There’s Value in a Round Trip


Each year, U.S. corporations purchase more than 65 million 55-gallon steel and plastic drums, as well as more than 4.5 million 275- and 330-gallon intermediate bulk containers. About half of these packagings have been reconditioned for reuse, and therefore are entering their second or third life as an industrial container.

A life cycle assessment prepared for the Reusable Industrial Packaging Association shows that using multi-trip industrial packaging – steel drums, plastic drums, intermediate bulk containers – helps industry avert hundreds of millions of pounds of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) every year. This is highly useful data for shippers who need to gauge their packagings sustainability, as well as for customers who increasingly are asking suppliers to show meaningful GHG reductions.

The study Life Cycle Assessment of Newly Manufactured and Reconditioned Industrial Packaging was conducted by consultants Ernst & Young in accordance with ISO 14040/44 standards, and represents the most up-to-date evaluation of the environmental impacts of industrial packaging usage.

A life cycle assessment examines the entire life cycle of one or more products and generally expresses such impacts in carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e), a scientific unit of measurement commonly used by researchers to represent all relevant greenhouse gas emissions associated with the manufacture and use – and in this case, reuse – of products.

Approximately 100 companies located throughout North America collect, recondition, retest and put back into service industrial packaging that is both safe and fit for service. Industrial packaging reconditioning is a global industry; however, the study looked only at North American firms.

Reuse Isnt New

Reconditioned containers have a long and storied global history, starting thousands of years ago when the Greeks, Phoenicians and Egyptians used and reused clay pots and amphorae to ship wine, oils and other commodities throughout the world. Wooden barrels came a bit later, and have been used continuously for more than 2,000 years to transport and store everything from food to gunpowder. Even today, these amazing reusable containers are used globally in the wine and spirits industries.

Steel drums were first produced in the United States in the early 1900s. Initially, they ferried crude oil from the inland production fields of Texas to coastal refineries. Over time, they became the go-to container for nearly every commodity produced in the country, and today approximately 48 million new and reconditioned steel drums are purchased in North America every year.

Plastic drums were introduced in Europe in the early 1960s and the technology soon migrated to the United States. These containers struggled initially to secure market share, but over the years they have secured a solid niche in the North American market. Today, more than 20 million new and reconditioned 55-gallon plastic drums are sold annually in the United States.

Intermediate bulk containers, IBCs, evolved to fill the gap between traditional 55-gallon packagings and bulk portable tanks. Originally, IBCs were just smaller versions of their portable tank cousins, ranging up to about 500 gallons in capacity. Made primarily from either carbon steel or stainless steel, they were quite expensive so their use was limited largely to specialty chemicals and some highly hazardous materials.

In the mid-1970s, plastic IBCs made their North American debut and began to grab market share. Soon after came the composite IBC, featuring a light and durable blow-molded plastic inner bottle secured within a steel lattice cage that is fastened to a pallet. Most commonly produced in 275- and 330-gallon sizes, these have become the largest selling IBC designs in the North American market, with nearly 5 million units sold every year.

Sustaining the Environment

According to the United Nations Population Division, the current global population is about 7.1 billion and is headed for more than 9 billion by 2050. Most of this growth is taking place in India, China and other Asian nations. Corporations with a global footprint understand that as living standards and consumption expectations rise, extraordinary opportunities for growth will be open to businesses that are able to adapt to the needs of a vast new middle class, regardless of where they live.

Forward-thinking companies recognize that these opportunities also bring environmental issues that can threaten long-term growth. Such issues include but are certainly not limited to climate change, fresh water scarcity, infrastructure development, and waning natural resources.

In response, many companies have developed written corporate sustainability policies that describe their commitment to sustainable practices and, often, provide clear annual goals and report cards that detail actions taken to meet those goals.

Every company seeking to reduce its carbon footprint should analyze regularly the life cycle of all packaging purchased or sold. All too often, firms look only at the packaging that is most visible to the public, i.e. consumer packaging. Yet no packaging review can be considered complete until a thorough examination of industrial packaging has been undertaken as well. The results may be surprising.

