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PACK EXPO 2009: Strong Attendance Boosts Enthusiasm for Economic Recovery - Reusable Packaging Association Continues Outreach to Users
Rick LeBlanc provides a pallet user’s perspective on the latest developments coming from PACK EXPO, including a focus on reusable packaging opportunities.

By Rick LeBlanc
Date Posted: 12/1/2009

            Recession or not, the packaged goods industry expressed its confidence in economic recovery by coming out in large numbers to the recent PACK EXPO Las Vegas. This year’s show reported the 2nd largest attendance ever at the Las Vegas event – slightly lower than 2007 but up from 2005. 

            The show, which features an impressive display of packaging and packaging equipment, is located in Las Vegas NV on odd years, and Chicago IL on even years. In fact, walking the floor with aisle after aisle of shiny packaging line equipment clicking and ticking at the various displays, it seemed eerily like walking through the neighboring casinos with their acres of spinning roulette wheels and slot machines.  These attendees and exhibitors were clearly gambling on the future.

            “Given the economy this year, we are extremely pleased with the turnout,” stated Charles D. Yuska, president and CEO of PMMI, the host association for the PACK EXPO shows. “Trade shows mirror the industries they serve, and the strong attendance may indicate an economic recovery as consumer goods companies leverage the show for their capital equipment investments and packaging innovation efforts.”

            The show continues to have a strong environmental / sustainability focus. In spite of the recession, and some would argue because of the recession with respect to material reduction and cost cutting opportunities, the sustainability interest seems here for the long run.  Not surprisingly, when companies design packaging and packaging equipment that generates less solid waste, utilizing less energy and less material, they end up saving money too. 

            Sustainability has rapidly evolved from trend to market driver. The PACK EXPO Green icon was displayed by more than 200 exhibitors at booths and in their Packexpo.com listing, letting attendees know that their companies offer sustainability-related solutions. In addition, the show offered Sustainability and Sustainable Operations educational tracks, including 32 different presentations.

            As for pallet exhibitors, the PACK EXPO show seemed to generally have a smaller representation of alternative material pallet and reusable container companies than other shows I have attended in the past. This was no doubt both a function of the poor economy as well as a result of continued consolidation in the plastic pallet sector. 

            Plastic pallet rental company iGPS was among the plastic pallet providers displaying.  As for wood pallets, CHEP and IFCO were exhibitors that I noted. When I visited CHEP, they took time to talk about some of the recent corporate changes that they felt would provide better value for their customers. 

            IFCO Systems emphasized the company continuing to expand its national footprint and company-owned fleet to support its suite of services, including reusable wood pallet supply, retrieval, recycling, on-site sorting and repairing, and reverse logistics. IFCO’s on-site and reverse logistics service centers have recently expanded to reach 100 locations.

            In an area of the show reserved for packaging schools and industry associations, Virginia Tech’s Center for Unit Load design was aptly represented by Bonnie Maccubbin and Ralph Rupert. They reported a lot of activity. Ralph commented that they have had very good response from some major companies to a recent Pallet Enterprise article discussing their model of pallet considerations for containerized shipments.  They are clearly very passionate about their work.

            The Reusable Packaging Association (RPA) conference was co-located with the PACK EXPO event and offered some of its own educational sessions.  Formerly the Reusable Pallet and Container Coalition, the new RPA is a small but extremely energized group looking at promoting reusable packaging such as containers and pallets while including all stakeholders in the process.  Its decision to co-locate at PACK EXPO gave it better access to pallet and container users. This year’s RPA event included a welcoming reception, annual general meeting, breakfast and round table sessions as well as a number of presentations, including case studies on Whirlpool and Coles, an Australian grocery chain.

            Bob Klimko of Orbis is the current RPA chairman. He emphasized that the RPA is material “agnostic.” The group promotes reusable packaging of all material types, and notable wood pallet companies who are members include CHEP and IFCO Systems.

            Bob cautioned that the RPA wants to be accurate with any information it presents to the public. “There is a lot of green washing going on and we want to make sure our comments are relevant and accurate,” he commented. With members representing both plastic and wood pallet suppliers, the group has a vested interest in presenting balanced information.

            Bob is very bullish on the future of reusable packaging. He stated that the goal of RPA is to promote the value and expand the use of reusable packaging systems – in essence to shift outward the demand curve for reusable packaging. He believes that with increased environmental pressure and other emerging trends the uptake of reusable packaging is on the verge of revolutionary growth.  In some industries, such as automotive, he noted that the use of reusables is in the mature stage, while in others it is still embryonic.

            The RPA plans to continue its ambitious program of outreach to the user community, in addition to developing a curriculum of educational resources for users. Bob categorizes user uptake of reusables as a 4-step process including awareness, acceptance, implementation, and refinement.

            At a reusable packaging user panel discussion, the cost reduction and environmental benefits were again emphasized. “The reason we started looking at it was that if you don’t throw it away there is a benefit to it,” stated Gail Tavill, Vice President of Sustainable Development for ConAgra Foods. ConAgra is still taking baby steps with respect to reusable packaging programs. It will start on its inbound operations. Gail indicated, however, that a few of its customers have engaged them in conversation about reusable packaging for outbound shipments. 

            Seasonal spikes in reusable packaging demand are a challenge for users, requiring inventory availability for maximum volumes. Reusable container pooling opportunities would be useful in resolving this, Gail indicated, emphasizing that they already work with CHEP for pallet pooling. She said they would welcome the assistance of a 3rd party to provide the experience needed.

            Jennifer Schleicher of Whirlpool, another panelist, said that while the company has embraced a greater transition to reusable packaging, implementation remains a significant challenge in the culture of that mature company. She is a Project Manager responsible for launching their corporate reusable packaging strategy. She previously worked for 8 years for Toyota.

            Two other noteworthy trends came out of the RPA sessions. One is the grassroots movements towards Extended Producer Responsibility, which was discussed by Heidi Sanborn of the California Product Stewardship Council. Increasingly, local governments are taking action to deal with solid waste by encouraging a cradle to cradle approach. Legislation now tabled in California AB 283 could form the California Product Stewardship Act. If enacted, producers of certain classes of products would have to submit action plans on how they intend to deal with product and packaging recovery.

            The other trend is with respect to RFID, a topic where people agree to disagree on market timing. There is some consensus that in order to make RFID work, a supply chain really needs the infrastructure of readers, tags and software, and that the substantial investment required will slow down the acceptance of that technology.

            Some opinion leaders believe, however, that uptake of the technology will be sooner than later. Long time Pallet Enterprise supporter Michael McCartney of QLM Consulting, a leading RFID consultant, commented that the federal Food Safety Act legislation now in progress (H.R. 2749) will be, when passed, extremely cost prohibitive to perishable supply chain participants if they do not have the (RFID) technology in place to automate the product traceability process. Over the next few years, Michael believes there will be extreme pressure for adoption in supply chains such as perishable and drug. Reusable pallet and container applications, he pointed out, will make increasing sense as a cost-effective means to provide RFID tagging.

            If you have never been to a PACK EXPO or a PROMAT show, it is well worth visiting at least once to expand your awareness of the range of packaging and material handling systems that interact with pallets. The next PACK EXPO show in the U.S. runs Oct. 31-Nov. 3, 2010 in Chicago. The next PROMAT will be March 21-24, 2011 in Chicago. 


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