant cost, packing as many parts as possible in one load is key to saving fuel and finances. Reviewing packaging plans with suppliers before contracts are signed eliminates many of these hassles.

6. Make safety a priority

GM requires materials to be shipped in boxes with lids similar to shoe boxes so tape isn’t required to seal the item for shipping. When tape is used, an employee will have to use a knife to open the box, which can pose a safety issue. By making the safety of our employees a priority, a better shipping process is ensured.

7. Share best practices

We are committed to creating a system that works for all suppliers and collaborate often on what works and what doesn’t. After all, it benefits everyone to make recyclable shipping materials standard practice and share lessons learned. Developing a set of packaging standards saves time and money on logistics, and results in recyclable solutions that reduce waste.