For those interested in developments in the world of packaging, the July issue of Packaging Digest features a very informative article on bisphenol-A (BPA), an industrial chemical that has been used in the production of plastic bottles and metal-based food and beverage cans since the 1960s.
Opponents of BPA became more vocal in the 1990′s and since then it has come under increasing attack from consumer groups over health concerns. Canada labelled BPA as a toxic substance in 2008 and subsequently took steps to reduce exposure to plastic bottles and cans for infant formula containing BPA.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has found it more difficult to regulate the use of BPA as it was originally classified as an indirect food additive, and not subject to FDA oversight. While it may not be able to regulate the use of BPA as an industrial chemical, the FDA can offer an opinion on its use, and did just that in 2010. In response to mounting evidence that BPA might pose a health hazard, the FDA reversed its earlier position that BPA was “safe”, citing, among other reasons, results from a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted in 2003-2004. That survey revealed 92% of the participants tested had detectable concentrations of BPA in their urine. I’m not aware of a similar study in Canada, but since we enjoy many of the same products as our neighbours to the south, its not unreasonable to assume Canadians have had similar exposure.
Currently, the FDA supports voluntary industry initiatives to reduce the use of BPA while manufacturers look for suitable alternatives. This initiative has had strong support from all industry sectors, including retailers, food, plastics, chemical and packaging producers. “Alternatives” is the key word for those wondering why governments don’t just ban the use of BPA in food packaging outright. The simple answer is that an efficient, cost-effective alternative is hard to find. Industry reports indicate you can’t just eliminate one chemical component of a package without affecting package integrity. And some of the potential BPA alternatives examined to date pose risks of their own, or are not viable from a cost perspective. Nonetheless, some states have (selectively) banned the use of BPA in food and beverage containers.
The use of industrial chemicals in food preparation is one of those topics that tends to galvanize our interest as consumers. But changes in packaging also produce a trickle-down effect and transportation is one of the industries that notices the impact early. When manufacturers began moving to plastic packaging products following WWII it resulted in changes in unit size, which enabled producers to increase the yield (and shipping weight) of master cartons, with a corresponding effect on pallet size and capacity. In many cases the transportation industry (and shippers) benefited from these innovations through increased cube utilization in trailers and containers. The opposite was true in some cases, notably where plastics increased package size, reducing the unit counts (and weights) in master cartons. In those situations the transportation industry compensated through the application of minimum weights and cube charges.
Aside from the obvious consumer concerns, BPA-related changes in packaging products is an area of interest for the transportation industry. Will a suitable chemical be identified that enables the continued use of plastics, or will we see substitution of more traditional products such as glass? A return to glass packaging products will undoubtedly have an impact on shipping weights and carton sizes, not to mention the potential for product damages.
Regardless of what direction manufacturers take in future, or how governments respond to health concerns voiced by consumers regarding the use of BPA in packaging, this is an issue that transportation managers should continue to monitor. Many organizations worry that consumers may shy away from products containing BPA based on the perception they might be harmful. When that happens, companies tend to act quickly, changing packaging to protect sales and brand image, and the transportation department may be among the last to know.
If you haven’t already done so, now is the time to build relationships with marketing and purchasing in order to be aware of sales concerns and cost issues. Packaging is an area that can benefit from the attention of cross-functional teams, where vested interests are represented. Transportation managers should ensure they have a seat at this table so they have input in an important area that that can impact transportation costs, shipping efficiencies and performance metrics.
Posted by: Laurie Turnbull, CITT, P.MM – Supply Chain Consultant, Cole International