Sustainability / Reading time: ~ 7 Min.

Sustainable packaging in logistics

What makes packaging sustainable, and how environmentally friendly is the Euro pallet? Is there packaging that does not generate waste? Find out at a glance how the German Packaging Act and Dual Systems are already ensuring greater sustainability and learn more about general considerations in packaging.

Sustainable Packaging: Cradle to Cradle (C2C) starts at the manufacturing stage

The principles of sustainable packaging require that raw materials used for packaging can be “returned to the biological or the technical cycle”. This means that sustainable packaging should be:

  • recyclable or…
  • biodegradable

The concept of recycling existing raw materials in such a way that they can be fully reused was first described as the Cradle-to-Cradle principle by chemist Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart and William McDonough in the 1990s. In a 2018 Interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit, Braungart explained how  plastic itself was not a problem, it was rather the way it was produced that was problematic: "We would have to get the PVC out of the plastic if we want to make it more recyclable. We could, for example, use PET for all packaging. That would give us a mono-material we could work with and reuse. Recycling would be profitable; the result would no longer be inferior - it could even be of higher quality than the initial product.”

Currently, industry has not yet reached the point where packaging produces no waste at all. To make industry behave as sustainably as possible, companies that put packaging into circulation are presently required to take it back, sort it, and precisely manage and report how the raw materials are recycled. These regulations are laid down in the Packaging Act which has been in force since 2019 and is constantly being updated. Anyone who fails to comply with this legislation will risk fines - or even a prohibition to market their products. It is clearly worth it to think early about how materials will degrade or recycle, for example, when it comes to choosing transport packaging.

At DHL Freight sustainable packaging and operations are a priority. As a strong logistics partner, we can analyze supply chains from consumer to packaging, helping customers to be more sustainable and find future-proof solutions.

More sustainable packaging - a key aim for DHL Freight.
More sustainable packaging - a key aim for DHL Freight.

The Packaging Act: more efficient packaging, meeting recycling quotas

The Packaging Act (VerpackG) replaced the 1991 Packaging Ordinance. The new legislation tightens the requirements for manufacturers, retailers (online and brick-and-mortar), and importers. The Packaging Act aims to establish a recycling quota for packaging while making the recycling of used packaging efficient, ecological and consumer-friendly. Not only does it regulate the materials used in packaging, it also encourages avoidance of waste through a judicious choice of packaging material. What are the implications?

New developments in packaging, to look out for

  • Anyone marketing packaging or packaged goods in Germany for the first time must ensure in advance that the packaging is going to be collected, sorted and recycled after use.
  • When developing new packaging solutions, the raw materials should be selected in such a way that they can later be returned to the raw material cycle for recycling in accordance with the cradle-to-cradle principle.
  • Financial aid will be made available for the development of sustainable packaging solutions.

Your packaging needs a license!

  • Companies placing packaging on the market in Germany for the first time must license it with a dual system, such as the Green Dot - even if it weighs only one gram! Companies then pay a fee to the licensor for collecting, sorting and recycling.

You have your license, now you need to register your packaging!

  • New packaging must not only be licensed, it also needs to be registered. The central control authority responsible for the registration of packaging is the Central Office Packaging Register.

Registering/licensing of packaging: whom does it affect?

The Packaging Act affects all manufacturers and importers of goods. It also applies to online retailers who want to add packaging such as shipping boxes.

  • The legislation covers most of the packaging, specifically, the packaging that ends up with private consumers and becomes waste there. This also includes restaurants, hotels, doctors, hospitals, educational institutions and offices of freelancers or small craftspeople and agricultural businesses.
  • Using the quick check the Central Office Packaging Register provides, manufacturers and retailers (online and brick-and-mortar) can quickly and easily find out whether they need to register and license packaging with a dual system.

And then? Even after registration/licensing, companies still have obligations…

  • The quantity of packaging actually put into circulation must be reported annually, both to the dual system and to the Central Office Packaging Register.

Unregistered or unlicensed packaging, what are the consequences?

  • Companies and dealers who do not comply with the regulations, for example, by not licensing or registering their packaging, face fines and their products might be forced off the market.

The one exception: Packaging for industry and trade!

For packaging that remains mainly with retailers or industrial customers, the obligation forlicensing and registration is waived. However, packaging must be taken back. The supplier and the client can agree on the modalities of the return and/or on the costs for disposal among themselves.

Amendments to the Packaging Act: What will change by July 2022?

The Packaging Act is currently being amended to comply with EU requirements and will go through a three-step change process that terminates in July 2022. Experts such as the Deutsche Verpackungsinstitut e.V. (German Packaging Institute), Research institutes such as the Fraunhofer Institut für Materialfluss und Logistik  (Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics) and representatives of the dual systems have contributed and have made sure that the legislation will further promote the circular economy. What will change specifically? Here’s an overview: 

Binding as of July 1, 2021

With the first stage, new regulations have come into force. There has been a change to some of the information that needs to be provided when the packaging is registered. Companies domiciled abroad will be able to grant powers of attorney to fulfill their obligations.

Binding as of January 1, 2022

In the second stage, a mandatory deposit will be introduced for disposable beverage containers. From December 2021, detailed information will be available on the Homepage of the Central Packaging Register.

Binding as of July 1, 2022

The biggest change will take effect in mid-2022 and will touch many areas.

  • The obligation to register packaging solutions for all companies that put into circulation packaging filled with goods is being extended.
  • Final distributors (e. g. department stores or supermarkets) will be obliged to register their service packaging.
  • It will be mandatory to provide information on all possible packaging types during registration.
  • Logistics service providers, digital marketplaces and online platforms are being given new responsibilities.

