The shipping container is an integral part of the supply chain, as it holds the actual physical goods that travel along the said chain. The type of packaging, the material it is made of, and what it is used for, are all factors that the supply chain actors have to consider. The materials that the container can be made range from quotidian cardboard to sophisticated steel and plastic composites. This paper focuses on the three most commonly used materials, which are paper-based corrugated cardboard, wood, and plastic. There is no single best solution to every possible supply chain, as there are tradeoffs among the three materials. This paper will explore the possible applications of each material, its strengths, weaknesses, and the global trends that may influence the choice.
The cheap and accessible cardboard box is widely used as secondary and tertiary packaging. This type of packaging is made from paper-based materials and is easily cut and formed into what size or shape is necessary for a particular product. Of the three materials, cardboard is the easiest to handle, procure, and utilize. The cardboard is also very light, making it cheaper to transport. With these advantages, however, come the downsides, particularly its low structural integrity. Corrugated cardboard is not suitable for transporting heavy goods, it is not resistant to the elements, and its reuse potential is very limited.
Paper is biodegradable, so there is little concern for the used cardboard polluting the planet for hundreds of years. On the other hand, producing the cardboard for the boxes releases a relatively large amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, making it not the greenest of options. Their end-of-life stage is reasonably green, as they can be recycled into paper fibers (Abejón et al., 2020). That, however, is still less efficient or environmentally friendly than using the same package several dozen times, as is the case with plastic.
Out of these advantages and disadvantages emerge the preferred uses for the cardboard boxes. First of all, they can be used for transporting small and light goods that do not require a sturdy container. Second of all, they can be used by less wealthy businesses that would value the cost-efficiency. Third of all, they can be shipped in secure, dry vehicles, as moisture does not bode well with paper-based materials.
Paper-based material’s only advantages over the other types of packaging are its low price, ubiquity, biodegradability, and ease of handling. It can be argued that with technological advancement, as plastic becomes biodegradable and more available, cardboard could be gradually phased out. Its primary disadvantage is its low capacity for reuse, which people are beginning to recognize is a significant part of the global sustainability drive.
The sturdy wooden crates and pallets are a logistical staple for several reasons. Wood is easy to work with, and the crates can be customized as the optimal tertiary packaging for the particular product. They can bear heavy loads, especially if constructed with strength in mind. They can be used many times, and are easy to repair or strip down and rebuild if the situation requires it. However, wooden crates are also heavy, and they take up space when not in use. They require tools to open and seal, and specialized equipment to move and load them. As they are often used for long periods, a unique hazard is a fungal growth.
According to Snyder and Worobo (2018), fungi that produce mycotoxins are often found on wooden crates. Cardboard boxes also suffer from that problem, but they are much less likely to be reused enough for the fungi to take hold. The wooden pallets are the industry standard for use, along with all other types of packaging. According to Kočí (2019), in the particular case of pallets, wood is a more environmentally-friendly and less toxic material to use when compared to plastic. It also allows more load capacity than plastic and is more efficient.
With all that in mind, the primary use for wooden crates is the repeated transportation of large and heavy goods over long distances. They are durable and can withstand harsher conditions than cardboard. The industrial standards of wood-based containers are aimed at ensuring adequate protection of goods and resistance to stress (Andreolli et al., 2017). In the case of pallets, wood is the material of choice most of the time. On the other hand, wood may be a poor choice in food and medicine supply chains. Both pallets and crates are subject to fungal growth, which is not conducive to food and drug safety.
Plastic is, perhaps, the most reusable material of all three. It is not as durable as wood, and it cannot bear as much of a load, but it is sturdier than cardboard, providing a middle-ground option, durability-wise. Its strengths lie in that it can be easily molded into a variety of shapes for transporting a variety of different goods. It can also be reused up to several hundred times, especially when washed and handled carefully.
Abejón et al. (2020) note that multiple-use plastic containers create significantly lower carbon emissions than cardboard, and their recycling also makes less of an impact. Although plastic is greener than other materials when handled properly, it is not biodegradable. If its end-of-life is mishandled, it becomes a toxic and hazardous alternative. The end-of-life part of the plastic product’s life cycle is usually when its environmental benefits come at the forefront. Kočí (2019) presents similar findings, as a secondary plastic pallet is at its greenest when appropriately recycled, especially when compared to improperly handled wood. Plastic is also not very durable and difficult to repair.
Of the three packaging materials, plastic has the most potential, as some researchers note. Kočí (2019), in particular, suggests that plastic pallets will outclass wood when sturdier plastic becomes available, combining the low weight and high load capacity. Similar conclusions can be made for wooden crates and cardboard boxes. The hypothetical future plastics that are incredibly durable, cheap, light, versatile, biodegradable, or easily reusable will outperform the other two materials, combining their strengths and discarding their weaknesses.
In the present, however, the biggest argument in favor of using plastic shipping containers is their lower environmental impact due to recycling or reuse. A particular area of application that plastic excels at is the food and medicine industry, as plastics are safe, resistant to fungi and elements, and can be molded into convenient and small shapes. Plastic is widely used in primary, secondary, and tertiary packaging. The only thing more ubiquitous than a cardboard box is plastic wrap.
The three commonly used materials in supply chains are paper-based, wood-based, and plastic-based. Each come with their own sets of advantages and disadvantages, which dictate their areas of use. Paper-based cardboard is cheap and plentiful, but soft, making it primarily a single-use material for smaller goods shipped in secure areas. Wood is durable, easily rebuilt and reused, but hard to handle, heavy, and prone to fungal growth. Plastic is convenient, reusable, and recyclable, but toxic if mishandled, and somewhat brittle. All of these materials have their uses, and every actor in the supply chain has to consider their particular situation to choose well.
Abejón, R., Bala, A., Vázquez-Rowe, I., Aldaco, R., & Fullana-i-Palmer, P. (2020) When plastic packaging should be preferred: Life cycle analysis of packages for fruit and vegetable distribution in the Spanish peninsular market. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 155, 104666.
Andreolli, M., Corradetti, D., Cremonini, C., Negro, F., Piazza, M., & Zanuttini, R. (2017). Italian Standard UNI 9151 – a New Approach to the Design of Industrial Wood Packaging. Drvna Industrija 68(3), 267-273.
Kočí, V. (2019). Comparisons of environmental impacts between wood and plastic transport pallets. Science of The Total Environment, 686, 514–528.
Snyder, A. B., & Worobo, R. W. (2018). Fungal Spoilage in Food Processing. Journal of Food Protection, 81(6), 1035–1040.