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If it works, why fix it?

Consolidation and the strong pound have forced the UK hazardous packaging industry into decline. Today it is cheaper to mould and fill in mainland Europe and ship packs back to the UK.

  • In 1973 a Pan Am 707 crashed at Boston because of leaking nitric acid.
  • In 1989 in Peterborough a vehicle carrying explosives killed one person and almost destroyed an industrial estate.

  • In May 1999 a company in the UK was fined £95 000 plus £24 000 costs for shipping oxygen generators undeclared and without the correct packaging.

    These three tragedies represent a very good argument for a highly disciplined approach to the packaging of hazardous goods. But, rules or no rules, industry is still getting packaging for hazardous goods wrong.

    Drums, tanks and intermediate bulk containers rely on designs governed by practicality and the UN’s famed Orange Book which sets out how dangerous goods are classified, packaged, marked, labelled and documented.

    There are nine classes of dangerous goods. It was probably the intention of the original authors that the number of the class should indicate the priority of danger. However, today there are substances and articles in Class 9 that by any criteria are more dangerous than some found in Class 1.

    So the class numbers should simply be seen as a means of identification.

    Where packaging is con-cerned, the UN has devised three main groups. Group 1 is for highly hazardous substances. Group 2 applies to a range of acids and alkalis but not in a highly concentrated form and, finally, Group 3 which is the least hazardous. These groups are also split between solids and liquids. This makes the subject quite complex.

    If you are unsure about these international reg-ulations, a simple guide is available from Pira International – Transport of Dangerous Goods (Fifth Edition) – written by Martin Castle. Copies, price £65 (less 10% for Packaging Today Inter-national readers), are available from Pira Inter-national, Randalls Road, Leather-head, Surrey KT22 7RU.

    The UN, like many a reliable institution that performs a valuable job more than adequately, has its fair share of critics but it does a remarkable job in updating the Orange Book.

    Dangerous substances and articles are packed in a range of flexible and rigid containers that, because of the purpose they are intended to fulfil, do not demand the glamour or creative appeal found in other sectors of our industry.

    But, when pack design is ruled by committee, innovation does tend to be minimised to its lowest common denominator and industry is left to question just how technology is to find sufficient breathing space to develop in safety on a global basis.

    Innovation in this sector is hard to come by so, once a range of drums or IBCs has gained certification, the rule – if it works, why fix it? – tends to come into play.

    Demand is still a key driver of innovation. Newish in dangerous goods is Nampak’s Agrichem 5- and 10-litre packs that fit into the same size transit pack.

    Both container sizes feature the industry standard 63mm neck and generous handle design concept required to ensure safe handling and dispensing of crop protection chemicals. Both sit in the same outer transit carton using a 4×5-litre or 2×10-litre stacking pattern.

    A UN Combination certificate has been achieved for both 5- and 10-litre containers for chemicals classi-fied UN Group II, 1.4sg, with the 5-litre Agrichem also being available in both monolayer HDPE and co-extrusion HDPE/PA to permit use for both aqueous and solvent-based chemicals.

    This has resulted in a single UN Combination outer transit case with one Combination certificate number, thus reducing the transit case stocks required by the packer filler.

    In addition, both 5- and 10-litre containers have achieved UN Free Standing certification – UN Group II, 1.4sg to cover the eventuality of the UN Combination Pack being broken down for onward transportation from the distributor to the end user in single units.

    Also newish is the SurfTec system marketed by Harcostar. Due to customer demand for a lighter weight and more environmentally friendly method of transporting these hazardous chemicals Harcostar began researching the different alternatives available.

    Over the last five years they have looked at the current methods of treating plastics and have spent in excess of £1M to develop their own internal coating for the plastics drum.

    The research was complicated by the fact that the solvents necessitating impermeable packaging are also those which frequently have a low flash point – a very important criteria for safety issues.

    Harcostar have been able to develop a dual coating which addresses both these criteria, either together or independently depending upon requirements. The result, SurfTech, has a patent pending, and all Harcostar drums treated with the coating are UN approved for a variety of dangerous goods.

    SurfTech was the result of Harcostar’s research for an alternative method – notably, the development of a coating applied to the internal surface of the plastics drum to act as a barrier to the permeating chemicals.

    SurfTech can be applied to the inside of a 45-gallon plastics drum post manufacture which makes it suitable for use with hydrocarbon solvents and is UN certified.

    Plastics, of course, can be shaped for the job in hand and offers good pallet utilisation, resulting in significant reductions in storage, handling and distribution costs and higher payloads for transport by road and in ISO shipping containers.

    Many industries are moving into the reuse concept for which the plastics drum is said to be suited. Durability and robustness has enabled closed loop systems to be established in the catering, institutional chemical, photographic, water treatment and crop protection industries.

    Plastics drums are also suitable for laundering using the traditional re-conditioning facilities. The multi-trip drum concept results in a reduction in packaging waste.

    Industry requires three things – operator protection, environment protection and solvent disposal… and the Rapid Refill process, explained in detail by Pauline Covell on page 28, does just that.

    It is a dry-break closed dispensing system and has already found application in crop protection and is expected to find application in water treatment. It works with both drums and IBCs.

    UK product manufacturers are finding life tough because of the increasing competition from overseas. “The market is moving eastwards because British industry can’t meet the price,” says Flexible Intermediate Bulk Container Association director general Hendry Spiers.

    “Many of today’s major suppliers come from Turkey, the Eastern bloc, India and China and they don’t always meet the standards laid down by the UN.”

    Mr Spiers values the FIBC market in the UK between £80-£90M and, despite the damage done to the agricultural industry by foot and mouth, he says that it is growing between 5-8% every year.

    Hazardous packaging/ environ-ment consultant Tony Hancock, who for many years worked for Plysu and Nampak, echoes Mr Spiers sentiments.

    “The plastics, steel and fibre drum industry is under severe pressure,” he said. “The volume of hazardous packaging in the UK is declining because many companies are moving their filling to mainland Europe for two reasons – the strong pound and unabated consolidation through merger or acquisition.

    “As a consequence, an increasing amount of product is being imported from mainland Europe when, only a few years ago, it was packed in the UK. The decision trees for many of the large chemical brands no longer grow in the UK.

    “Multinational companies are seeking packer fillers in mainland Europe. There is no doubt that the amount of filling in hazardous goods in the UK is going down… and this will continue while we have a strong pound. In other words UK packer fillers in this sector are all fighting over a diminishing market.

    “The writing was on the wall when Esso dramatically reduced their packer filling operation at Purfleet and moved the majority of it to France. Goodness knows how much business we have lost to the French but we are talking about tens of thousands of drums.

    “It’s simply cheaper to mould in mainland Europe and ship the bottles back to the UK. The future for British packaging of hazardous materials is pretty bleak… and it will continue to decline steeply in the next five years.”