January 2011 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Direct Shipping Cartons Evolve

Which wine shippers are safest, cheapest and greenest?

 
by Jane Firstenfeld
 
 

Most vintners start their search for sustainability in the vineyard, husbanding water and eschewing chemical applications. Progress advances in the winery, with improvements to processes, green construction, reduction of power usage or conversion to solar. Changes in packaging tend to emerge later: alternative glues and inks, lighter bottles or no bottles at all. Now that direct-to-consumer sales have become an integral profit center, winemakers are turning their attention to the lowly wine shipper.

The carton in which wine is shipped, and whatever is inserted inside to protect the bottles, may be the last links in the chain, but they are as vital as those that have gone before. If a wine shipper fails to deliver your wine to customers in pristine condition, all your previous efforts will have come to naught. This is not a sustainable position for anyone.

Like other packaging options, some suppliers now offer shippers that they claim are both greener and as protective as more established choices. We spoke to manufacturers, fulfillment houses and wineries to learn what they recommend and why.

Recycled foam

Except for decorative wooden cases, which are increasingly popular for premium wine shipments and technically re-usable but not recyclable, virtually every wine shipment arrives in a corrugated cardboard box. The difference is in the inserts that separate and protect the bottles during transport. Expanded polystyrene (EPS), commonly known as Styrofoam, is a familiar material popular for its lightweight, insulating and protective attributes. Formed from non-renewable fossil materials and generally unrecyclable, EPS has hardly been considered “green.”

Now, however, one packaging specialist has teamed with a materials processor to create the EcoSix line of shippers, using a minimum of 60% recycled content. Denver, Colo.-based ACH Foam Technologies produces WineLoc Packaging. It claims the EcoSix provides superior breakage and temperature-change protection, and projects it will “reduce material introduced into the supply chain by total actual weight of 240,000 pounds annually.”

Rapack LP of Oakland, Tenn., provides the not-so-raw materials. According to Ken Adams, VP of sales and marketing, EcoSix is a branded name for recycled resin that has achieved independent Green Cross certification. Rapack brings in more than 1 million pounds of used EPS annually from sources across the United States. Prior to shipping, the foam is “densified” to reduce the space required during transit, slashing monetary and environmental costs. As many as 40,000 pounds of densified material can fit into a standard 53-foot trailer, cutting transportation costs to 11 cents per pound.

Rapack puts material through a grinder, then shreds it into smaller pieces. Next, it is melted in an extruder: The foam emerges “like spaghetti strands,” Adams said. After cooling, it’s cut into beads by a rotary knife. In a final extruder, the recycled material is mixed with new resin, then cut into smaller “gassed” polystyrene beads. These are shipped to the ACH plant in McCaren, Nev., where they are molded into a variety of wine shipper forms and sizes.

“It’s technically impossible to have 100% recycled product,” Adams said, citing quality issues. “It took a lot of trial and error” to achieve the ideal balance. The recycled material comes from a variety of sources: “Some is post-industrial scrap, some is returned by consumers. We take scrap back from anywhere,” he said.

EcoSix EPS is, he insisted, endlessly recyclable. According to the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers (epspackaging.org), more than 69 million pounds of foam were recycled in 2008, including 34.6 million pounds of post-consumer packaging and 35.8 million pounds of post-industrial packaging. The alliance claims an average of 12% of the material is recycled. Its website lists EPS recycling drop-off locations in 40 states and Mexico, and provides instructions for mail-in recycling.

Currently, ACH produces EcoSix inserts in two-packs, three-packs and two different 12-pack sizes to accommodate differently shaped bottles and shipment configurations, according to regional sales manager Keith Baechle. Heritage Paper of Livermore, Calif., supplies the corrugated outer cartons. Baechle quoted typical cost for a 12-bottle case, including box and insert, at “less than $5.”

ACH deals primarily with fulfillment houses, including Winery Insider (wineryinsider.com, invino.com) an online, members-only wine retailer based in Northern California. “We moved from standard pulp to ACH in June 2010,” said co-founder Tony Westfall. The retailers felt that foam is more protective than molded pulp fiber and were especially drawn to foam’s thermal properties.

They liked the price, as well. “We’re saving about 15% over pulp,” Westfall said. That’s a substantial amount for a company sending hundreds if not thousands of shipments per week.

Pulp preferred
Vynapse LLC (dba Pack n’ Ship Direct) of Windsor, Calif., provides consumer-direct shipping services including warehousing, storage, fulfillment and packaging for some 250 West Coast wineries. Nohemi Flores, business developer, explained that wines come to the company’s warehouses from all sizes of wineries—sometimes in cases, sometimes in pallets. “We provide the shippers,” Flores said.

