Industrial packaging sustainability: the use and reuse of fibreboard drums

Phil Pease busts some common myths about fibre drums and explains the different between recycling and reuse

Environmental awareness and concern is at the highest level ever – no longer the sole property of hippies or so-called ‘new-age’ activists. However, with so many confusing and often conflicting statements and opinions, it is perhaps understandable that many people simply do not know what the best practice is or considered what is truly ‘sustainable’.

Industrial packaging has an excellent and enviable historical record for safety and environmental efficiency, on a truly international scale – from the days of repairing wooden casks to the current high-tech, multi-trip composite designs.Greif fibre-drums1

One key sector has, however, seemingly been overlooked, as it has quietly been getting on with business without the spotlight of publicity, despite an incredible record for safety and also as one of the most environmentally efficient and sustainable packaging products available anywhere; the fibreboard drum.

Using kraft fibre, produced from managed, sustainable forests and requiring a fraction of energy to produce compared with other materials, these drums are amongst the most cost-effective and efficient packaging types available on the market today.

As mentioned, in terms of their use and true environmental performance, there are a few misconceptions and market anomalies that need to be explored.

Myth one: fibre drums cannot be used for dangerous goods

This is easy to answer, as it is simply not true. There are a number of UN Certifications issued to fibreboard drums for manufacturers in the UK, Europe, USA and numerous other countries.

Myth two: fibre drums cannot be used for liquids

Another easy one – a number of manufacturers also have approved design-types that are specifically intended for liquids and make use of the latest barrier technologies to provide a very stable packaging that is ideal for liquid use.

Myth three: fibre drums are great, but unable to be stored outsidefibrepak-drums

Why not? Many fibre drum manufacturers have designs that are suitable for outdoors storage, alongside their plastics, steel and composite cousins.

Myth four: fibre drums aren’t suitable for recycling

Card and paper packaging products consistently achieve the highest recycling rates of any packaging materials – to the extent that, with recycling exceeding 80% in many countries, there has been an impact on the production of new raw materials! This would be a benefit for any other raw material – reducing the impact on earth’s resources – but is simply not relevant when the raw material can be grown, as with any managed crop.

However, it is a common error to say “recycling” when actually meaning “reuse”. These are actually very different environmental options. This is such a common error it requires clarification.

Recycling is the destruction of an item (often following cleaning to remove contamination or residual content), followed by recovery of the component materials to enable reprocessing into a secondary product. Even if this results in the same packaging type being constructed from the recycled materials, there is of course the energy requirement to be considered for all the processes, including; cleaning, materials separation and deconstruction, followed by reprocessing (melting, extruding, pulping etc) and the final production of the recycled materials into the product ready for use.

Simply put, fibre drums are suitable for reuse

To quote the latest ISO definition (ISO/DIS 21067-2: 2014 Packaging – Vocabulary 2.4.2) Recycling Process:

“physical or chemical process which converts collected and sorted used packaging, together in some instances with other material, into secondary (recycled) raw materials, products or substances, excluding energy recovery and the use of the product as a fuel”

Reuse is pretty much just what it says – simply using something again. This represents a much more environmentally and energy efficient option than recycling. After drinking from a cup, it would be madness to break it and recover the materials to remake it into another cup – simply clean it and use it again – repeatedly!

This brings us to a final consideration about Fibreboard Drums.

Myth five: fibre drums are not suitable for reuse

This is a more complex consideration than the other statements, as there is a difference between countries, markets and established practices. Simply put, fibre drums are suitable for reuse. The key question is: Is there a reuse market or system to enable reuse available to the end user?

In the USA there is an established market for fibre drum reuse – including reconditioning companies who clean and refurbish these containers to enable multi-trip reuse.

However, in Europe the reconditioning and reuse of fibre drums is not common practice. Why is this? There are actually no real barriers to the reconditioning and reuse of fibre drums in Europe. Considerations as to why Europe differs from the USA in this respect include:  low cost and ease of destruction for materials recycling; low cost of new fibreboard drums (due to lower raw material and energy costs), which creates a reduced margin for any refurbished items and hence this less attractive to reconditioners; market differences – with EU typically having higher specification, pharma/chemical products which are not suited to refurbished packaging; and established practices and national habits.

The above reasoning about why the reuse of fibreboard packaging is not more commonplace, can of course be easily changed through improved understanding and clarity of the actual capabilities of the packaging. However, resistance to change is a long-standing and very real barrier that may take some time and education to overcome.Phil Pease photo 2006 (2)

The fact remains that, in terms of cost, environmental efficiency and sustainability, fibreboard drums are one of the best options available and work extremely well alongside the various steel, plastic and composite industrial packaging currently available.

Phil Pease is the CEO of the Industrial Packaging Association

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