The choice is clear — and clearly yours: You can view regulatory issues, be they local, federal or international, as burdens or opportunities for your business. As lawyer and packaging writer Eric F. Greenberg says, “Anticipation, study and care regarding legal matters will help you see legal matters as opportunities.”

Packaging professionals face challenges from basic issues such as pallets, to philosophical questions like producer responsibility. In between are gray areas for manufacturers of packaging material, such as whether to use flame-retardant compounds or put antimicrobial additives into the chemical mix of products.

As businesses turn more global, packaging managers must broaden their scope of knowledge to comply with regulations that vary from Draconian down to none. Nowhere is this issue more obvious than when it comes to choosing a shipping platform for a product.

If only the choice were as simple as the one you face at the supermarket when asked, “Paper or plastic?” The full lifecycle analysis of wood versus plastic has yet to be done when it comes to pallet selection. The fact is, regulatory issues are driving the choice much of the time. Staying current with solid wood packaging regulations should become part of your pallet purchase program each time you buy new shipping platforms or ship products from your plant.

First, the end of the story

The question of whether you can ship products to Europe on solid wood pallets is currently a definite maybe.

In March 2002, the Interim Commission (of the International Plant Protection Convention [IPPC]) on Phytosanitary Measurements signed off on international standards for regulations for solid wood packaging material used in international trade. The U.S. was one of the 116 countries quickly signing in on the deal. By late summer, things were put on hold while authorities worked out some legal bugs regarding the use of a mark to be placed on approved pallets — namely the international symbol for “no bugs.”

Don’t lose sight of the fact that a standard is not a rule or regulation in and of itself. When the standard is put into place, each country will have to pass legislation if it is to implement the standard. At this time, the U.S. plans to adopt the IPPC standard by an interim rule. Formal regulations are further into the future.

So, what’s required if you’re going to be shipping solid wood packaging material to the rest of the world? The new standard recognizes two treatment methods for treating wood packaging material consisting of softwood and hardwood — non-manufactured wood packaging material. Packaging material made of manufactured, or engineered, wood is exempt from the standard. The two treatment methods approved as part of the standard are heat treatment and methyl bromide fumigation. The company that provides the lumber for pallets, for instance, will choose one of these methods. Ultimately, you, the user of the pallet, or your pallet provider, will have to be sure the lumber provider did the job properly. I say you will be responsible because it will be your products abandoned on some dock in quarantine if certification for the pallets is not available.

As an extension of the heat treatment program already in place for the treatment of non-manufactured wood headed for the European Union (EU), the U.S. has in place a memorandum of understanding with the American Lumber Standards Committee to meet the International Standard for Heat Treatment of wood packing material.

There are numerous links to information on this subject. I suggest you start with aphis.usda.gov for the most current and comprehensive information. You can also monitor the progress of this issue at ippc.int/IPP/En/.

Shipping to China is a special problem. While things are in limbo with the rest of the globe, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says there is no new requirement or authorization for the fumigation of either softwood or hardwood material. Current certification information of solid wood material destined for that country can be found at aphis.usda.gov/oa/chinaswp/chinarule.

The challenge with China is twofold. It doesn’t want our bugs and we don’t want theirs, particularly the Asian longhorn beetle currently eating its way through parts of New York and Illinois. The USDA has inoculated 120,000 trees in New York to stop or slow this pest, thought to have entered the U.S. in the wood of crates or pallets from China a couple years ago.

Also, at this writing, USDA is preparing an environmental impact statement in connection with regulations being considered regarding the importation of wood packaging material. The regulations being considered involve the importation of logs, lumber and other non-manufactured wood articles to decrease the risk of wood packaging material, such as crates and pallets, introducing exotic plant pests in the U.S.

What this all means, says the USDA, given the ubiquitous nature of the solid wood packaging material as a pathway for pests, and the difficulties in tracing the origins of the products, is “application of more stringent importation requirements, regardless of country of origin, appears to be warranted.” Anyone familiar with treaties and tariffs knows that what one country on this planet does, most often causes an equal or more restrictive reaction by all the others.

The best advice at this time is to know your wood pallet supplier and be sure it is certified for building shipping platforms acceptable for overseas shipping. Or, switch to engineered wood pallets. Or, make the big switch to plastic pallets. Granted, if you switch to plastic you get into another area of concern — producer responsibility for recycling of packaging material.

Who pays the rent?

If you think environmental issues have disappeared, I’d suggest you wake up and smell the landfill. It’s taken awhile for producer responsibility legislation to make its way to North America, and now it’s knocking on America’s door. Bill 90 in Ontario is the leading edge of producer responsibility legislation that will impact U.S. manufacturers shipping products into that province. The Waste Diversion Act has been passed to promote the reduction, reuse and, ultimately, recycling of designated waste.

