The Future of Sustainable Cold Chain Packaging

The Future of Sustainable Cold Chain Packaging: An Interview With TempAid President, Ryan Sanders

We understand today you have announced a qualified cold chain packaging solution that includes a biodegradable EPS cooler and drain-safe gel packs with recyclable film. We want to ask you about the need for these solutions, what is triggering the need for this, and the hurdles that need to be overcome to reach a truly sustainable future.

What triggered the need for this?

With the increase in temperature-sensitive shipments over the last year and a half and the requirements for pharmaceutical companies to meet deliverability goals, a lot of garbage has been produced.

Medications, vaccines, and lab samples are very temperature-sensitive and require cost-effective materials to maintain temperatures in an uncontrolled environment. Typically, EPS is the most cost-effective material to do this. Although recyclable when done at a suitable facility, most EPS ends up in a landfill, which takes a long time to degrade. We feel this new biodegradable EPS is a step in the right direction. Biodegradable EPS has the same performance and cost as standard EPS, making it readily adaptable to the marketplace.

What do you see on the market in terms of customer requests for sustainability?

Like consumers, our corporate clients want a more environmentally friendly solution that aligns with their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) objectives. This includes solutions that are curbside recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable. We see that sustainability has moved from simply a PR move to a significant part of a company’s development and distribution strategy.

Several of our customers are proactively making bold commitments to improve their packaging sustainability and fundamentally rethink their packaging systems. Many have determined they can no longer afford to make single-use packaging containers the center of our supply chain. The demand has never been more than when the pandemic began, where burgeoning industries, like prepared meal kits, or growing industries, like vaccine shipments, have increased exponentially.

The challenge has been how to provide product protection and convenience while maintaining or decreasing costs in the supply chain.

 Are there solutions on the market that you see that address these needs?

Yes, there are some sustainable solutions on the market. However, most either don’t perform as well as traditional packaging or are cost-prohibitive.

For example, several compostable products, such as the compostable cups seen at any coffee shops, are made from polylactic acid (PLA), a corn sugar fermented by bacteria that is only industrially compostable. While they are compostable and recyclable, due to transportation costs, they are likely not sent to be processed at the proper facilities, which makes them just as bad for the environment as standard plastic cups.

Although low cost and sustainable, paper, pulp, and cotton-based insulators also show future promise, the solution faces several challenges. One of the most significant issues is repeatability in manufacturing and utilization within a specific tolerance. What this means is if you tested 100 sets of paper-based insulation, each might vary in performance because they don’t all weigh the same, some compress differently, may be unevenly distributed throughout the package, and may not fit in the box the same way every time. This is a challenge when requiring validation for industries, such as pharmaceutical requirements.

Mycelium packaging (ground mushroom roots) shows a lot of promise due to its durability in a controlled environment. However, it breaks down rapidly outside, which means products shipped in mushroom-based packaging may need careful handling.

Cost also becomes a factor because just as EPS is petroleum-based and dependent on oil prices, the mushroom and wood-pulp industries are most likely not positioned to scale to meet the increased demand or packaging. This will inevitably cause both environmental and product shortage concerns. We also see rising costs in paper and availability issues that are industry-wide and a big problem today.

We’ve also found that some materials are just not performing as well as EPS, which can lead to increased use of gel packs or temperature-controlled logistics, which can end up being worse for the environment than EPS alone.

For a pharmaceutical system that must be validated to meet existing regulations, the product requires manufacturing within a certain percentage of repeatable accuracy. Current paper and cotton-based solutions typically don’t meet these requirements. Nothing beats the insulative performance, costs, and manufacturing tolerances as well as EPS currently, which is why a biodegradable form of EPS is the direction we have chosen to take. Thus a step in the “proverbial right direction” is a biodegradable EPS.

What is happening today that affects the cost of packaging solutions (i.e., oil prices <most plastics are petroleum-based>, logistics costs, etc., and how do these tie together to affect the price issues?)

