Good Things for Packages

With so many items - large and small - packaged and shipped every day around the world, standards help ensure products reach their destinations intact and unspoiled.
Cicely Enright

Almost everything comes in a package of some sort. 

Fresh fruits and vegetables are picked into containers ahead of sorting and packaging for sale at a farm market or distribution to food stores. Manufactured goods, from chemical to consumer, are boxed and crated, unitized and palletized, for goods to travel from the maker to the places they will be used.

“Basically everything you would ever produce, ship, sell, buy, is going to come in a package,” says Bryan Williams, global sales director at Lansmont, and chair of the ASTM International packaging committee (D10). “Packaging is everywhere.”

It’s perhaps not surprising then, that the global packaging industry is estimated to be worth more than $900 billion USD, and it’s expected to top $1 trillion USD by 2024, according to Smithers. 

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And alongside the regulations intended to ensure that goods get from one place to another as they are made or grown, there are numerous ASTM International standards, including more than 130 from the committee on packaging (D10).

The Packaging Committee

Formed in 1914, today the packaging committee focuses on materials and design, construction and testing. 

Williams notes that “Companies have to devote expertise and resources and more to design that packaging, such that it works, or is effective, and arrives safely and potentially sterile.” Standards support that goal.

The committee’s standards are developed and updated by technical subcommittees covering:

  • Terminology (definitions);
  • Shipping Containers, Crates, Pallets, Skids and Related Structures;
  • Interior Packaging;
  • Tape and Labels;
  • Miscellaneous Packaging;
  • Sustainability and Recycling;
  • Shipping Containers and Systems
  • Application of Performance Test Methods;
  • Hazardous Materials;
  • Palletizing and Unitizing of Loads;
  • Fiberboard Shipping Containers, Containerboard, and Related Structures and Materials; and
  • Aerosol Products.

Larry J. Anderson is with TEN-E Packaging Services and is a former main committee chair as well as chair of the hazardous materials subcommittee (D20.22). He summarizes that the committee emphasizes performance, and testing is a critical component of that. 

“A lot of people who aren’t in the packaging field aren’t aware of the standards,” Anderson says. “They are a way that we can lend credibility to why we’re suggesting the approach that we’re suggesting. In our company’s line of work, ASTM procedures are very important to us so that we can establish a baseline and a consistent approach,” he adds. 

“These are international standards. They are referenced globally,” adds Williams. 

A Foundational Standard

Packaging committee members point out the practice for performance testing of shipping containers and systems (D4169) as one of its critical standards. Its purpose is to describe how to evaluate the ability of shipping units to withstand the distribution environment.

“Everything gets shipped at some point,” Williams says. “So there’s a lot of testing that is involved in confirming that those transport conditions will not adversely affect the package in any way. D4169 is very commonly referenced, and it is certainly a topic at every D10 meeting.”

Just about everything produced, shipped, sold, or bought comes in a package.

This standard references various tests to simulate the conditions that a package might experience. That could be truck or airplane vibration or compression in warehouse storage. It also involves handling and the potential for a package to be dropped.

Recent revisions to the standard include updated ways to simulate the truck vibration environment; a pending update covers vibrations for air cargo. With these, the standard will more accurately reflect actual distribution. 

Conditioning First

An integral part of ensuring that packaging keeps its contents intact and unspoiled comes with checking its conditioning — its ability to withstand the temperature and humidity that the package may go through. 

The committee maintains a few conditioning standards, and an essential one of these is the practice for conditioning containers, packages, or packaging components for testing (D4332). Currently being updated, the standard provides approaches to simulate the field conditions that a container, package, or packaging component may go through. 

“D4332 is the core conditioning standard for anyone conducting transit- and packaging-related testing,” says Kelby Thayer, senior engineer/quality coordinator at Smithers. As indicated in its scope, the practice covers conditioning procedures for anticipated atmospheric exposures and is commonly used ahead of simulating transit tests.

Thayer is leading the work to revise D4332, and he points out that the standard is referenced in more than 70 other standards. “These [standards] span qualitative and quantitative testing and cover a wide range of different types of package testing,” he says. 

