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Cool Concepts for Environmentally-Friendly Transport

Delivering ice cream in the mail? “…That’s got to work,” thought Ralf Schulze from Beeskow, Brandenburg, Ger-many, when he was planning his start-up ‘IceGuerilla.de’.

His online shop is the only shop of its kind in Europe to deliver the ice-cream creations he makes in-house to his customers. A challenging project indeed when transport times of up to 56 hours and temperatures inside the transport vehicle of up to 70°C are taken into consideration. A choice was finally made in favour of packaging made of Styrofoam, because it offers excellent insulation properties at an affordable price.

THERMOCON, a brand and business unit of the Schaumaplast Group

The shipping box from IceGuerilla contains four tubs of ice cream and bags filled with dry ice. The Styrofoam box is custom-made by Schaumaplast, from Nossen, in Saxony, Germany. As an international manufacturer of particle-foam mouldings, Schaumaplast develops cooling packaging solutions for temperature and impact-sensitive products for the pharmaceutical, food and industrial sectors. Due to the increased demand, the Schaumaplast Group has decided to outsource this business line of thermal packaging and to establish its own brand – THERMOCON. The full service the company provides covers the delivery of thermo boxes, cooling elements, phase-change materials (PCM), GDP-compliant and pre-qualified cooling systems and related engineering and thermal design. To achieve this, the company uses a comprehensive standard container range featuring 90 sizes. Nevertheless, they frequently design containers to the exact specifications of their customers, as in the case of IceGuerilla. Currently, in Germany, more than 800 online food retailers can be seen to be shipping products, with almost 180 of them being fresh. For this specific group, stringent temperature control is a feature that ultimately determines the final quality of the product.

Global innovation: A different Styrofoam made from biomass

Schaumaplast is the first company in the world to supply thermo boxes made of BASF’s new biomass balanced approach to Styrofoam. Styrofoam or ‘airpop’ is expandable polystyrene, or EPS for short, made of naphtha, a petroleum product. The manufacture of biomass balance Styrofoam uses naphtha, which is completely synthesized from biomass, such as vegetable waste, vegetable oils or gases. In contrast to PLA-based particle foams, in terms of formula, Styrofoam biomass balance is identical to its fossil-based counterpart and has the same mechanical and thermal properties. In future, IceGuerilla intends to convert its ice cream packaging to this new material. “We think it’s great that a product like Styrofoam, which is so ideally suited to packaging refrigerated products, can now be sourced from renewable resources,” explains Schulze.

One kilogram of biomass Styrofoam saves some 1.25 kg of fossil naphtha or the equivalent of about 1.64 kg of CO2. The whole thing works like green electricity. Each kilogram of biomass balance Styrofoam needs to be balanced out by a corresponding amount of renewable resources. This means that if Schaumaplast processes biomass balance Styrofoam, BASF is obliged to use the corresponding amount of biomass to produce raw materials. TÜV Süd makes sure that this takes place.

Complex planning, bespoke solution

When the project kicks-off, the experts from Schaumaplast clarify the requirements. For example, whether a disposable or reusable solution is required? Which temperature range needs to be maintained, and what shortfalls or excesses are acceptable? It makes things easier if you can plan a different type of packaging for summer than for the winter. More elaborate alternatives involve year-round elements. According to Markus Hoffmann, Sales and Technology Coordinator at Schaumaplast, “The consequence is that the system has to be made much more robust, because when the same elements and box are used, the lower/upper limits at, for example, a -10°C outside temperature need to be the same as at 50°C.”

The choice of material depends mainly on whether the box is to be transported only once or more frequently. EPS is the preferred material for disposable packaging. With a thermal conductivity of around 0.034 W/mK, EPS has some of the best insulation properties of all foam plastics. Expanded polypropylene, or EPP, is more robust in mechanical terms, making it a good choice for reusable packaging. The insulation properties of EPP are also excellent, ranging from some 0.036 to 0.040 W/mK, which is almost the same as for EPS.

Cool companion for safe transportation

Selection of the cooling elements is the logical consideration that follows from this. The options available range from gel packs for one-way shipping, individually sized cooling packs, reusable hard-shell accumulators, to foam bricks, which take the form of dimensionally stable cooling elements with a foam core. The different melting points of the medium in the cooling elements decide on the temperature ranges to be achieved.

The point arrives at this stage in every project where a decision needs to be made on whether the specifications can be implemented with standard components, or whether a bespoke box with special cooling elements is required. Whether mass production actually pays off depends very much on the individual case. According to Hoffmann, “An individual tool is rarely built for a series of less than 500 to 1000 boxes. For smaller quantities, we try to use our standard range of boxes first. This means that the customer does not have to invest in a tool for small series productions.”

The thermal calculation takes into account the temperature limits for the product being planned, the transportation time and the outdoor temperature profile. Either the customer’s own profiles or standards such as ISTA or AFNOR are used as temperature profiles. For practical testing purposes, a prototype is milled from a solid block of the suitable particle foam material and is available for practical tests at short notice. This allows the performance of the newly developed thermo-box and its fitted cooling elements to be verified in an environmental chamber test prior to starting series production. Temperature profiles from -20°C to 50°C can be handled in the in-house environment chamber. Schaumaplast also cooperates with ISTA-certified laboratories. The customer receives written documentation detailing the performance of his new thermal packaging. Data loggers are used to monitor testing under real conditions in the customer’s logistics chain.

If the customer gives the green light, the foaming tools are built. The first foam boxes made with the tool are usually tested in the environment chamber to validate the parameters. If everything goes well, mass production can go ahead.

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