Case Study: Stretch Wrap Alternative Project

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CHEP joins forces with nine Ellen MacArthur Foundation members in the Stretch Wrap Alternative Project to reimagine pallet wrap

In January 2021, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation initiated the Stretch Wrap Alternative Project (SWAP) — including ten companies from its network, to test a commercially viable and geographically scalable circular alternatives to linear stretch wrap, focusing on reuse, recycling, and composting.

This project links with our Zero Waste World initiative, a global collaboration programme co-creating and delivering zero waste innovation and scalable solutions with the world’s leading retailers and manufacturers to meet consumer demand in a smarter and more sustainable way.

Background

Stretch wrap is used to secure loads to pallets so that products can be transported safely. It performs well and is cost effective, but it is also generally discarded after use, with only 21% recycled in the US and 30% in Europe.

Businesses must work across the value chain to drastically reduce reliance on this linear plastic packaging model and transition to circular packaging models to reduce the environmental impact from the use of plastic.

However, because stretch wrap is commonly used across industries as a standard, it is not an easy issue for a single company to tackle in isolation. We recognize that collaboration is key.

The SWAP project aims to assess whether they could be technically feasible, scalable, and commercially viable while reducing the environmental impact when compared with the current stretch wrap option.

The Challenge

Global efforts to reduce plastic waste tend to focus on consumer packaging, though business-to-business packaging is also a significant contributor to plastic waste volumes.

In Europe and the USA alone almost 3 million metric ton of commercial film, including the stretch wrap used to stabilize pallet loads in transportation, are being used every year.

Most plastic packaging follows a linear route of disposal with only 14% of packaging collected for recycling globally.

Although it is technically possible to recycle stretch wrap, recycling rates are estimated to be just 21% in the US and 30% in Europe. Furthermore, the material is often recycled in open loop systems, which uses the recycled material to create other products such as trash bags or commercial film with thicker gauge. Only a minority of material used is recycled back into stretch wrap in a closed loop system (mainly into hand-applied film), due to contamination challenges.

Stretch wrap is the industry standard for securing pallet loads because of its performance, flexibility, and favorable economics. Hence the challenge to find comparable alternatives.

The Solutions

Three working groups were formed to identify circular solutions for linear stretch wrap, each piloting a solution pathway inspired by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Upstream Innovation Guide:

1. Reuse

Reusable pallet protection can replace single-use and linear stretch wrap, reducing environmental impacts from manufacturing, demand for material, and end-of-life waste, along with offering a durable solution that can be managed through different parts of a logistics operation.

Reusable packaging is the preferred option after reducing problematic or unnecessary plastic. The more often reusable options are used, the greater the environmental benefit and return on investment can be.

Two reusable solutions were piloted, included CHEP’s stackable crates, which provide durable containers that optimize space and reduce waste and contamination, and collapsible bulk containers with integrated pallet.

The reusable hood passed transit tests and was successful in protecting the pallet load against damage. After 50 uses, this solution becomes more environmentally beneficial than linear stretch wrap.

2. Recycling

The recycling workstream designed a pilot to test if post-consumer stretch film could be cleaned to a level that would allow it to be recycled back into stretch film (or other high-value applications), enabling a closed loop model.

The aim was to identify the most prevalent and hard to remove contaminants and the processes that could be used to improve the quality of recycled stretch wrap.

The pilot concluded that stretch film can be recycled back into stretch film for hand application, but quality limitations mean it is not yet suitable for mechanical application. Nonetheless, opportunities to increase recycling, whether with open or closed loop models should be targeted to improve processing technology and increase the demand for infrastructure.

3. Composting

The composting workstream aimed to identify whether compostable plastic is viable for use as pallet stretch wrap. Within this project, the group focused on exploring material performance through application, distribution, and live compost tests.

The film successfully composted in an industrial in-vessel composter and successfully passed the ISTA 3E testing despite some difficulties during application.

For compostable stretch wrap to be successful, different parts of the value chain need to be proactively engaged to improve composting outcomes.

Lessons Learned

There is no “one size fits all” circular solution to replace linear stretch wrap. Each of the alternatives piloted should be selected based on the specific use case. A full life cycle thinking is key to identifying successful alternatives while continuing to prioritize upstream interventions, like reduction and reuse, first.

Performance requirements for the pallet wrap based on sourcing, handling, manufacturing, and regional availability will help determine which solution is best suited for a specific product.

The availability of local infrastructure should also be identified early in the decision-making process as it can limit possible solutions.

Collaboration across industries is crucial to implement a circular solution that benefits the entire value chain.

Though the overall aim should be to reduce linear stretch wrap, its performance and ability to deliver a safe transport to a variety of products must be acknowledged.

What's Next

The results and learnings from the three pilots can be taken as a starting point for others across the industry to further test and implement circular pallet wrap solutions that optimize environmental outcomes.

We recommend that designers and manufacturers:

  • Continue to refine and develop reusable materials that are lightweight, sustainably sourced, and high performing.
  • Increase the acceptance of visible impurities in recycled material.
  • Continue to develop strategies for improved recyclability and recovery that enables higher value PCR content products.
  • Create an industry standard for business-to-business stretch film composition that allows for more high-quality recycling.
  • Engage with stakeholder outside of the direct stretch film value chain such as label manufacturers to ensure compatibility of materials for recycling process.

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    Case Study: Stretch Wrap Alternative Project | CHEP