How some companies are tackling shipping waste

Life science companies are working on ways to reduce or eliminate their use of EPS foam packing amid environmental controversy.

In my last article we looked at “take back” programs, one method New England Biolabs and Sigma-Aldrich are employing to lower their packaging’s environmental impact. Take back programs, however, are not the only options that companies are exploring. Other methods include “Right Sizing”, wherein companies will utilize packaging sizes to fit their products better, eliminating as much empty space as possible. Another example is “Light-weighting”, the practice of using less materials to lower the weight the shipment overall. “Ambient shipping” is a program also becoming increasingly popular, focused on shipping products at room temperature to obviate the cold packs. And some companies are abandoning the use of EPS foam altogether.

EMD Millipore has replaced the EPS foam cushioning in their Milli-Q water purification systems with a molded pulp made from 100% recycled fibers that can be recycled, or will biodegrade on its own. This switch has enabled them to save about 13,000 in costs, as well as free up space at their warehouses.  Cell Signaling Technology (CST) completely eliminated the use of EPS in their domestic shipments 6 years ago.  Their cooler is completely biodegradable, being composed of mineral rock slag wool, biodegradable plastic, and cardboard. Matt Fry, CST’s Director of Products, admits, "We made a conscious decision as a company to spend more on a per unit basis in order to do the right thing for the environment and drastically reduce out EPS usage." They estimate that over the past 6 years they have been able to eliminate the over 1 million EPS coolers from being used.

Life Science is not the only industry using EPS foam trying to eliminate it from their packaging. Many other industries, such as food and beverage, manufacturing, electronics, and more, use this material. This anti-EPS sentiment has sparked a new marketplace of alternative EPS packaging manufacturers. MP Global Products sells insulated packaging using their patented “purified biodegradable recycled cotton enhanced textile fibers” as insulation (whoa that was a mouthful!). Ecovative, a company based out of New York, is turning the industry on its head with their innovative packaging material grown out of mushroom fibers. That’s right - this material is actually grown: they use mycelium (the root structure of mushrooms) to breakdown agricultural waste. During this process the materials bind together to form a bio-composite they call Myco-foam. Myco-foam has similar properties to EPS in that it is insulating, protective, and can be molded to fit any design. Ecovative has come across, what I think, is a truly sustainable solution to packaging cradle to cradle.

This exciting new industry is not without its own challenges; being relatively new these packaging alternatives are still considerably more expensive than EPS. In the future, as consumer opinion on packaging shifts, they expect they will be able to reduce costs and compete on a fair playing field with well establish EPS manufactures. So it’s possible that future life scientists could be shipped enzymes found in mushrooms, packaged in a mushroom packaging!