Reuse = Less Carbon

In 2013, RIPA asked one of the worlds leading consulting firms, Ernst & Young, to conduct a life-cycle comparison of new and reconditioned packagings. The study compared several commonly used packagings of similar specifications, on a single-trip and multi-trip basis. These products were:

1. Steel drums (tight-head and open-head, 55-gallon capacity).

2. Plastic drums (tight-head, 55-gallon capacity).

3. Intermediate bulk containers (composite type, 275- and 330-gallon capacities).

First, the carbon footprint of each container type – new and reconditioned – was calculated for one trip only. Additional calculations then were made assuming more than one reuse of that packaging.

This was not the first study to examine these issues – Franklin Associates looked at some of the same issues in 1999 and several private studies have been conducted – so the results were not surprising. But they do confirm the intuitive notion that reuse of industrial packaging is far less resource-intensive than using newly manufactured packaging only one time.

Importantly, the study confirms that the more times a packaging is reconditioned and reused, the greater the overall GHG reductions.

Before diving into the results, lets take a brief look at the life cycle of the most widely used packaging examined in the study: the 55-gallon steel drum. All the other studied packagings travel roughly the same life cycle path.

Most steel drums are made from cold-rolled carbon steel, which is produced by combining iron ore, steel scrap and small amounts of other materials such as carbon, manganese and nickel, in a basic oxygen furnace. After processing, rolls of sheet steel are sold to consumers, in this case steel drum manufacturers.

At a new steel drum production plant, the sheet steel is trimmed and then formed by special machines into a cylindrical shell, to which one or two steel ends are permanently attached. An open-head drum has a permanently attached bottom and a removable top; on a tight-head drum, both top and bottom are permanently attached.

The completed steel drums are sold to manufacturers of a wide range of products who fill them and ship them to their customers. Once the product has been removed from the drums, the empty drums are generally collected by reconditioners who transport them to a facility where they are cleaned, reshaped, repainted, tested and resold to fillers.

Steel drums (and all the other studied packagings) can be reused many times depending on several factors, including filling and emptying practices, transportation and storage conditions, and excessive wear and tear in the loading and unloading processes. Packagings that the reconditioner determines are no longer fit for use are cleaned and then sold to scrap dealers for recycling.

This industrial packaging life cycle – i.e. the manufacture of a new container, filling, collection, reconditioning, reuse and, finally, scrapping – is the same throughout the world. Each time a packaging is reused, the natural resources and much of the energy (carbon) needed to create a new container from scratch are conserved. This process is facilitated by a global network of reconditioners.

Seeing Results

So, just how much GHG is saved as a result of industrial packaging reuse? Ernst & Young studied the worlds most common new and reconditioned industrial packagings, and compared their global warming potential (GWP) on a head-to-head, one-trip basis as well as a multi-trip reuse basis. The results are expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent, CO2e.

Steel Drums. Steel drums are produced in two general configurations, i.e. open-head and tight (closed) head, with both constructed from steel of varying thicknesses. Open-head steel drums are commonly used to transport relatively viscous materials, such as greases, paints or inks. Tight-head drums are normally used to transport non-viscous materials such as liquid chemicals, lubricating and other oils, solvents, etc. Figure 1 compares CO2e emissions for one common drum thickness.

Ernst & Young found that the manufacture and one-time use of a new open-head drum results in emissions of approximately 77.3 lbs. CO2e. Using instead a reconditioned open-head drum produces only about 39 percent of this amount, or 30.1 lbs. CO2e. Most of this difference is attributable to the extraction and processing of raw materials, such as iron ore.

What about tight-head steel drums? When reconditioned, these cut emissions by about 36 percent over comparable new tight-head drums (Figure 2). Total CO2e emissions for a new tight-head drum are about 71.6 lbs., while the reconditioned version emits just 46.1 lbs.