Because of several environmental, economic, and manufacturing factors, paper and corrugated box prices have shot up since last summer, and we feel it will continue to rise. Also, as mentioned above, EPS, film, and other petroleum-based plastics are seeing some of their highest price increases in years.

The cost of transportation due to labor and oil prices has also seen a steady increase. Not just paper products, EPS and gel packs must be shipped all around the country, and as freight and fuel costs rise, so do packaging prices.

A temperature-controlled packaging system must keep the product at the desired temperature while meeting these increased costs. Having better insulation at a lower price point means you can simply maintain temperatures longer for less money and ultimately save on your logistics costs.

What materials need to be developed to change the face of the cold chain packaging.

As an industry, we have to challenge ourselves to develop low-cost, compostable, or recyclable insulation that can be manufactured according to validation standards and compete with EPS. Until we find a solution that meets the industry’s cost, weight, and validation requirements, we need to use the best solutions out there today to meet those needs.

If we know this is a big issue, what is the hold-up? Why the hesitance?

Unfortunately, it usually comes down to costs. We are going into an inflationary period with raw materials rising at a rate never seen before, so companies need to save everywhere they can. It is hard to compete with the cost and performance of EPS, and that is why we think biodegradable EPS is a stepping stone in the right direction. Ultimately, the change will take time, but companies will be willing to make the change with innovative products with the same price point and performance.

Tell me about your new biodegradable system? How is it different than others you see on the market?

While many companies are searching for solutions, most have not found a way to produce a fully biodegradable cooler that leaves behind almost no traces of the original product nor release dangerous substances into the environment. The product we are releasing is a revolutionary grade of EPS where test data shows that the product interacts and biodegrades with the resin’s chemistry to break down the polystyrene at a molecular level, just like the anaerobic conditions found in biologically active landfills*. Microorganisms found in these landfills are the key to the biodegradation of TempAid expandable polystyrene resin. The result is a product that degrades in four years in a typical wet landfill and with almost no environmental impact*.

We also have managed to keep costs in line with standard eps to meet that demand. Also, the fact that you don’t need to transport the waste to a recycling facility means additional cost savings are realized. Thanks to this unique additive, you don’t have to alter your waste stream to be eco-friendly. In fact, you don’t have to compromise at all.

The product is also recyclable using standard polystyrene recycling methods (where available) and meets the international guidelines for direct food contact.

Is lab testing the same for a biodegradable product vs. today’s standard EPS solutions?

Yes, the thermal lab testing is the same. We recently completed an equivalency validation of the Biodegradable EPS vs. Standard EPS so that our current EPS customers using validated solutions can switch to this new biodegradable EPS without changing their current packaging processes. Our initial studies indicate there is no difference in thermal performance, and in fact, some cases are showing improvements in the biodegradable vs standard EPS. We have these results available for people who request them.

What industries will most benefit from biodegradable solutions? What industries have the most significant issues to overcome (or the most to gain) in cold chain packaging sustainability?

Pharmaceutical distributors will benefit the most as they can continue to meet governing regulations of validated solutions while maintaining the same price point and thermal performance. So really, it’s a no-brainer for them to switch, as it only has a benefit, and, although not the perfect solution, it is a step in the right direction.

What does the future look like for sustainable cold chain packaging?

Hopefully, innovation will lead the way into the future, and new products that negatively impact the environment will become the new standard. But, ultimately, it will take both governments and individuals to make this happen.

We need to recognize the challenges humankind will face over the next century will be the deciding factor for human exitance on the planet.

For more information on the new biodegradable EPS shippers, visit our product page or reach out to a member of our team.

*The resin used in these coolers biodegrades 92% over four years. They were tested using sample items under conditions simulating both wet and biologically-active landfills using the ASTM D5511 test. The extent of degradation and stated rate do not mean the product will continue to decompose. The data stated above has been provided in good faith and believed to be reliable, it does not constitute a part of our terms and conditions of sale unless specifically incorporated in our Order Acknowledgment.”