Shipping liquid toiletries

Flexitanks are emerging as an alternative to traditional methods of shipping liquids in bulk, reports Gabriel Borrud from Cologne

When it comes to the shipment of liquids in bulk, flexitanks are emerging as a viable alternative to traditional methods and personal care product companies are taking notice. These huge, impenetrable and foldaway polyethylene bags that fit inside shipping containers can transport up to 24,000 litres of liquid at a time. Flexitanks offer many advantages: they are far lighter than drums or totes, the only other alternatives for shipment within a container; they can hold much larger volumes per container; and they allow for one-way shipments. The logistical cost of shipping can be essentially halved, as the bags are used once and then thrown away.

The use of flexitanks for the shipment of liquid cosmetics and ingredients is now being explored seriously as a new shipping method. They are used for transporting bio-based oils and fats, often a key input for personal care products, and flexitanks can ship a host of other goods that include a range of liquid foodstuffs, non-abrasive and non-hazardous chemicals, and completed personal care products themselves. From a cursory search online, most flexitank manufacturers and sellers include “shampoos and conditioners” in their list of items that can be shipped.

But the use of flexitanks in the industry for finished products is in its early stages. “It’s much less common,” said Sarah Lee, Sales Manager at Qingdao LAF Packaging, with regard to flexitank shipments of shampoos compared with liquid foodstuffs, primarily oil. However, “some units” were being sold, she said. Qingdao LAF is one of two main Chinese manufacturers that offer flexitanks for the shipment of shampoos and conditioners, the other being BLT Flexitank Industrial. Both are based in the Shandong province in east China, south of Beijing. According to BLT, which has been manufacturing flexitanks for over ten years, its flexitank has been designed with an anti-suction valve to inhibit excess frothing and bubbling, which could limit the maximum volume, thus increasing shipping costs.

Christian Schulz of Büscherhoff Spezialverpackung, one of Europe’s most established flexitank manufacturers, says it has yet to receive a special request to make flexitanks for personal care products. Schulz, whose company specialises in liquid chemical shipments, added: “It would certainly be possible to ship shampoo, seeing as though this is non-hazardous, but it is ultimately a question of whether anyone is looking to ship the product in large quantities.”

This focuses on the key commercial decision that personal care product companies must make when considering whether they want to reduce shipping costs by using flexitanks: whether they can actually make more money by bottling onsite and distributing finished products via shipment in boxes, rather than in bulk.

Procter & Gamble (P&G), for instance, the US based multinational consumer goods company that grossed more than US$80bn in sales in 2013, has no essential need for bulk shipments because it has established production and distribution facilities in all of its target markets.

In China alone, P&G has set up more than 30 factories and distribution centres. Throughout Europe, there are more than 20 sites where P&G liquid cosmetics are produced and distributed. With regard solely to shipping, the use of flexitanks could theoretically cut costs. However, the price per litre of 24,000 litres of shampoo is significantly less than potential gains from the shipment of finished, bottled products.

“When it comes to bulk quantities, shampoos and conditioners and the like often aren’t shipped as final liquids,” said Michael Nier of Nier Systems, an industrial packaging company based in Florida. Instead, Nier said that if bulk shipments of shampoos and conditioners were made, it was most often in solid, solute form.

“Companies generally ship the concentrate and whatever it’s ultimately mixed with separately,” Nier added, explaining that this was also a precautionary measure.

At a conference staged by the Container Owners Association (COA) this July in Hamburg, a new safety standard for manufacturing and testing flexitanks was launched to help address this problem and others. The PAS 1008 standard, developed by the British Standards Institution (BSI), is intended to enable flexitank manufacturers to certify the quality of their products, and assuage any concerns of customers.

“There are numerous standards throughout the container shipping industry,” read a COA statement from the conference. “But there has never been a standard to aid the manufacture or testing of flexitanks.”

It added: “In view of the potential cost implications from leaking cargo that a damaged flexitank can have, the industry has recognised that there is now a need for better defined criteria for this growing sector of the bulk liquid packaging sector.”

For liquid personal care products, an increase in confidence regarding the reliability of flexitank leaks and breaches could increase usage of flexitanks for bulk shipments. According to Michael Nier, this is something that would ultimately “have to happen” before customers, including personal care product companies, find full trust in this transportation method.