Plastic Drums. Made from virgin or recycled high-density polyethylene, the most commonly purchased plastic drums by far are 55-gallon tight head, so RIPA selected this style for study. Tight-head plastic drums can be used to ship a wide variety of non-viscous materials.

Figure 3 shows that a reconditioned 55-gallon plastic drum emits about 37 percent less CO2e over a new drum of the same design, for a savings of about 16.6 lbs CO2e per drum.

IBCs. As described earlier, composite IBCs are composed of an inner bottle made of HDPE, and a metal cage secured to a pallet. RIPA chose to study IBCs with metal pallets because they are most often used in the North American market. Composite IBCs are used to transport a wide range of commodities, very much like plastic drums since the containment unit (i.e. bottle) is made from HDPE.

The use of a reconditioned 275- or 330-gallon composite IBC with a steel pallet saves more than 67 percent of the CO2e emissions of newly manufactured IBCs of the same type (Figure 4). This translates into savings of over 180 lbs. CO2e for every reconditioned 275-gallon IBC, and over 218 lbs. CO2e for every 330-gallon reconditioned IBC used in place of a new unit.

Packaging at Its Best

In the coming years companies of all sizes will, of necessity, become ever more effective stewards of the natural environment. Significant and predictable increases in global population, accompanying increases in natural resource consumption patterns, and higher costs associated with materials consumption are likely to be the main drivers of changes in business behaviors related to the environment.

Sustainable packaging practices will become the norm, and companies will examine more carefully their mix of industrial packaging with an eye to expanding reuse opportunities. The process of optimizing the environmental impact of packaging decisions makes sense today, of course, but will assume even greater importance in the years ahead.

The performance of company purchasing agents responsible for packaging selection will likely be measured using both pricing and environmental metrics, and there is little doubt that carbon savings will occupy a place in future annual performance reviews.

Over time, packaging choices will, therefore, tilt towards the concept of best use for purpose. Purchasers will consider the product, the transportation and handling environment, emptying needs – and importantly, post-use factors including reuse options.

RIPAs study is a valuable tool for companies seeking to reduce their GHG emissions, and enables them to examine their industrial packaging purchasing and management systems. A futher aid for this effort is RIPAs new Green Packaging Calculator (see page 40).

Reusable industrial packaging is safe, environmentally progressive and readily available anywhere in the world. Every time an industrial packaging is reused, significant and quantifiable amounts of solid waste and energy are saved, and greenhouse gas emissions are prevented.

Paul Rankin is president of the Rockville, Md.-based Reusable Industrial Packaging Association, which represents over 90 percent of the U.S. industrial packaging reconditioning industry. For more information, e-mail him at or visit

How Green? See for Yourself

RIPA asked Ernst & Young to develop a simple-to-use Excel-based model that would enable its members and their customers to easily determine the amount of GHG savings available to users. The Green Packaging Calculator offers a simple three-step process to determine the environmental impact of multi-unit packaging purchases, expressed in CO2 equivalents.

Using steel drums as an example, a user first selects the style of steel drum to be purchased (for example an open head drum.) Next, the drums thickness mark is selected. This step is crucial because the thickness mark indicates the nominal thickness of the steel used to manufacture the drum. Steel thickness can be translated to weight, which is the primary factor in determining GHG emissions for steel drums.

Then, the user can input the number of drums to be purchased and include other customer-specific details. Using this data, the Calculator will print out for the user a report which describes the input selections and presents the estimated amount of GHG emissions savings, in CO2e.

Armed with this information it is easy for users to calculate total CO2e savings for any number of packagings. Importantly, this data can be used by firms to report CO2e savings in public reports or to interested government agencies, or to measure progress towards their sustainability goals.

RIPA Chairman Richard Buckner, vice president of Buckner Barrels Sales Corp. in Birmingham, Ala., believes the Green Packaging Calculator will benefit all users. As the states and the federal government become more deeply engaged in climate change issues, the business community will be asked to do their part, he said. Companies using the Calculator will be excited to learn that they can save substantial amounts of GHG just by expanding their use of reconditioned containers.

– P. Rankin