Are distributors doing enough to tackle packaging waste?

Are distributors doing enough to tackle packaging waste?

In January, we published a survey showing that 80.95 per cent of retailers feel distributors could do more to reduce packaging.

Following on from this, we’ve spoken to a few shops and distributors about the issues around packaging, the impact good and bad packaging has on shops, and what distributors are doing to cut waste and make it easier for shops. Is there a problem?

Excess waste not only harms the environment, it’s expensive to dispose of. The Federation of Small Businesses estimates that waste management costs to businesses are between five and 20 times higher than the cost of disposal, accounting for around four per cent of turnover. 

What’s more, private waste disposal companies often charge by weight. While many distributors use recycled materials, and choose appropriate boxes and envelopes, others don’t. Some bike shops have reported distributors using enormous boxes for small, non-breakable items, and filling the space with “footballs” of clingfilm. This plastic cannot be recycled, in many cases, and takes up limited space in shops and workshops, ultimately ending up in a landfill. 

Shops, likewise, seem split on the issue. While some worry about the impact on the environment, and take steps to reduce, reuse and recycle, others do not see tackling waste as a priority.

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Jenni Gwiazdowski of London Bike Kitchen told BikeBiz: “Businesses pay for rubbish disposal, so the more waste distributors give us, the more packing we have to put outside. I have taken photos in the past and sent them to distributors, when they use massive boxes to send a little thing. 

“There are some distributors that are great [in this respect] but some aren’t: some of them use those packing peanuts that get everywhere, like glitter.” 

Gwiazdowski takes bubble wrap to a local pottery cooperative that can reuse it, but she’d rather distributors used less packaging, regardless of whether it is recyclable or biodegradable. 

“Every time I get something that’s packed poorly, it reflects badly on [the distributor]. I think these people have different values to me, and it puts me off ordering from them.”

“Sometimes it feels that they just didn’t care. [For example, if] it’s a bunch of cable housing, it’s not going to get damaged in transit. Just throw it in an envelope. Instead, you get sent it in a box that’s way too big, then they throw in those pillows to take up the space.”

Brixton Cycles’ Beck Lane says: “Some distributors will send products in a big box and pack it out with cling film; it’s literally [the size of] a football. It’s annoying when you get that every week – the number of bike shops they must be sending that to every week.”

“Obviously, for some products you have to use bubble wrap, like carbon-fibre bikes, but there’s a lot of stuff you don’t [need to do that for].”

Edinburgh Bicycle Cooperative’s Ged Holmyard feels the industry has improved in recent years: “By and large we think most of the stuff comes to us fairly sensibly packed.”

“For instance, Shimano [will pack] a derailleur or a freewheel in an almost 100 per cent recyclable cardboard box to protect and merchandise it.”

“Without being complacent about the problem of packaging, I would say the industry has moved on a long way. There’s a lot less old-style bubble wrap than there was ten or 20 years ago.”

Guy Pearson, of Pearson Cycles, says: “I would say there’s probably too much packaging, because there’s a lot of waste at the end of the week. We fill a van every week with cardboard. We end up usually getting rid of the larger stuff, via a private company that collects business recycling and waste.

He sees it as an indicator of success, but recognises that there is an underlying issue. “The more cardboard there is, the better we are doing. It probably is a little bit excessive, though.”

So, what are distributors doing to solve the problem?

Perhaps understandably, those with a proactive approach to packaging were the keenest to talk to us about it.

Ison Distribution’s managing director Lloyd Townsend explains that the company uses around 80 per cent preused cardboard boxes, and different-sized “air pocket-type” envelopes for small, delicate parts. Resealable bags are used to separate “bulk item types” and reduce seepage. 

“I’d hope that most of what we send out is either reused again or recycled,” he says. “Inevitably, we do have to buy some additional new boxes, but we keep that to a minimum, as new boxes aren’t cheap [for us or the environment].”

Although Ison Distribution estimates they use more packing than most, like the boxes, it’s mostly reused from incoming deliveries. The packing staff cut down boxes to size, while scrap cardboard that can’t be reused is recycled.

“After 25 years of experience as distributors of small, high-end parts, there is a degree of trust given to our staff in the common-sense to provide the most appropriate protection to the goods in any particular delivery going out, whilst avoiding excessive waste of packing materials and space in the delivery networks
that we use.

“We will never be able to say that our staff get things right 100 per cent of the time, but, I’d like to think that far more than most of the time, our conscientious staff (and our great freight partners) succeed in delivering the goods on time, and in good condition, with the minimum impact possible to the environment,” he says.

Antonio Fiore, retail marketing manager at Silverfish, says the company minimises packaging by choosing correctly-sized boxes and mailbags – around 80 per cent of which are reused or made from recycled material – and packing them with reused paper and cardboard. 

“Where possible, we avoid using bubble wrap or plastic wrap,”
he says.

“If we need to use padded ‘jiffy’ bags, they are sourced from a manufacturer using materials from responsible sources as per FSC.”

“We rarely use new cardboard boxes. If we do, we source them from a local supplier accredited to ISO: 14001:2004 – a globally-recognised environmental standard. These boxes are typically for unusually-shaped or valuable items like bike frames, wheels, forks and so on. We even have our staff bringing in high-quality boxes from home for us to reuse!”

Any scrap cardboard, and business waste, is recycled weekly, he says, adding that as lights fail, they “typically replace with LED” to save energy.

Timothy Hodgson, operations manager at Moore Large, tells BikeBiz that in 2016, the distributor used 7,000kg of packaging, including boxes, jiffy bags, dispatch bags, and things like cable ties. Its packaging supplier of ten years is local, in Ilkeston, and provides an annual packaging report. 

The company’s main focus, he explains, is using the right packaging for the product, which he believes saves waste in itself. 

“We don’t cram boxes and bags full of packaging, because, I would like to think we use the right size for packaging. We aren’t that stringent on saving the environment, though we probably should be.”

“If the packaging goes up, we are sending more product out. That’s a good thing, and relates to a spike in sales,” he says.

“A couple of years ago, we trialled pillows and polystyrene chips. Some of our customers like them, but it always comes back to what the most sensible way of sending the product out is. We have tried these high-tech solutions, but for the amount of packaging we are sending out, it’s normally regular packing paper, or just a bit of cardboard. Our guys will always cut down the boxes to size. It’s going to cost you more in the long run to use more packaging; we make sure the package fits around the product as best it can.” 

“We don’t get any complaints. We’re sending out 3,000 to 4,000 cartons a day, satisfying 1,800 independent dealers; you would think somewhere along the line we would get feedback if we were doing something wrong.”

We approached a number of other large distributors, none of which responded to requests for comment.

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