Pack n’ Ship will use whatever materials the client requests, but a conversation with Jeff Weiss, operations manager, and Rick Gant, from the company’s supplier Landsburg Packaging Plus, revealed a strong bias for old-fashioned, biodegradable molded fiber “laydown” inserts. Pack n’ Ship sources the familiar “egg carton” trays from Western Pulp Products Co., which uses a minimum of 99% post-consumer recycled paper, verified by Scientific Certification Systems, for its patented Vintner’s Choice wine shippers.

Gant, introduced as “more partner than supplier,” said bluntly that while his company can provide wineries with any current shipping option, “I would recommend pulp.” Though bulkier than corrugated inserts (a serious consideration for the smallest wineries), Weiss said that all-corrugated shippers are heavier, weighing down the bottom line and the carbon footprint by as much as two pounds per shipment. Corrugated manufacturers also have imposed “three major price increases this year,” Weiss said.

Although aware of recycled EPS shippers, Gant commented on the relative shortage of recycling centers for the material compared with paper products. He cited potential variables in Styrofoam and stressed the need for strong manufacturer quality assurance to ensure consistency, adding that EPS can be brittle. “When we do ship in Styrofoam, UPS will ship it back to us, but not for free,” Weiss added.

According to Weiss, EPS does not perform especially well in drop tests. “I’ve had more carrier complaints of broken bottles with Styrofoam. It appears there are some shortcuts taken in manufacturing, so it breaks apart.”

Corrugated qualities
The thermal properties touted by EPS fans can be a mixed blessing. While the material does provide protection from sudden heat spikes, it also retains heat longer in the container: Once the temperature goes up, it tends to stay up. For shipments en route to hot climates, this can literally cook a case of wine in the back of a delivery van.

“We did some research,” said Sean Brosnihan, guest services manager at Jordan Vineyard & Winery in Healdsburg, Calif. “Our winemaker Rob Davis wanted to change (shippers) for some time. We did some research and found that while Styrofoam would insulate, it also retains heat.”

Jordan, a long-time Alexander Valley landmark producing some 90,000 cases annually of high-end Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, sells about 8% of its wines direct to consumer, either at its chateau-like, by-appointment-only tasting room or via online orders, according to Lisa Mattson, communications director.

When evaluating shippers, “First and foremost, you want to protect the wine. Pulp is good for the environment, but it changes temperature more quickly” than Styrofoam, Brosnihan observed. Packaging broker Denise “Dee” Mulligan, owner of Deepack Inc. of Santa Rosa, Calif., has been working with Jordan for some 20 years, Brosnihan said. “She knows that Styrofoam is not eco-friendly.”

Mulligan suggested a switch to updated corrugated EcoShippers with corrugated divider inserts. “She gave a couple of samples to our warehouse manager. I was kind of skeptical, but the cardboard was better than I expected,” Brosnihan recalled.

He subjected the samples to the drop-test. “I put some of our $5 employee wine into leftover bottles, put them in a box and sealed it. I held it in the warehouse at arm’s length and dropped it—on its side, on its corners. The wine was intact: (The cardboard) is pretty sturdy stuff. We’ve been using it now for close to six months, and I haven’t heard one single issue.”

The cost, he said, is about the same as what the winery had paid for Styrofoam, and because the boxes and inserts fold flat, they take up less storage space. Jordan has used in-box heat sensors to verify the temperature stability of its shipments, and, Brosnihan said, the winery sells the packages to visitors from non-direct ship states, who take purchases home as checked baggage.

What differentiates the EcoShippers from other packages, according to Mulligan, starts with the material: always recycled, usually in brown kraft that eliminates the need for bleach and other paper-processing caustics. More than recyclable, cardboard is 100% biodegradable, she emphasized.

The box and insert are fabricated simultaneously, which improves the stability of the dividers, Mulligan explained. The rigidity of the box comes from internal reinforcements activated when the flap is sealed, putting weight on the insert. The boxes ship pre-assembled but flat for easy storage and rapid packing.

The corrugated material is government-rated puncture-resistant up to 275 pounds per square inch and can be customized with artwork if desired, although Jordan does not use any, and Rick Gant of Packaging Plus recommended against the practice. “The majority of what I see are not branded, to prevent pilferage in shipping,” he said.

“In my opinion, and my customers’, this box’s allure is that it’s environmentally friendly, with no thermal retention,” Mulligan said. “It’s not reinventing the box; basically, it’s a step back.”

Pick your package

The three basic types of wine shippers each have environmental, economic and protective advantages. Wineries embarking on direct-to-consumer programs, or planning a change for any reason are advised to weigh their options carefully before making the fateful decision: Will it be paper, pulp or plastic?

 

 
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