Rethinking Packaging

Since we’ve started Rene Herse Cycles in 2011, we’ve been working on reducing our environmental impact. We were among the first to use custom-designed cardboard boxes with inserts that hold our cranks securely. That has been part of our commitment to reduce our impact – while making sure that our parts reach our customers all over the world in perfect condition.

Recently, we’ve moved from plastic bubble wrap to an alternative made from recycled paper. We don’t just use environmentally conscious materials; we use less of them, too. We stock boxes in many sizes to make our shipping more efficient. This doesn’t just use less material, but also less fuel during shipping (and saves our customers money). We source our boxes locally, rather than from the biggest supplier, Uline, which uses its profits to support an anti-environmental agenda.

Some customers wonder why we package our tires in plastic bags. The reason is simple: The bag protects the tire from damaging UV light and from drying out. Not all of you immediately use your tires, and it’s good to know that you can keep Rene Herse tires almost forever, as long as they stay in their bags.

The bags also protect the tires during shipping and handling. New rubber is sticky, and if a bare tire falls on the floor, the dirt sticks and can’t be removed easily. Some tire makers now ship their tires without bags, but the distributors usually put them in plastic bags anyway. The dealers remove the bags before putting the tires on display… That looks eco, but it doesn’t reduce plastic waste.

The packaging used during the intermediate steps of production is a big concern for us, even though it’s invisible to customers. Most of our products are made in Japan. Despite a reputation for excess packaging (Japanese cookies are individually wrapped inside the box), Japanese factories are among the most ‘eco’ in the world. At our suppliers, you won’t see half-finished products wrapped in plastic while they await the next production step. Japanese factories are clean and products are handled with care, so the intermediate packaging isn’t needed. Thanks to the high quality and skilled labor, there are also very few rejects that go into waste bins – which also reduces the (invisible) environmental impact.

When we receive shipments from Japan, they are always lovingly packaged – with recycled and re-used materials. A recent box came with empty rolls of packaging tape on top to fill the extra space, followed by a layer of newspaper.

Underneath were the products, so neatly packed that they didn’t need extra wrapping. (The short tubes are for a still top-secret future project.)

Many finished products, like our decaleurs (above), are wrapped in old newspapers. Plastic bags are used where necessary to protect the parts from getting scratched: It makes no sense to risk ruining a beautifully made part to save a few grams of plastic.

Bicycle Quarterly also is shipped in a plastic wrapper. We’ve tried sending out the magazines without, but hundreds of them were damaged in the mail. When it rains, postal carriers walk for blocks holding the mail without protection. Sorting machines wreak havoc as well. Printing and shipping so many extra magazines was not only costly, it also had a greater environmental impact than those four plastic wrappers a year.

All our packaging also balances the need for protection with our desire to reduce our environmental impact. When we published our Rene Herse book, we made custom foam corners to protect the books during shipping. The foam triangles are cut-offs left over from industrial foam production, so we’re keeping them out of the waste stream. And the corners work so well that we’ve had not a single damaged book, despite having shipped more than 1,500 copies all over the world.

We continue to look for ways to reduce our footprint, even if it costs more. (Custom-made cardboard boxes and foam corners don’t come cheap.) I’d love to package our tires and magazines in bags made from cornstarch that can be composted. We’ll keep pushing in that direction. It’s all part of our commitment to reduce our impact, so that future generations can continue to enjoy riding in this wonderful world.

Photo credit: Sic Transit Cycles (Photo 3).

 

21 Responses to Rethinking Packaging

  1. Edwin December 23, 2019 at 7:29 am #

    My guesses for the short tubes official project (S.T.O.P.!):
    1. Rene Herse is jumping on the miniaturization trend on Youtube and will be making mini bikes.
    2. Rene Herse is bringing back foot pegs from the 80’s BMX bikes for tricks and having friends ride on your bike.
    3. RH branded nunchaku.

    What are your guesses?

  2. DC December 23, 2019 at 7:31 am #

    Thank you for taking the time, effort and expense to consider this. If only all companies did the same! It is much appreciated!

  3. Mike Morrison December 23, 2019 at 7:32 am #

    Thanks a lot, Jan, for making choices to reduce waste and plastic in your packaging. I like to see more paper/cardboard in packaging as it’s readily reusable, recyclable, and burnable, compared to plastic bags. Even the ones with a resin identification code often get stuck in the sorting machines at recycling plants, which means that a lot of them end up in a landfill.

    Have you ever tried paper envelopes for the magazines? No plastic but some protection from the elements while they’re en route. I imagine that cardboard sleeves would be more expensive than plastic (which is in itself a sad commentary on our wide use of non-degradeable plastic for single uses), but I haven’t ever looked into it.

    • Jan Heine December 23, 2019 at 8:27 am #

      We use paper envelopes for some BQ mailings. They work well to prevent damage from the sorting machines, but magazines still get wet when exposed to rain.

      I’m still surprised when mail carriers hand me a soggy bundle of mail with a smile, as if it were normal. I’ve seen some mail carriers use heavy leather bags with a flip-up, easy-access lids, where they carry the mail well-protected until they put it into the mailbox. But not in Seattle…

      The ideal thing would be if we rethink our shipping practices. If we could handle products more carefully, they wouldn’t need much packaging.

  4. Dennis Ketterling December 23, 2019 at 8:02 am #

    Being a postal employee, I can second the comments about carriers walking for blocks in bad weather, and the damage done by increasing automated package sorting.
    Also, the majority of packages delivered by USPS, UPS, FEDex, and Amazon, are Amazon.
    Amazon puts everything in ridiculously oversized boxes with no packing materials, so every package from them has the contents shifting and rattling around.
    Thanks for your thoughtful practises!

  5. Richard December 23, 2019 at 9:47 am #

    Jan,

    Thank you for examining the process as a whole, for making ethically informed decisions and for sharing the reasoning behind your choices.

    Most people don’t fully appreciate the significance of those unseen steps. Large corporations tend to capitalize on that lack of awareness by externalizing costs, that is, by cutting the cost to the consumer by transferring it to the environment or to some other entity, sometimes at taxpayer expense.

    You make an important point regarding plastic. A full accounting of economic and environmental costs confirms it’s currently the best choice for some applications.

    The importance of limiting plastic waste gets a lot of press, but equally important is the strategy of allocating a limited resource. Oil and natural gas are not inexhaustible, but we use them as if they were.

    For example, as has been observed elsewhere, natural gas is uniquely suited to cooking and kerosene is essential for aviation. They’re not wise choices for large scale electricity generation and home heating, respectively. Short term economics make them seem attractive by ignoring the long term costs.

    Logic dictates that we should allocate petroleum products, including plastics, to those applications for which they’re the most appropriate choice. Doing so will effectively increase the remaining supply. That’s unlikely to happen systematically until we develop a national energy policy, so it’s left to thoughtful people to make those choices individually.

    I commend you for being one of those people.

  6. David Feldman December 23, 2019 at 10:51 am #

    I have a very small bike sales and repair business, and the amount of packaging I recycle is just shocking even with the small volume of goods I handle. It is encouraging to see one of my vendors taking extra care to minimize the waste created. A stat I heard early in my working life was a shocker. I attended Schwinn’s mechanics’ school in the 1970’s. We were told about how US-made Schwinns were packed to minimize damage in rail shipping–not like rims that weighed almost a KG each didn’t help–with both wheels installed in the bike. Our instructor stated proudly that Schwinn’s boxes consumed SIX pulp trees worth of cardboard apiece rather than the mere four used to pack import bikes!

  7. