How cold chain distribution can deliver an eco-friendly customer experience

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E-commerce sales of supermarket shopping, meal kits, specialist foods and raw pet foods have seen enormous growth in recent years. By 2025, it’s estimated that 21% of the total food and beverages market will be online sales.

While offering great convenience for consumers and considerable opportunity for online food retailers and distributors, it does not come without its challenges in terms of sustainability of packaging materials, storage and distribution efficiency, and the all-important customer experience. Fortunately, as Antalis’ Head of Sustainability, Innovation and Design, John Garner, explains, there are solutions.

As online sales of perishable goods grow, the pressure is on supermarkets and other e-commerce food businesses to meet demand, sustainably. 2022 research found that approximately eight out of ten UK consumers reported a preference for environmentally friendly packaging materials (source: Statista); it is therefore important that businesses are able to not only ensure that their goods reach consumers in tip-top condition, but that they do so using sustainable packaging materials.

“We’re not talking about the efficacy of packaging materials here,” explains John, “I’m quite certain that all the cold chain packaging solutions on the market do the job in terms of keeping food products appropriately chilled; it’s about the materials themselves and whether they have been sustainably manufactured and can be easily recycled or composted by the consumer. The reality is that there is only one cold chain packaging material that is genuinely recyclable domestically and that’s paper.”

Materials such as expanded polystyrene (EPS) and foil lined bubble sheets are still commonly used but cannot be recycled in kerbside collections. For the consumer this can prove frustrating and compromise what should be a pleasing customer experience. From a business perspective, these materials are also bulky, impacting upon storage space and distribution volumes.

“One of the great things about paper-based insulated packaging is that it is usually produced on demand, so there is no requirement for bulky materials to be stored,” says John, “By switching to a paper converter from polystyrene fittings, a pet food company was able to reduce inventory by 100 pallets. This alone saves them around £25k pa.

There are also cost savings to be made in distribution. Because paper-based thermal box liners are thin, box volumes can be optimised, and box sizes can be flexible. John says, “Using pre-formed EPS and plastic insulation makes it very difficult to allow for variable order sizes, meaning orders can be sent in over-sized packaging full of dead space. By constrast, paper-based thermal insulation is adjustable, so box sizes can be reduced as necessary and vehicle loading optimised, with the potential to significantly reduced the number of vehicle movements required.”

Whether transporting ambient, chilled or frozen foods, there is a wide variety of sustainably produced – look out for FSC and PEFC certified materials – and fully recyclable paper-based insulating packaging solutions to choose from that offer excellent thermal protection for up to 48 hours.

As a derivative of wood, paper is a natural insulator. John explains how even a simple, corrugated board box, correctly sealed, creates a microclimate chamber that will maintain the ambient temperature of goods for 48 to 72 hours. “Of course, it all depends on the nature – and required temperature – of the foods being transported, but a paper-based packaging solution is usually possible. At Antalis, the team at our Smart Packaging Centre (SPC) works closely with customers to create the best packaging solution, whether that’s selecting off-the-shelf materials, such as those available in the extensive Ranpak range, or designing bespoke packaging.”

For the consumer, paper-based packaging makes for an aesthetically pleasing and overall enjoyable unboxing experience, and it aligns closely with the branding of many artisanal e-commerce food retailers. Many of the packaging materials, including cool packs, can be printed with brand logos and messaging to enhance the customer experience and raise brand awareness.

John finishes, “There’s a lot of information and products out in the market and sometimes it can be a little overwhelming for businesses – of all sizes – to know where to begin when it comes to ensuring that thermal packaging materials are not only effective but will provide the consumer with a positive experience, both in unboxing and recycling/disposal of the packaging. The key is to talk to your supplier about what you want to achieve. At Antalis, there’s nothing we like better than to visit a customer’s premises and get to the bottom of the packaging needs and help them find the best solution for their business.”

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