Reusing Thermal Packaging

Shipper and component reuse supports cost control and sustainability.

David Vaczek
Senior Editor



AcuTemp Thermal Systems has launched a line of parcel-sized, prequalified boxes that use its proprietary VIPs for minimizing size and weight. For details see sidebar.

While the reuse of transport packaging and components can result in cold-chain cost savings, the practice is also environmentally sound.

As shippers weigh the advantages of returning packaging as a cost-control strategy, package systems and reverse-logistics programs are supporting more-sustainable shipping practices.

“Any successful reuse or reverse logistics system requires that the number of return trips offsets the overall increase in package and shipping costs while maintaining throughout the physical and thermal package specifications,” says Larry Gordon, president, Cold Chain Technologies (CCT; Holliston, MA).

“There are many logistics options,” he says. “Some customers’ reuse only the container itself, and replace the outer corrugate and refrigerants. Others recycle and reuse the refrigerants as well. Both require a robust system for return and inspection of components.”

“Our GTS-5420 prequalified pallet shipper is configured for reuse and easy component replacement to support its life cycle use,” Gordon adds.

Return and reuse rates will be highest in closed-loop shipping within a company’s distribution network, such as a drug firm shipping bulk product to its own distribution centers, Gordon notes.

With its Topa Packaging European partner, CCT offers depot service to support package reuse. Pharma firm customers such as distributors and packagers that receive pallet shipments from the drug companies will send the empty units to CCT or Topa Packaging for inspection and reuse. In these cases, the drug firms want the same shippers returned to them. “They don’t want cross use of the containers,” Gordon says.

Earning Credits

In the R-Value program that EnviroCooler (Huntington Beach, CA) launched last year with Eli Lilly and Amgen, clients return components of its BioSphere pallet shipper to designated sites within the company’s global manufacturing network. Tailored incentives include credits on new purchases containing the reused components.

Components that return undamaged are recertified for comingling in a new container. Component parts have to be returned within nine months from date of manufacture, says Carli Derifield, director, global marketing and projects, EnviroCooler.

“We provide the scientific backup for a nine-month shelf life of our polyurethane foam components, so if the components are returned within that shelf life, we can guarantee that any recertified component will perform as they did when they were originally qualified,” Derifield adds. “We know also that clients are reusing our parcel-sized shippers up to the nine months from date of manufacture, but we don’t have a formal program in place for them.”

While shipper and component reuse addresses firms’ transportation costs, customers are increasingly receptive to programs focused on sustainable use and disposal of packaging materials.

Entropy Solutions provides a program for reconditioning and reuse of its Greenbox shippers, to help customers eliminate packaging waste, besides driving down their shipping costs.

Envirocooler offers clients a “cradle to grave” program for disposal of polyurethane foam. The material can be shipped to 26 global locations operated by Sealed Air Corp. (Elmwood Park, NJ). The biostable and highly compressible foam is land filled, or burned for fuel at water-to-energy facilities.

“Rigid polyurethane (PUR) is a durable and reusable product when properly configured,” says Gordon. “Our KoolTemp PUR containers are film-lined, which enables users to replace the outer fiber or plastic shell while reusing the inner molded urethane insulation.”

“The EPS [expanded polystyrene] used in our KoolTemp line is an environmentally conscious choice of insulation that maintains a low-cost advantage,” he adds.

Solutions using alternative systems to gel packs and foam for temperature control offer opportunities for minimizing waste, but also might present challenges for package component reuse.

TCP Reliable (Edison, NJ) has focused on developing temperature-controlled packaging solutions that limit the amount of packaging required for clients. “Traditional gel packs, when combined with specifically engineered phase-change materials, are gaining traction in the industry with their ability to reduce the physical size and weight of the packaging” says Bill Hingle, director of marketing.

“In addition to the many benefits of reduced packaging, many clients look to reuse some components in their efforts to further reduce the packaging and associated materials costs,” he adds. “When all these elements are effectively combined, we create a win-win scenario for the client and the environment. Many of our pre-qualified shippers employ this philosophy, such as our TimeSaver 72 hour shipper.”

Hingle notes that prequalified solutions provide clients with the flexibility to deploy a qualified solution with a short time to market window. “This method also allows us to develop with the client an optimized design that even further reduces their packaging and shipping costs.”

Weighing Costs

For biospecimen transport, Therapak Corp. (Duarte, CA) uses semi-active shippers from NanoCool (Albuquerque). In supporting clinical trials, Therapak assembles and distributes custom-specific kits including unactivated NanoCool containers to the investigation sites. Investigators then activate the units for refrigerated shipment of specimens to testing labs.

Therapak is reusing NanoCool components, including the system’s vacuum insulation panels (VIPs), says Todd Gates, president, Therapak.

“We make every effort to create awareness at the customer level for material recycling, working closely with clients to establish approval criteria,” Gates says. “Biological specimen transport packaging content involves many recyclable materials such as EPS foam, polyurethane, and VIPs.”

“NanoCool [units] are inclusive of VIPs,” he says. “We have clients that tag and return the VIP portion for recycling into subsequent shipping systems, where we have seen up to three or four turns before the panels have to be discarded.”

Customers perform a recycling cost analysis to decide whether they want to recycle components. “The client has to analyze the costs associated with returning the recyclable components in comparison with the discount level granted by Therapak to integrate the component back into the shipping system price,” Gates says.

“There are costs on both ends, including our cost to receive and inspect the recycled item, that factor into the decision,” Gates adds. “Fortunately, there is also the green aspect weighing into the analysis these days. And we enjoy being part of that decision when the verdict is ‘yes, we will recycle.’”

One NanoCool component that can’t be recycled is the lid refrigeration system. The system generates cool air through water evaporation under low pressure.

“We have positioned the NanoCool as essentially a disposable system,” says Doug Campbell, sales manager, NanoCool. “We are introducing a new, more-durable VIP with a barrier film that will promote reuse.”

Configured by Therapak to support different kit configurations, the NanoCool shippers provide several advantages over standard gel-foam packouts, says Gates.

“With the NanoCool shippers, we can provide a uniform, standard solution, without the variability in package configuration and performance you find with traditional packaging,” Gates says.

Trial sites avoid the need for gel-pack preconditioning and packout. Packers need only to secure the NanoCool refrigerant system lid, and push a button to activate the cooling.

Although the NanoCool shippers are validated to ISTA performance standards, Therapak offers prequalification testing in its development services. Field testing includes flight and ground testing with recorders monitoring internal and external temperatures, Gates says.

The Biological Specimen Transport Association (BSTA) has developed testing profiles for validating packaging for biological specimens. These are dependable standards that may allow reduced development costs for packaging of bio shipments, Gates says.

“Clinical and diagnostic laboratory testing–based customers more and more are seeking validated packaging solutions,” Gates says. “[But] clients do not really want to go to the extent of testing against profile standards developed for the pharmaceutical industry.”

“We have studied the profiles available from BSTA and found them to be acceptable in terms of meeting the external challenges we have come to expect [with] air and ground transport carriers,” he adds. “We are comfortable copromoting the BSTA chamber-based temperature testing and validation services for the packages and shipping systems we develop with our customers.”


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