Various goods, various solutions

Sustainable supply of goods from a packaging point of view


Context and relevance

To improve the sustainability of last-mile logistics, it is also important to study the flows from the campus. One of the major outbound flows is the flow of waste, of which packaging forms an important sub-stream. Hereafter, we not only focus on the sustainable disposal of packaging, but also on preventing this flow.

Research question

Which variables influence the choices made regarding a sustainable packaging flow?

Research approach/method
  • Literature review (e.g. Science Direct, Google Scholar, etc.);
  • Radboudumc case study; interviews, observations, measurements, data files
    • Radboudumc: users products, internal logistics department, purchasing department, environmental coordinator;
    • Suppliers of cooled and frozen medical products;
    • Packaging producers, packaging solution providers (incl. “no packaging”);
    • Logistics service providers



    Several variables influence the sustainability of this packaging flow, incl. the packaging material, method of packaging, aggregation of demand, and method of disposal.

    The design of the supply chain affects the opportunities for making packaging more sustainable. Fig.1 shows a simplified view of the current delivery system of chilled and frozen medical products to users at Radboudumc.

    Figure 1: Simplified view of the current delivery system of chilled and frozen medical products to users at Radboudumc

    After production (left in the figure), products are taken to a stocking point of the manufacturer, a wholesaler, or a logistics service provider. From here, products, whether combined with others or not, are brought to Radboudumc’s central goods reception. The products are then taken to local storage areas (coolers, freezers) close to where they are to be used. The packaging is removed by the users of the products before being collected internally, temporarily stored, and then collected by third parties for reuse or incineration. . Note that the various steps can be organized differently for each product/supplier/customer(user) combination, with consequences for the packaging to be  used and their disposal.


    For chilled and frozen products, it is crucial that their quality is guaranteed until the moment they are used by the customer. Currently, almost all chilled and frozen products are delivered in EPS boxes (“Styrofoam” boxes) filled with gel packs or dry ice to maintain temperature. The shipper’s (producer product, wholesaler) and purchaser locations play a leading role as they determine the time a product is in transit, the quantity of gel packs, dry ice needed. In some situations, due to this, dry ice has to be replaced by gel packs, which means a larger EPS box. This effect is amplified by the extra cardboard boxes used to avoid damaging the EPS boxes. This all has implications for the transport and storage of products (extra weight and space requirements), as well as for the disposal of packaging.

    The research showed that it is important to make a choice for each part of the chain with regard to the packaging used, and to consider its impact on the rest of the chain. This may mean that within a specific supply chain, one or more packages can be added or removed depending on the product quantity and distance, amongst others.

    An example of this within the case study is the bulk delivery by a producer of chilled and frozen products from outside Europe to their European distribution centres where the products are packaged for distribution to their customers in Europe. In EPS or cardboard boxes. . In case of larger orders, sometimes reusable crates are used.

    In the case study, wholesalers and logistics providers also receive chilled and frozen products packaged in EPS boxes, in which the products also are delivered to their customers 1:1 in same EPS boxes.

    Combined packaging of products from different producers in a distribution center often results in less packaging arriving at customers. Whether this also means less packaging for the complete supply chain, depends on the packaging used to get the products at the distribution center. Note that a change in packaging within a supply chain (repackaging) results in extra activities, resulting in extra time and cost.

    Also demand aggregation with respect to quantity and/or time can lead to reductions in the amount of packaging and its environmental impact. Questions that need to be answered are: Can the recipient handle bundled products and how is the internal follow-up distribution managed? Can the customer’s central reception do this, or should this occur earlier in the supply chain, for example by an external party like a city hub? We note that both physical and administrative handling options influence the process and decision making. Administration becomes relevant when goods need to be booked to specific projects: how can this link be made when orders are delivered bundled?

    In the case study, one order is currently linked to one project, and it is not yet possible to link products for multiple projects to a single order. Moreover, the allocation of products to different users can be a challenge when combining orders, especially in case of shortages. One option is to add an extra partner who manages the final distribution/sorting and preferably delivers the products with minimal or no packaging. This is where a city hub can play a role. The case study showed that this constituted a different view: not make suppliers pay for reducing a mileage, but making the customer pay for delivering the products sorted packaging-free per order. A further, even more far-reaching step in aggregation, is not only joint ordering, but also joint inventories of products used by multiple users. This can lead to  increased order sizes and less stock.

    Another important variable when choosing packaging is: what are the possibilities for recycling and reusing as such of the packaging? Both reuse as such and recycling require that those in direct contact with a package should be careful with it. With every handling, there is a chance of damage and/or contamination, reducing possibilities for reuse as such and recycling. In addition, returning packaging to whom has added this packaging may become more difficult the further the packaging goes in the supply chain. Moreover, reuse as such and recycling may require separate storage and disposal. In the case study, a supplier started replacing EPS boxes with special cardboard boxes which can be recycled through the existing Radboudumc cardboard collection system. To recycle EPS boxes, a new system would have to be set up. The choice of packaging is therefore not only about its use to supply products, but also about how the packaging is disposed.

    Impact on goals living lab 

    Less packaging can mean less traffic to the Heijendaal campus and Nijmegen, which in turn can reduces CO2 emissions. In this context, it should be mentioned that reusing packaging can lead to separate flows to the campus and Nijmegen, but this depends on the possibilities for combined product delivery and packaging disposal, and/or the possibility of joint disposal of different packaging. Less packaging can also lead to a potential reduction of environmental impact related to the production and distribution of packaging to the locations where it is added.

    By applying one or more of the above mentioned packaging reduction strategies, reduction in the number of delivery trucks and vans visiting the campus (and Nijmegen) seems possible, which can free up more space for improving the working environment through, for example, more greenery. Especially in the case of electric vehicles, gas emissions (CO2) and noise pollution can be reduced.

    The costs depend on the strategy under consideration and will be different for different stakeholders. For example, demand aggregation may lead to lower procurement costs (e.g., through quantity discounts, transport cost), but this may lead to additional inventory costs and internal distribution costs. Joint stock sharing can lead to savings due to reductions in the costs related to obsolete stock.

    Service level
    All mentioned packaging reduction strategies should not affect the timely availability of products. Bundled deliveries may necessitate extra activities, causing inconvenience: less flexibility regarding ordering/receiving and/or extra physical or administrative handling. Worth noting is the remaining need for special/urgent deliveries.

    Conclusions and further research

    Using the case study, we reviewed the requirements/impacts of using demand aggregation, methods of packaging disposal, and removing and adding packaging in the supply chain of chilled and frozen medical products in particular to reduce the amount of packaging and/or their environmental impact. In principle, the results show that it is possible to combine the above strategies. One thing became clear: “no one size fits all”!

    Further research

    • Further elaboration and implementation of promising packaging reduction strategies in practice.