Sustainability in cold chain logistics: The role of a circular economy

Published: 3-Aug-2022

Shipping temperature-sensitive pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical products can be both costly and environmentally unfriendly

In this interview, Intelsius Technical Director Jens Mangelsen speaks about what a circular economy is, how you can adopt a circular economy in your working practices, and how it could benefit both the natural environment and your budget.

Jens has over 20 years of experience in the cold chain logistics sector and has seen first-hand the impact of a shift towards more sustainable logistics solutions.

Intelsius are a leading designer and manufacturer of temperature-controlled packaging solutions and serve some of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical organisations with its packaging solutions.

What is a circular economy?

When we talk about a circular economy, we mean the opposite to a traditional manufacturing approach of 'take, make and waste'. Instead of harvesting new raw materials, we reuse existing materials. Instead of using energy inefficient manufacturing processes, we look to use efficient energy-saving methods. Lastly, instead of discarding materials or products in landfills, we refurbish them so they can be used again. At Intelsius, this is what we mean when we talk about a circular economy.

How would a circular economy work in the cold chain packaging sector?

Packaging is a fantastic example of how a circular economy approach can work well. The first step is manufacturing your packaging from reusable or environmentally friendly materials rather than harvesting new raw materials that can’t be recycled. One of the keys to adopting a circular economy is not contributing to landfill waste, so this is an essential step.

The second step is to ensure your manufacturing processes are as energy-efficient as possible; where possible, replacing energy-intensive processes with energy-efficient ones and use renewable energies. For example, at our Frankfurt-based German manufacturing site, the fridges and freezers we use for pre-conditioning temperature-controlled packaging are entirely powered by renewable energies. In addition, we use LED lightbulbs and regularly asses our manufacturing processes and on-site energy use to find more sustainable solutions.

The next and perhaps most crucial step is what you do with the packaging after a customer has finished using it. Rather than discarding the packaging, you would look to clean and refurbish it, so it was ready to be used again. It’s important that this cleaning and refurbishment step is completed to the highest standard, ensuring packaging is as good as new when it next leaves the building.

Lastly, it’s about what you do with the packaging at the end of its life cycle; in a circular economy, you wouldn’t discard the packaging in a landfill. But instead, you would break down its component parts and reuse them or have them recycled for others to use. This way, you keep all the materials in use for longer, or potentially indefinitely, depending on the material and the proposed use.

What is the existing, typical dogma in packaging design and manufacturing?

As referenced earlier, traditional manufacturing dogma has been to 'take, make, and waste'. New raw materials are harvested and then used in high-intensity manufacturing processes that do not use renewable energy sources and are eventually thrown away at the end of their life cycle, which for many products (thinking about disposable single-use plastic products) is after one use only.

This way, manufacturers race through raw material deposits, use a lot of non-renewable energy sources, and commit products to landfill, where they will take hundreds of years to break down. This approach is unsustainable, as the earth has finite raw materials and space for waste.

Furthermore, we are already witnessing the impact of climate change due to numerous human activities, not least intensive manufacturing processes and a wasteful approach to how we use our resources.

Sustainability in cold chain logistics: The role of a circular economy

What is the impact of moving to a circular economy methodology?

For us, it is both environmental in terms of lowering our carbon footprint and meeting our commitment to carbon neutrality, and financial as we use less energy and keep our products in circulation for much longer. For example, the lifespan of a multi-use packaging solution that can be used, refurbished and used again is up to ten years, equating to many uses per year. Whereas a single-use packaging solution would, as alluded to by its name, be used once before being discarded or broken down for parts. The only difference from our end is having the facility to offer refurbishment services to the customer, but the overall cost to us and our customers is reduced, as, of course, is the carbon footprint of the manufacturing process.

Can you give examples of companies that have adopted a circular economic approach in other sectors?

Circular economy manufacturing has become big business for many globally recognised brands. Nike, IKEA and Adidas, to name but a few, have all developed product lines that look to keep materials in use for longer by offering refurbishment and cleaning services. A great example of this is IKEA, who offer to repurchase your IKEA furniture from you when you've finished using it. They then refurbish it or recycle its parts for use in other products, thus keeping the materials in use for longer, potentially indefinitely.

What are the benefits of a circular economy to the customer?

In our sector, the benefit to the customer is reducing their carbon footprint, reducing costs, and having flexibility in how they meet fluctuations in demand. For example, all of our customers are looking at ways to reduce carbon emissions as they look to meet carbon neutrality deadlines and prove to their customers that they take sustainability seriously. That means sourcing environmentally friendly products and services. By using circular economy solutions, they access precisely what they need without needing to dispose of packaging when completing a project. Instead, they use a sustainable solution for a limited period and then return it for other future customers to use again and again.

Secondly, in terms of cost savings, it allows customers to invest in only the packaging they need for a project without unnecessary and costly stock holding, and rental services eliminate the need to invest in assets completely. Many of our customers will have large-scale projects with changing requirements (size/temperature/performance) for a given period, for which they need a lot of packaging. Traditionally that would mean storing large volumes of packaging that isn't being used at a high cost to them, whereas with a circular solution, these costs are avoided.

Lastly, flexibility is key. As mentioned in relation to costs, customers can react to demand as and when it arises rather than investing in solutions, which they may only use once or twice before needing to discard. Instead, customers will use specific packaging solutions for their projects when they are needed and return them when they no longer need them for a particular project. Circular solutions give customers ultimate flexibility in this sense.

Do Intelsius offer circular economy cold chain solutions?

Yes, we do; we call it ORCA Rental. ORCA Rental allows customers to rent high-performance, multi-use, temperature-controlled packaging solutions when needed. We can pre-condition the packaging in our renewable energy-powered fridges and freezers so it arrives ready to use. Once the customer's project is completed, the packaging is returned to us, where we clean and refurbish it to be ready for reuse. This way, we can keep the packaging in the supply chain for many years before parts need to be replaced.

Intelsius have offices and suppliers on every continent, ensuring your cold chain packaging needs are met no matter where and when they arise. You can find out more about ORCA Rental and how it can benefit your cold chain logistics both environmentally and financially on our website here. Or, to speak to a member of the team about your cold chain packaging needs, email

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