The bulk liquid handling market is huge and provides a significant economic contribution. 45 billion litres of filled goods are transported worldwide in IBC's each year. This amounts to an annual figure of approximately €160 billion. Bulk liquids commonly handled include liquid food, hazardous goods and pharmaceutical fluids. Handling pharmaceuticals is complex and requires specialised shipping methods to ensure it is safe, hygienic and complies with national legislation and trading standards.
The priority in this type of shipping is to protect the goods from the outside world. The end product must be uncontaminated and safe to use or consume. Most pharmaceutical products require a basic form of hygiene in transit and storage. Up till recently, common methods include pails, stainless steel drums, stainless steel intermediate bulk containers (IBC's), road and rail tankers, pipelines and sea freight containers that are used for bulk deliveries.
However these delivery methods have their problems. Metal containers can be susceptible to rust and corrosion, which can cause contamination. With reusable stainless steel IBC's, they need to be sanitised after each use. But can they be cleaned well enough to ensure they are completely sterile time after time? Containers of this sort can be expensive to purchase, maintain and clean. Metal is heavy, hard to handle and can have dangerously sharp edges.
In logistics the return of empty containers is a key issue. Traditional containers have the same shipping volume whether empty or full. Ideally an empty container would collapse or fold to reduce the shipping volume when being returned, saving transport and fuel costs.
Some pharmaceutical goods require pallets to be moved about and stored on. Traditionally, these have always been made out of wood. Wooden pallets are hard to sanitise. It is a time consuming, expensive process. They make a perfect breeding ground for pests and where the wood sections come together, bug traps are formed. In addition, recent legislation in the form of ISPM15 means they have to undergo sanitation processes before they are shipped abroad.
The demands placed on transit containers are high. Pharmaceutical products can be very valuable and there is no leeway for wastage. So leaky containers, prone to contamination are unacceptable. Logistical operations can often be rigorous, so robustness and reliability is essential to protect the goods and maintain hygiene in transit. As well as these practical issues, cost efficiency and logistical simplicity also contribute. This has meant the transit container market has grown fiercely competitive.
Recent years have seen enormous developments in the plastics industry. This has led to a new breed of IBC containers and pallets that is safer, more hygienic and more cost effective. Plastic offers many advantages over traditional materials. It is immune to moisture, fat, acids, solvents and chemicals and is easy to clean using steam or pressure washing. Plastic is light, yet strong and durable. It also benefits from being easy to handle and recyclable.
Plastic IBC's feature rounded corners and edges which makes them far easier to clean. Some also have bases that allow four way fork lift truck access. This makes them easy to manoeuvre round a warehouse or depot. Plastic pallets do not harbour bugs and pasts like wooden ones making them the hygienic choice. This has made them exempt from ISPM15 laws and therefore much more economic. All this has made shipping pharmaceuticals in plastic packaging a very realistic option.
Some pharmaceuticals are delicate and require a state of constant hygiene. The process of dealing with products like this is known as aseptic handling. When transporting goods aseptically, it is essential that a flawless level of air-tight, germ free sanitation is maintained. Some plastic IBC's are designed specifically for aseptic transport. They benefit from the same advantages as normal plastic containers but offer a far greater level of hygiene.
The plastic aseptic IBC concept is based on large foldable containers with flexible inner liner bags. They also incorporate an integral aseptic filling and discharge valve, which means fluids can easily be transferred to and from the container. During filling and discharging the valve is connected to the plant's feeding or discharge line. Both the liner and valve are antiseptic and gamma irradiated to ensure a sterile product, which is free of harmful bacteria when the fluid is packaged. The valve can also be steam sterilised before being opened to avoid any further risk of contamination.
Because of the liner bag, plastic aseptic IBC's require little or no maintenance, increasing the level of hygiene. There is also a wider range of capacities, which range from 100 to 1000 litres. Integrated hoses allow them to be easily plugged in to a production line, which means the whole filling and discharging process can be automated for optimum efficiency.
Some applications are so specific that they need an individually tailored product and due to plastics low production costs this is easily achievable. In 2006, a major sterile liquid provider required a strong, light aseptic IBC for one of its biopharmaceutical customers. It needed to be able to accommodate the providers own disposable liner bags and have a bottom drain discharge facility. It also had to be capable of withstanding the rough treatment of road transport.
On this occasion the provider decided to work with Schoeller Arca Systems, a major plastic packaging corporation. Engineers from both sides joined forces to create a modified version of the 1000 litre plastic Combo, a popular Schoeller Arca Systems aseptic container. Combo is uniquely foldable and stackable. This saves up to 60% space on return journeys, cutting transport costs. The end result of the collaboration was a cost efficient, effective option for biopharmaceutical customers, who previously used stainless steel drum containers. The provider was supplied with no less than 200 of the adapted product.
With increasing demands for better hygiene and lower costs, plastic is becoming a force to be reckoned with in the transit industry. The market share of plastic IBC containers and pallets is steadily growing, as more and more companies discover the advantages and benefits these products provide. Plastic packaging is the way of the future.
Schoeller Arca Systems is the result of the joining together of the Dutch company Schoeller Wavin Systems and the Swedish company Arca Systems. For many years, the two companies were recognised as market leaders in their respective fields: Schoeller Wavin as the leading the European crate and tray market for the beverage industry and pooling companies, and Arca Systems as the leader in plastic returnable packaging used in a variety of industries.
Today, as a combined entity, Schoeller Arca Systems is the world's largest manufacturer of plastic returnable packaging for material handling. With a wealth of combined experience and expertise, it operates more than 30 production and sales operations in practically all European countries, on the American continent and in Asia.
For more information visit www.schoellerarcasystems.com.