Illustration of distribution palette with a load depicting map of the world
Illustration of distribution palette with a load depicting map of the world

Since 2017, we’ve transformed our approach to using plastics at our distribution sites. As part of our newest Sustainability Policy, Neil Springall, Head of Operations at Penguin Random House Services, shares the leading innovative work being created by his team at Frating.

How were single-use plastics used in our distribution sites, and what were they used for?

Predominantly, single-use plastics in the form of shrink wrapping is used extensively in warehouse environments. It's the quickest, probably safest and securest way of moving stock. You'll build your product - in our case books - to a certain height and then for transit purposes, you need to secure that product to the pallet itself. Because clearly, once it's been transported around the country, going around bends at speed, it has a tendency to move! So historically, shrink wrap was designed to tie to the base of the pallet, but then layer upon layer was added to enclose all of the stock and attach it to that palette itself.

Clearly, shrink wrap was also waterproof, so it's a cheap way of protecting your goods whilst in transit delivery. And we used a lot of it. In an average peak day we'll send out 500+ pallets at one distribution site in Frating alone, which is one of the two distribution sites we have. Every single one of those 500 pallets was shrink wrapped in plastic. Additional to that, within the carton itself to hold the books down, we had this plastic that shrink wrapped everything so the books wouldn't move and were protected from dust, movement and damage in transit, plus plastic bubbles to fill any gaps. A very simple way of doing it, and that's the problem – plastic is a very, very simple solution in distribution.

So, we had a massive sustainability challenge internally. In 2017 we started discussing what we could do to really try and reduce the amount of single-use plastic.

Tell us about the innovative solutions we’ve created for replacing single-use plastics.

We identified three main areas for our plastic usage: shrink wrap, plastic inside the cartons and the void fill. To start with, we set ourselves quite an ambitious target of 60% reduction of plastic usage and worked with project manager Jason Edmonds to research alternatives.

He stumbled across a design called a ‘load hog lid’, which is a rigid, solid plastic – plastic, yes, but reusable and recyclable. Once we build our books on top of the pallet, this lid sits on top. You have straps that come out of the lid itself and attach to the base of the palette so it bonds everything together, and then you send it to your end customer, who then send them back, like a big conveyer belt. We looked at the hundreds of pallets coming in every night from our printers at Clays, and used the same process. It's worked an absolute dream! Before the pandemic hit, we achieved a 46% reduction of our shrink wrap usage.

For protecting the books inside the cartons we came up with the ingenious idea of re-using cardboard packaging from books sent to us from abroad. We bought a machine that finely shreds the cardboard and creates a really flexible material that we use as void fill, so if it does turn in transit, it's bouncing against this flexible cardboard infill. And wow, it just eradicated all use of any plastic within the cartons. We're now totally plastic free on all our forward shipment cartons, which is phenomenal.

How are we hoping to influence the industry and partners to follow suit?

We’ve had wholesalers, printers and customers phone us asking about our pallet lids who are now thinking about purchasing them, and I've spoken at many events and gatherings to introduce companies to the load hog lid. We're getting the word out there in the industry – we really want to be leaders in the change to try and reduce plastic usage.

Which areas are you hoping to encourage more innovation in, sustainability-wise at Frating?

I mention we eradicated 46% of our shrink-wrap use – sadly, the other 54% is quite difficult because a lot of that is in exporting overseas. If we used the load hog lids in that area, it would be nearly impossible to ensure they came back to us. But, we can at least use them to transport the stock to the freight forwarder in the UK, and that's something we're very keen to trial this year. We think that would see us achieve another 20% at minimum of reduction in plastic which would be fantastic.

We’re also always looking for new ideas. In China, they’re trialling use of crepe paper as an alternative to shrink wrap. We sent a pallet overseas and they shrink wrapped it in this paper, before sending it back to us in the UK. Coming from China, it went through several different hubs before it came to us, and they arrived in perfect condition. We’re now pushing hard with partners to invest in that technology to move away from plastic.

So we just say, keep the initiatives going. We're open to any ideas or challenges, anything is possible. We've got some very passionate people in the warehouse who care deeply about the environment and care about our future, because we’ve all got to do our bit. I was born and brought up by the sea, so I've seen the devastation that plastic has done to our oceans. And for me, it's also a personal thing to try and make the world a better place for my children, and indeed my grandchildren.

Illustration: Mike Ellis for Penguin

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