Dual systems: Ten suppliers have been approved

The Central Office Packaging Register maintains the LUCID packaging register to create transparency and legislative clarity. This register permits to track packaging that has not yet been licensed with the dual systems, so that all of the costs for recycling and recovery can be attributed to the right source.

This video shows how the system works - from registration and licensing to recycling:

Anyone who puts packaging into circulation can choose from several recycling systems. At present ten dual systems have been approved by the central body:

  1. BellandVision Ltd
  2. Der Grüne Punkt - Duales System Deutschland GmbH
  3. EKO-PUNKT GmbH & CO. KG
  4. INTERSEROH Dienstleistungs-GmbH
  5. Landbell AG für Rückhol-Systeme
  6. Noventitz Dual GmbH
  7. PreZero Dual Ltd
  8. Reclay Systems GmbH
  9. Veolia Umweltservice Dual GmbH
  10. Zentek GmbH & Co. KG

The Packaging Act of 2019 sets out detailed recycling rates. For 2022 the following rates for recyclable materials have been specified:

  • 90 percent of cardboard, paper and cartons
  • 90 percent of iron and metals
  • 63 percent of plastics

Packaging of goods in transit: This is how sustainable it can be

A sustainable approach to packaging is also required for goods in transit. This means at the very least: As much packaging as necessary, but as little packaging as possible. What is good for the environment is good for the budget! Currently, common transport packaging includes pallets and transport cages, stretch films, shrink film and shrink hoods.

What makes a transport package great?

These transport packages (covers, fixings, boxes, etc.) are a guarantor of sustainability and quality:

  • Packaging made of raw materials that can be returned one-to-one to the biological or technical cycle
  • Reusable packaging such as heavy-duty boxes or pallets
  • Packaging that contains combinations of materials that are easy to recycle
  • Packaging made from recycled materials - Packaging made from renewable raw materials such as paper, cardboard or carton

Innovative packaging solutions: What’s new in research?

Sustainable packaging and filler materials are high-tech products that are constantly being fine-tuned. A lot of challenges remain. That is where awards such as the German Packaging Award come in: They provide incentives for the development of new packaging solutions. In 2021, the following three innovations have stood out in the sustainability category:

  • Recyclable stretch sleeves (bottle labels): CCL Label has been recognized for its closed-loop system, in which the sleeves are almost completely recycled. In the process, CCL takes back the sleeves from the bottling plant, removes the ink and recycles the substrate into new sleeves.
  • Padding made of cardboard instead of PE foam: Smurfit Kappa has been awarded the packaging award for an environmentally friendly cardboard fixing pad that protects fragile products such as pumps and filter cartridges during transport. The jury particularly liked that this single-material solution made from 100 percent recycled materials generates significantly lower CO2 emissions than solutions made from polyethylene (PE) foam.
  • Clean reusable bucket with peel-off film: Saier Packaging Technology has developed a bucket with a peelable inner liner. The liner is removed after use and the bucket can be reused without cleaning.  At the end of its life cycle, it can be recycled. This innovation conserves resources and reduces hazardous waste.

The Euro pallet: Long-lasting with a small ecological footprint!

Of course, we mainly use Euro pallets for our transport needs. Due to their long and sustainable life cycle, and the exchange system in place, they have a very small environmental footprint.

Uwe Brinks, CEO DHL Freight

Many goods are transported on pallets. Depending on how they can be lifted, we distinguish between two-way and four-way pallets. Four-way pallets are particularly stable and can be used again and again. The Euro pallet is standardized. It measures 120 x 80 x 14.4 centimeters, its unladen weight is about 20 to 25 kilograms, but it can carry up to 2000 kilograms! It costs from ten euros upwards and lasts about six years, on average.

Sustainable and robust: DHL Freight relies on Europalette for transport
Sustainable and robust: DHL Freight relies on Europalette for transport

Most pallets are made of wood. One advantage of plastic pallets is that they can be cleaned. However, this does not make them more hygienic in the full load carrier cycle, according to a study conducted for the  Bundesverband Holzpackmittel, Paletten, Exportverpackung  (HPE) e.V. 2020 (German Wood Packaging, Pallets and Export Packaging Association 2020), by the Institute for Wood Technology Dresden. According to the HPE, looking at the entire life-cycle, wooden pallets have a significantly better energy and environmental balance than comparable plastic pallets. No water is used in the production process, and they are never treated with wood preservatives.

A wooden pallet that can no longer be repaired or used, can be recycled and incinerated without any problems - as stipulated in the Law on Life-Cycle Management . Pallets with plastic footings [PE1] are more difficult to recycle, and plastic pallets generate more than twice the amount of industrial waste, according to the HPE.

A positive CO2 balance for wooden pallets

The German National Committee of the European Pallet Association e.V. (EPAL) has been calculating since 2013 how much carbon dioxide is saved by the production of EPAL Euro pallets in Germany. Wooden pallets generate enormous CO2 savings because:

  • CO2 from the atmosphere is stored in the wood.
  • Wood waste from pallet production is used in the drying process.

EPAL calculates total savings of 27.51 kilograms of CO2 per pallet. Since 2013, this has resulted in savings of over two billion kilograms - and that's just for pallets produced in Germany. Globally, the value is thought to be twice as high, as reported by EPAL Germany.

How can supply chains be made sustainable?

DHL Freight accompany their customers in their journey to more sustainability in logistics. We offer analysis of supply chains, innovative packaging solutions and use transport vehicles powered by alternative fuels - feel free to contact us. We accompany you step by step and find innovative ways tailor-made for your company.

With our new Sustainability Roadmap and our Sciences Based Targets we have adopted scientifically validated CO2 reduction targets. We have pledged to invest seven billion euros in green technologies until 2030.

Uwe Brinks, CEO DHL Freight

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