Delivering a sustainable future

It is a hot topic, and this is no exception in the distribution sector. From minimising the amount of plastic disposed of in the warehouse, to the machines delivering the goods, New Zealand seems to be well on its way.

Removing plastic by the load

Made from 50% recycled polyester mesh and 50% new, GreenSpider reusable pallet wraps are saving tonnes of plastic waste entering the environment.

Introduced to the New Zealand market through Nichol Development & Distribution in 2019, business development manager Joel Nichol says that Foodstuffs has become the country’s major clients of the innovative product.

“How it all started with us, is I’m very good friends with an owner of a New World in Christchurch,” says Nichol.

“He’s very climate conscious… he absolutely hated how many pallet wraps were going into the skip.

“He was actually filling a large-size skip three times a week just with pallet wrap.”

By the end of 2019, Nichol Development & Distribution had teamed up with a manufacturer based in Texas, United States, which produce the reusable pallet wraps in two models – a full ‘Model T’ pallet wrap, and ‘Model B’ which is designed to be a quick in-storeroom style wrap for light duty and transporting within the warehouse.

“We’re glad that they’ve gone through the R&D that we didn’t want to go through and to bring a product in that we knew was going to work,” says Nichol.

With 42 stores across the South Island, the GreenSpider pallet wraps are used in 28 of them.

“The average New World will work around 40 pallets a day, give or take,” says Nichol.

Based on this, each store has a potential saving of around 3.7 tonnes of pallet wrap per year.

“Financially, that saves around $12,000 a year in material. To put that into perspective, their order with us would only be around $4,500.

“We expect our pallet wraps to last a minimum of five years, so I give them a return on savings of around $58,000 based on that $4,500 investment. And they’ll save 18.3 tonnes over five years, minimum.”

And these sorts of results are already being seen with the stores that are using these sustainable pallet wraps having saved 48.3 tonnes in the past year.

“It’s not been an insignificant number taken away from waste,” says Nichol.

GreenSpider reusable pallet wraps

While Foodstuffs in the biggest client so far, other companies are also getting involved. Many of these are food companies, such as sustainable milk brands, coffee, and Cookie Time – companies one might expect to be looking for a sustainable approach.

“But then I’ve got things like chemical companies, companies that have odd barrels. We had electrical coils, that was a custom one we had to do,” says Nichol.

Another example is furniture companies looking to use the B model, which is an elasticated wrap that can be customised.

“We’ve had a couple of furniture companies look at using that for wrapping sofas and chairs, and odd things that they use a lot of pallet wrap for, but that think something stronger would do the job a lot better.”

For companies wanting to ensure that the pallet wraps can be retrieved once they have made delivery, RFID tags are the answer.

“It’s a bit more high-tech than just sending them out and hoping you get them back,” says Nichol.

“A couple of companies like L’Oréal are looking at the wraps on an Australasian level where they want to send them from Australia to New Zealand, and even Indonesia. And they’re looking to use that system.”

The hope is that this, combined with the product’s ease of use and contribution to sustainability, will mean that more and more Kiwi companies will make the switch from plastic wrap.

“Once they trial it or once they see it, very few people haven’t had a smile on their face and said yes straight away.

“We’re trying to rid New Zealand of single use pallet wrap, that’s our overall goal with this product.”

Going electric in motive power

When it comes to the machines that move the pallets, more sustainable options are now also available.

“Forklifts could be electric, or they could run off diesel or LPG – there are a lot of different types out there,” says Sarah Laurence, general manager at DCPower Batteries.

“But electric forklifts are becoming more and more popular these days for obvious reasons.”

One of the major reasons is sustainability. And Laurence says that both common technologies in electric forklifts – lead-acid and lithium ion – play their role in being ‘green’.

Battery life

“In a forklift environment, you can run your lead-acid battery for eight hours,” says Laurence.

“It theoretically takes eight hours to charge and then it needs eight hours to cool, and then you can use it for another eight hours – it will run for one shift a day.”

On the other hand, lithium batteries can operate 24/7, for three shifts per day.

For this reason, Laurence says this is making them a popular choice as they are the only technology capable of fulfilling the demand that consumers have created today.

When it comes to the overall lifecycle of the two technologies, lithium also lasts longer.

“What happens is a battery is discharged and then it’s recharged again, and that is counted as one cycle.”

Lead-acid batteries are generally rated at around 1,500 to 1,800 cycles, which if used correctly can equate to around five years.

“Lithium, however, is rated to 4,000 cycles, or thereabouts which people will tout as two to three times the lifespan of lead-acid.

“However, the testing that we have done on lithium today, it shows that it is most likely going to provide a serviceable life far greater that what it was originally anticipated for.

“We have some, for example, out there in the marketplace that we are anticipating will last up to 20 years. That’s before they need to go to retirement – so if they can spend another five years in retirement, we might be looking at 25 years before we are talking about end of life for that particular product.”

However, this doesn’t mean that lithium is always the best choice.

“Lead-acid still has a really solid place in the market with small to medium enterprises.”

For example, the local fruit and vegetable store might only use its forklift for a couple of hours a day. Laurence says that for this reason, “the return on investment of a lithium battery doesn’t exist, it just makes no sense for them to go that way”.

“They can quite comfortably have a lead-acid battery and it’s a fraction of the price up front for them, they’re still going to get a really long lifespan out of it.

“The flip side of that of course is we work with distribution centres such as Foodstuffs and they’ve got their new distribution centre in Auckland that is the largest in the country and operates 24/7.

“For that environment, lead-acid just doesn’t cut the mustard. They would use the life of a lead-acid battery in a year if they went that way. So for them, moving to lithium is a no-brainer.”

