BlogSupply Chain Sustainability/Circular EconomyGreen supply chain management in the food chain means implementing sustainable cold chain transport.

Food production is one of the most difficult environmental problems the world faces. Fertilizers that are sprayed onto fields wash into waterways where they can cause toxic algal blooms and fish kills. Pesticides used on crops have a detrimental effect on pollinating insects like bees and butterflies. Livestock have been found to be a significant source of carbon emissions. Shipping food from the rural areas where it is grown to the urban markets where it is consumed takes vast quantities of fuel and compounds all of these issues. It’s clear that more must be done to increase the sustainability of the food industry. 

Yet green supply chain management in the food industry is a challenge that has mostly gone unmet. The global population is growing, and we depend on fertilizer and pesticides to keep crop yields high. The basis of the problem is that we do not yet have the means to meet the growing global demand for food in a sustainable way. Still, there is growing reason to believe that we may crack this problem through new technology and a change in our approach to agriculture. Until that time, companies looking to create a sustainable food industry supply chain are focusing on improving efficiency by reducing wasted fuel, packaging, and products.

Green Supply Chain Management in the Food Industry

Green supply chains should focus on recyclable and reusable packaging.The international standard for green supply chain management is (unsurprisingly) provided by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in ISO standard 14001. ISO 14001 is applicable to every industry, not just the food industry, and sets out the requirements for what it terms an Environmental Management System (EMS). Its stated objective is “to help organizations improve their environmental performance through more efficient use of resources and reduction of waste, gaining a competitive advantage and the trust of stakeholders.” This objective is often echoed in other green initiatives. Supply chain management for the circular economy is mainly concerned with reducing waste by reusing or recycling every possible material, from product packaging to shipping platforms. Reusable shipping materials can help prevent waste by closing loops and keeping materials out of landfills. Currently, one of the biggest environmental debates is how to build a circular economy that can keep plastic packaging out of the environment.

Inexpensive plastic wraps and containers are what make national and global food supply chains possible.

This issue is a big hurdle for those looking to establish green supply chain management in the food industry. Food is more dependent on single-use packaging than most industries for compelling reasons. Single-use packaging plays a vital role in keeping food fresh during transportation and safe to eat when it arrives. In fact, inexpensive plastic wraps and containers are what make national and global food supply chains possible. While it is possible to use containers made of glass or other materials to keep food fresh in the home, these containers add up to a prohibitive amount of weight for bulk food shipments, increasing the amount of fuel used and the carbon dioxide emitted getting food to market. In the long-term, truly green supply chain management for the food industry will require a very different approach to agriculture. In the near-term, it must focus on changing packaging.

Rethinking Packaging for a Greener Supply Chain 

Recyclable food packaging makes supply chains more green.Current initiatives to create a circular business model focus on redeveloping packaging for reuse by replacing disposable packages with more durable stainless steel or aluminum ones that can be collected after use, sanitized, and filled with new product. Current programs mainly focus on consumer packaged goods like soap and detergents, with only a few food items available. Many staple food products are not yet available through one of these programs, and the reason may be that shipping them safely without the use of plastic packaging isn’t yet economical. The solution for the food industry, then, is to make the recycling of packaging easier through the following means:

  • Avoid Mixing Plastics: Often, two different types of plastic are used to package a single product. Containers made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) often have lids made of polypropylene (PP). The two have different recycling processes, and when tossed into the same recycling stream must be separated by hand, making recycling more expensive and complicated.
  • Reduce Colors: Colors in plastics make them more difficult to recycle. Only very specialized recycling centers are capable of removing colors from plastics. In order to make plastic recycling more feasible, multiple colors in the same packaging should be avoided, and it may be necessary to avoid colors altogether.
  • Avoid Exotic Formulations: Plastic like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) takes on different properties depending on what additives are introduced during manufacturing. This can make it very difficult to effectively recycle these plastics, as even slight variations in the mix can affect the properties of the final batch. Using blends of different plastic resins should also be avoided.

Food producers now need to think about an extended lifecycle that goes well beyond the landfill.

Green supply chain management for the food industry means thinking differently about the lifecycle of a product. Instead of focusing on the supply chain leg from the manufacturer to the consumer, food producers now need to think about an extended lifecycle that goes well beyond the landfill. Sustainable, circular supply chain models already exist that can serve as a guide for companies looking to develop these practices.

Green Supply Chain Management in Action

Reusable plastic pallets are greener than traditional wood pallets.Pallet pooling is a circular business model that has been successfully used for decades. Instead of purchasing and managing an internal supply of pallets, companies rent standardized Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) spec shipping pallets from a pallet pooling service that provides pallets where and when they are needed. When the pallets reach the end of one supply chain, they can be transferred to a nearby customer of the pooling service for continued use. This keeps pallets in use and out of landfills for a longer period of time and minimizes empty transportation legs in order to save fuel. These environmental advantages can be maximized by using plastic shipping pallets instead of the traditional wood pallets.

Plastic pallets are substantially lighter than wood, so they save weight and fuel.

When HDPE plastic pallets are used for pooling instead of wood, the pooling model becomes truly circular. Plastic pallets last far longer than wood and offer true cradle-to-cradle recyclability. They are also substantially lighter than wood, so in addition to saving wasted trips, they save weight and fuel. Plastic pallets, with their efficient model of use, reuse, and recyclability, provide an example of feasible green supply chain management in the food industry that offers immediate benefits.

iGPS is a nationwide pallet pooling program that specializes in HDPE GMA-spec plastic pallets. iGPS plastic pallets have true cradle-to-cradle recyclability and provide a safe and hygienic shipping platform that reduces food waste. To make the switch, give our team a call at 1-800-884-0225, email a specialist at [email protected], or visit our contact page.