Packaging managers have always been caught between using a minimal amount of protective packaging material, and protecting the product to the nth degree. The province of Ontario, and possibly soon Quebec, is moving away from burning trash as well as sending it to designated landfills.

Simply stated, Bill 90 calls for industrial producers of packaging destined for the waste stream to pay up to 50 percent of the net operating costs of the waste diversion program.

The Canadian program dates back to Germany’s Green Dot Program created more than 10 years ago. In 1991, Germany established the Ordinance on the Avoidance of Packaging Waste that requires disposal of all transport packaging “such as crates, drums, pallets and Styrofoam containers and the reuse or recycling of this material.” In 1992, the regulations were expanded to include all secondary packaging material.

Now, manufacturers, distributors and retailers are required to take back (from consumers) and recycle corrugated containers, blister packs and other product packaging used to ship, prevent theft or promote a product. The requirements were later focused even more sharply to specify “all types of consumer packaging used to contain and transport goods from the point of sale to consumption.”

Follow the money

To pay for this scheme, which has spread to virtually all countries in Europe in some form or iteration, the ordinance says that manufacturers, retailers and distributors (both domestic and foreign) may be exempt from taking back packaging material if they participate in an established national waste management program. As a participant in this program, your product carries a green dot (in Germany; other colors elsewhere) indicating to the consumer that the manufacturer participates in the program, and instead of returning the material to the manufacturer or distributor, the packaging will be collected, sorted and recycled.

Consider this a heads-up for what’s coming to America. The packaging laws in Germany, and elsewhere in Europe, have been successful in reducing packaging and encouraging the use of recycled and re-fillable packaging material. The laws have not been without challenges and problems. The greatest concern from foreign companies is that the laws are a possible barrier to trade.

The fact is, you have to pay to play. Fees are based on type and weight of packaging material. The heavier, more-difficult-to-recycle material pays a stiffer fee. In general, plastics have the highest fees and natural material and glass the lowest. Although foreign products are not required to carry the green dot, many manufacturers exporting to Germany claim that the domestic demand for green dot labels places imported goods at a market disadvantage. It appears that distributors and retailers may shy away from foreign products without the green dot because otherwise the responsibility of recycling the packaging material falls on the distributor or retailer.

To stay current with this and many other global recycling programs, I suggest you check the Web site, raymond.com. The staff at Raymond Communications follows nothing but international recycling issues.

The burning issue heats up

The easy answer is that flame-retardant pallets offer an alternative to companies faced with upgrading sprinkler systems to meet fire code requirements and keep insurance premiums under control. The other choice is to continue with wood pallets, thus forfeiting the benefits of plastic.

The not-so-easy answer is cost. If you’re buying on strictly the cost of the shipping platform, you’ll never get to plastic. Well, almost never. There are plastic pallets that rival in cost wooden pallets. Their use is restricted and cannot be compared pallet for pallet.

Plastic pallet manufacturers can quickly show the return on investment of their products, citing benefits such as lower cost per trip, savings on product damage, repair and disposal.

As John Orr, president of Buckhorn, says, “Fire-retardant additives to pallet chemistry have resulted in pallets that not only meet relevant fire codes, but also superior designs for long-term performance.”

Current testing for the fire retardancy of pallets is done on both idle storage, or stacked, pallets, and with commodity stored on pallet. If you’re looking for fire-retardant pallets, check to see if the pallet meets UL 2335 classification for flammability in accordance with NFPA 13 Standard for Installation of Sprinkler Systems. This is the guideline set by the National Fire Protection Association for distribution centers. The code provides an exemption for plastic pallets that present a hazard “equal to or less that than presented by idle wood pallets” and are listed accordingly.

You can also check an online certifications directory and get more information about testing at the Underwriters Laboratory Web site, ul.com.

To help keep companies in the material handling industry informed about fire-related issues, the Reusable Plastic Container and Pallet Association, a product section of Material Handling Industry, has produced a pamphlet called Fire Protection Resources. Contact it at mhia.org/rpcpa.

Another issue regarding fire and packaging on the horizon is the use of stretch wrap and shrink wrap in distribution centers. The concern is that fully wrapped loads on pallets are particularly resistant to wetting from sprinkler systems should a fire occur. If wrapping is not total, meaning the top of the load is not wrapped, water can penetrate, thus helping to control the fire by not adding additional fuel.

Keep in mind, no one is saying you can’t use plastic pallets in your warehouse. Unlisted pallets can be used in combination with other fire safety methods. Check out NFPA 13 Standard for Installation of Sprinkler Systems. Some insurance and fire inspectors use NFPA 231, Standard for General Storage and NFPA 231C, Standard for Rack Storage of Materials.