“A major revision we are exploring would align temperature and humidity tolerances required for distribution testing with current practice and other industry standards. It has been recognized for a while that the current tolerances in the standard are tighter than needed for the qualitative nature of most distribution tests. It can also be a challenge to hold the current tolerances because of the volume of space required for larger samples and equipment. We are also working on clarifying apparatus calibration and these tolerance requirements,”
Thayer explains.

Williams adds that the update is intended to make the standard better reflect actual conditions. “The update is to take some of the ambiguity out of how you would want to use it because you may use it a little differently for the transport conditioning than you would for those material tests,” he says. “When you’re transporting something, it may temporarily be in a cold environment or temporarily be in a hot environment, but not necessarily in that environment the entire time.”

Hazardous Materials

Extreme weather and variations in temperature and humidity, plus dangerous contents, make hazardous-materials packaging a more specialized area. To meet those requirements, the subcommittee on hazardous materials (D10.22) focuses on its particular needs and potential challenges. 

Anderson says the subcommittee started because people are required to qualify packaging used for transporting dangerous goods in accordance with regulations (U.S. Department of Transportation Code of Federal Regulations Title 49). “One lab could be doing the test differently from another because there weren’t enough specifics in the regulations to make sure that everybody was doing it the same way.” 

So the subcommittee agreed to develop standards that would address what needed to be considered and how the tests should be done. The main goal of the regulations and the standards developed by D10.22 is to ensure that packaging used for the transport of dangerous goods is safe.

“We provide more detail in defining how you do these required tests,” Anderson adds. “It can be a little tricky because the regulations don’t necessarily say exactly how you have to do it. So when we [the subcommittee] describe it in more detail, these are guides to say: ‘This is how we’re suggesting the industry do it to make sure that everybody’s doing it the same way.’” Because of the broad representation within the group and the required balance of interests, its consensus provides that agreed-upon approach. 

Anderson cites one example from the subcommittee to illustrate its approach: the test method for vibration testing of intermediate bulk containers (IBCs) used for shipping liquid hazardous materials (dangerous goods) (D7387). IBCs may be familiar from job and construction sites; they are “cages” that hold plastic bottles. And the subcommittee was asked to develop an industry-specific vibration standard for IBCs. 

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“The standard could then be recognized and potentially adopted into United Nations packaging standards so that the rest of the world would be following the same thing. So that particular standard now is the baseline for how the rest of the world would be doing the vibration test. Before we developed that standard, vibration testing wasn’t regularly done,” Anderson notes. 

The umbrella standard from the subcommittee — the guide for testing of hazardous (dangerous goods) packagings (D4919) — identifies the key information required for United Nations packaging certification. That certification in turn ensures that selected packaging will be certified to the appropriate level for its intended use. In addition, the standard helps with locating relevant sections of the U.S. Department of Transportation Code of Federal Regulations Title 49 and helps determine the appropriate performance tests.

“The regulations dictate which tests apply to which packaging types,” says Anderson. “D4919 has a table that indicates which tests apply to a plastic drum you’re going to use to ship liquid dangerous goods.” That would be drop tests, leak tests, hydrostatic pressure, a stacking test, and vibration tests, for a drum to be certified to transport liquids. With a five-gallon pail for a solid or a powder, only the drop, stack, and vibration tests are applied. 

As with all standards from the committee, these support the performance of packaging — in this case, for hazardous materials. 

Future Work

At the same time the committee continues to keep its current standards updated and relevant, it also looks at standards needed for emerging technologies. One proposed standard will address the evaluation of cellulosic-fiber-based packaging for compostability in municipal or industrial aerobic composting facilities (WK72738). 

The standard would apply to beverage containers designed to be composted, for example, and provide a way to assess either the industrial or commercial compostability of purchased or manufactured packaging.  

Overall, if more packages are delivered by drones, that could also bring further packaging standards changes.

Whatever is ahead, all are welcome to participate and join those already involved in the committee: companies that manufacture packaging materials; that design packaging; multinationals that use packaging; transport companies (small parcel, industry, LTL shippers, trucking companies); and more.

“The opportunity to continuously review standards and update them with new science and understanding of data is critical to providing meaningful test results for anyone involved in packaging and transit testing across many industries,” says Thayer. 

“We’re a very diverse and broad group, so getting together and discussing these things is great because you get different perspectives on whatever the topic may be,” says Williams. “We all benefit from each other’s input.” ■

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