During a recent test, Delkor’s new bus-size Turbo packaging robot in Arden Hills pounded cardboard into hundreds of short box-trays and quickly packed each with yogurt cups, shrink-wrapped them and zipped the bundles down the conveyor line.
The warp-speed process is exciting sustainability pros. The company said the new machine can box products using 30 to 50% less boxboard than is found in most food packaging.
And the savings are not just good for the environment. They save in purchasing costs for product makers, said Rick Gessler, vice president of engineering for Delkor.
“That may not sound like a lot,” he said. “But when you make 30 boxes a minute, you are talking about not needing a lot of board and [gaining] a lot of savings. If you are [a manufacturer] running 2 million product cases through a year, you’d save 1 million cases of corrugated board each year.”
Delkor’s robotic efforts are the latest leg of a minimalist materials movement sweeping the nation. For years, Walmart, Costco, Aldi and Kroger have increasingly asked food suppliers to back off hefty packaging in an effort to address trash, energy and pollution concerns — and save money in the process.
The Kroger grocery chain bought four Turbos in February. Siggi’s Icelandic yogurt bought one last month. More orders are expected as 50 food producers tromp through Delkor’s factory this month to get a demonstration. Delkor expects to sell about 10 to 12 Turbos a year.
The company’s hopes are buoyed by Walmart’s new request that suppliers help it eliminate a billion tons of greenhouse gases by 2030. Part of that project begs food suppliers to “light weight” or “right size” product packages to avoid material waste and slash trucking weights and emissions.
That bodes well for the 200-employee Delkor, which is expected to grow to $84 million this year, said Ron Sasine, a national retail-packaging consultant and Walmart’s former packaging vice president.
“When Delkor shows up with a new highly engineered boxing method that uses 30 to 50% less corrugated board material? That is a greenhouse gas savings right off the top,” he said.
While more retailers and manufacturers adopt “sustainability” goals that slash material purchases, transportation weights and package disposal and landfill costs, state pollution control experts say more work is needed.
“Minnesota generated 516,979 tons of cardboard [and box] waste in 2016,” said Madalyn Cioci, waste prevention specialist for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). Nearly 30% of that scrapped material ended in a landfill instead of a recycling center.
“Landfilling a ton of cardboard results is 0.23 metric tons of greenhouse gasses. But it also uses a lot of energy just to make in the first place, so corrugated board is one of the things that is important to source reduce,” Cioci said. It’s why, she said, “reduction is really my holy grail” when it comes to the environment.
The number of boxes ending up in Minnesota landfills is growing again. After tossed tonnage fell 14% from 2007 to 2013, it has since jumped 5%, or about 5,700 tons a year.
MPCA officials suspect the blame rests with skyrocketing online shopping, which zips millions of product packages to consumers doorsteps each day.
The Fibre Box Association, based in Chicago, represents 95% of U.S. boxboard makers. It found the swell of e-commerce and home deliveries helped boost box shipment rates by 1.7% nationwide in 2018.
Still, conservation efforts are ongoing. The amount of corrugated board now required to package one industrial product fell 12% between 2000 and 2017, Fibre Box Vice President Rachel Kenyon said.
In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Resource Conservation reported that using fewer corrugated containers reduces 5.6 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions for every ton of cardboard not used.
“People who work in package design have been looking for ways to reduce the tons of packaging,” said the MPCA’s Cioci. Each company stamps its own path.
Delkor is taking a high-tech and “efficiency approach” to solving the waste problem, she said.
Others — such as furniture maker Herman Miller, food company Hormel, floor-cleaning machine maker Tennant, deodorant firms and cereal makers like Post — adopted different programs to use smaller product boxes or eliminate boxes all together.
Some large machine makers, such as Tennant, traded one-time shipping boxes for reusable shipping blankets and pallets, she said.
Sasine, the packaging consultant, said the uptick in online deliveries means more food-delivery firms and fulfillment centers are looking to create new types of boxing that fills up the equivalent of a shippable shopping cart while forgoing wrapping each product.
Hormel started a “reduction” program in 2012 and is now on track to cut 25 million pounds of product packaging by next year, the Austin, Minn.-based company said.
Dan Miller, director of research innovations for the food company, said Hormel slimmed down Skippy Peanut Butter jar caps to save 700,000 pounds of plastic. It redesigned the display cases of its Black Label bacon to save 91,000 pounds of corrugated box.
“Hormel Foods has a dedicated group of employees that regularly evaluates our packaging design, consistently looking for minimization opportunities,” Miller said.
Rob Friend, executive director of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s Waste Wise Foundation said his team regularly visits, does waste audits and creates recycling and material reduction plans at member businesses.
Most participants are driven by “a cost initiative and an environmental initiative. They want to save money,” Friend said.
Waste Wise shows participants how their business can save cash by eliminating initial material purchases, reducing packaging weights and transportation costs on the front end of the factory.
They also can save money on the back end of the factory where the dumpster sits.
“When companies throw stuff away, they get taxed on that by the counties. So it’s the dumpster out behind the business that also costs money,” Friend said. “So what we look to change for the business is the reduction piece. We like to eliminate single use items like plastic or paper.”