Food safety

Protecting the food supply of the nation is well regulated, and for many years there have been few alternatives to glass or stainless steel. Now, a new word is entering into the lexicon of many packaging professionals. It’s antimicrobial. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires that we use the term antimicrobial for substances incorporated into or on surfaces. This is because the available protection products inhibit growth of bacteria on the treated packaging material. Additionally, the EPA believes the use of the term antibacterial would indicate a public health claim. Companies using antimicrobial additives note that the material will not prevent disease or food-borne illness.

For the first time, antimicrobial technology is being safely built into plastic and textiles to continuously protect against the growth of bacteria that can cause discoloration and odor. When used with good cleaning practices, products such as Microban, now available in containers from Orbis, work between cleanings to inhibit the growth of a broad spectrum of bacteria, mold, mildew and fungi for the life of the product.

“Using the antimicrobial protection in our containers,” says Deb Salemi, product manager food handling products, “allows us to give customers an innovative packaging solution for their clients.”

While often legislation is seen as restricting business, it’s not always the case. For example, the efforts of Reusable Pallet and Container Coalition (RPCC) have led to tax exemption for users of reusable pallets and containers. The association’s most recent victory, in Delaware, created a financial gain for food processors in particular. Delaware joins Florida and California in offering tax relief, all through the efforts of the RPCC.

The Delaware law, like others, is not content specific, meaning any container, plastic or natural material is included. It defines the exempt product as “any pallet or crate which is under an arrangement for the repeated return of such property to its initial purchaser for long-term use.”

“Tax relief,” says Ken Smith, RPCC president, “is a recognition by the states of the value of reusables. Reusables already offer most businesses cost savings, increased productivity and reduced solid waste.”

What do you need to know to survive in the regulatory jungle? As with any jungle, keep your eye on the trail and spot the trap before you step into it. Stay current with packaging legislation and, importantly, watch for issues that will impact your business. To know what those issues are, or might be, means you’ll have to be part of the product development team. Your input into the process should be packaging and label. While the law-making process might take years in the doing, you can’t afford to wait. By staying current with legislation, you pre-empt having to make adjustments when your product is ready to go to market or when the law comes into effect — whichever happens first. MHM

Regulations To Watch

How you handle

Fire protection. National Fire Protection Association NFPA Building Construction and Safety Code 2002 provides minimum design regulations to safeguard life and limb, health, property, and public welfare. It can play a major role in the material handling equipment and methods you employ — down to the pallets you put in your racks and the sprinklers you put above them. Go to www.nfpa.org/Codes

Food safety. The Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) regulation from the FDA requires that certain foods be carefully inspected for spoilage and that there be proper handling at multiple points throughout the manufacturing and distribution processes. Go to www.fda.gov.

Hazardous material. Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) 3.12 and 3.13 regulations require that companies holding certain quantities of hazardous material on site report average daily totals of hazardous material. Go to www.epa.gov.

Recycling of control components. Various state legislatures are contemplating regulations for the dumping of potentially hazardous waste material from controls. Go to www.raymond.com .

Conveyor safety. The Conveyor Equipment Manufacturers Association (CEMA) is working to develop standards for better compliance on cross-over requirements. Go to www.cemanet.org.

Clean air in the workplace. The California Air Resources Board, or CARB, came out with new requirements for lift truck engine emissions in 1998. There will be CARB and federal EPA harmony by January 1, 2004. A second set of more ambitious federal requirements would take effect in 2007. These rules deal primarily with establishing more rigorous testing requirements for large spark-ignited engines as well as requiring in-the-field emissions testing. Go to www.indtrk.org.

How you ship

Packaging. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service regulates the importation of logs, lumber and other unmanufactured wood articles to decrease the risk of wood packaging material introducing exotic plant pests into the U.S. Go to regulations@aphis.usda.gov.

Producer responsibility. In Europe, domestic and foreign manufacturers and distributors are required to take back all transport packaging such as crates, drums, pallets and Styrofoam containers (i.e., primary packaging) and recycle or reuse this material. In 1992, these regulations were expanded to include all secondary packaging. Accordingly, manufacturers, distributors and retailers are now required to take back and recycle secondary packaging from consumers. Go to www.epa.gov/oppt/epp/pubs/envlab/greendot.pdf.

Recycling. Bill 90: Waste Diversion Act Province of Ontario. This Canadian Act promotes the reduction, reuse and recycling of wastes by establishing a permanent non-government corporation called Waste Diversion Ontario (WDO) to develop, implement and fund waste diversion programs. Go to http://www.ene.gov.on.ca/envision/news/2002/061401.htm.

Homeland security. The Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) is a cooperative endeavor between the trade community and U.S. Customs Service to develop, enhance and maintain effective security processes throughout the global supply chain. Go to http://www.customs.ustreas.gov/enforcem/tpat.htm.