A second life for lithium

While lithium has a longer initial lifespan, unlike with lead-acid, the industry is yet to provide a closed-loop solution in terms of recycling and disposal of the batteries.

Research is underway though, and New Zealand’s Battery Industry Group has co-designed a circular product stewardship scheme that is now with the Ministry for the Environment.

Meanwhile, there are some good initiatives available.

“For example, one of the companies we deal with, they repurpose the batteries and essentially give them a retirement life,” says Laurence.

This means that after the long life that lithium batteries offer, they can be refurbished and used in other applications.

“Running forklifts is pretty full on – they’re constantly drawing power, driving around the distribution centre, carrying heavy loads.

“But those batteries can also be used, for example, in standby power.”

This can include emergency lighting, or another area where the power is not necessarily running all the time.

Recycling lead-acid

“Lead-acid batteries, funnily enough, are probably one of the environmental success stories of our time because they are 99.9% recyclable, which is all the componentry, all the casing, all the connections. All the individual components are broken down and recycled,” says Laurence.

Unfortunately, this battery recycling is no longer offered in New Zealand.

“But the good thing is that if you’re looking at the closed lifecycle of the entire supply chain, then essentially what is happening is they are being taken away, they are being recycled, and then they are being made into new batteries and sent back to us in a different form.”

And this doesn’t include just forklift batteries, but all automotive batteries.

“We have a programme here where we actually collect old lead-acid batteries, we send them away and we donate the proceeds to our local hospice,” says Laurence.

Because lead can be reused, its value can be relatively high. This means that for a dead lead-acid battery, it still has value.

The team from DCPower Batteries

A way forward for lithium

At the moment though, there is no known value in a dead lithium battery. And Laurence says that worse-case scenario, they can come at a cost to dispose of.

“In a way I suppose it already kind of does, because what we have to do is factor in the cost to retrieve that battery from the customer and then ship it back,” says Laurence, with DCPower Batteries’ supplier that refurbishes the lithium batteries located in Greece.

“When you look at the two options in terms of disposal, lead-acid is still the most appealing in terms of sustainability and low cost of ownership.”

According to Laurence, the global battery industry spends more than New Zealand’s GDP per year in research and development.

“There are new articles and new developments being released almost every other day. It is really hard to predict what it will look like in 10-20 years’ time.”

This future could even see the industry move to automatic guides vehicles (AGVs).

“These are vehicles that don’t even need people to drive them, they can work remotely, and, in those cases, you get optimum running times – therefore you get maximum lifespan out of them.”

But until then, there is a closed-loop solution for lead-acid batteries, and the option to refurbish and reuse lithium batteries once they go into retirement.

Zero-emission on the road

Batteries aren’t just being used inside the warehouse – they’re also starting to help the vehicles that deliver the goods.

One company helping the sector in its evolution towards sustainability is Fuso New Zealand.

The company’s eCanter ZEA Auckland City Project, in partnership with ERoad and co-funded through the government’s Low Emission Vehicles Contestable Fund, has recently commenced.

Five major fleet operators – Mainfreight, Bidfood, Toll Group, Owens Transport and Vector OnGas – will use the Fuso eCanter trucks for 12 months of data collection in Auckland’s city centre.

“What we are looking at is the truck at work in a busy New Zealand city center,” says Kathy Schluter, Fuso’s group manager of sales and customer experience.

“That last mile delivery is really a perfect situation for the eCanter, and this is a great opportunity for the customers to really get in there and test their requirements.

“Nimble, quiet and environmentally friendly, the trucks are specially made for the city environment. We are delighted to team up with our major clients to learn and lead together to deliver a sustainable future for our country,” says Schluter.

Kathy Schluter, Fuso’s group manager of sales and customer experience

Genesis has already added a Fuso eCanter to its fleet, making it the first company in the Southern Hemisphere do so.

“Transport contributes approximately 21% of New Zealand’s gross domestic greenhouse gas emissions but until now there have been very few options to reduce emissions from the heavy truck fleet,” says Cameron Jardine, Genesis’s general manager of LPG and small and medium enterprises.

The introduction of the Fuso eCanter to its fleet is a major step towards the company increasing the proportion of electric or hybrid vehicles in its 110-strong truck fleet. Genesis has also almost completed converting its light vehicle fleet from petrol and diesel-powered vehicles.

“As this is the first series-produced fully electric truck to hit New Zealand roads we have a lot to learn about how to incorporate electric vehicles into our truck fleet, and what other adjustments we will have to make to get the best out of this new technology,” says Jardine.

Schluter says that every eCanter has a significant impact on the road to being ‘green’.

“Suddenly you go to a zero-emission last mile delivery. Obviously, the more you replace, the better – but it certainly is well on the journey for our customers.”

For other companies wanting to integrate electric vehicles to their fleet, the advice from Fuso is to do the right research and engage with those involved early.

“We are allocating trucks to customers before they come into the country, so engage with us early with your intentions, with your electricity company, with your drivers – make it a company-wide discussion and there will be some really great findings in there,” says Schluter.

Those implementing the vehicles should also look ahead as to what comes next after the first truck.

“Is it their intention to just be in it for now, or is it their intention to replace the whole fleet over the next five years? If so, talking with your power provider or considering where your business is located is something many customers are now considering for their emission-free future.

“There are lots of companies contacting us and looking at the eCanter for themselves and stepping up on that journey now, which is exciting.

“It’s a real feel-good factor that, one, we have a government really behind the country being emission free, and two, that we’re really looking out for the next generation – and also ourselves, we are a big part of that journey.”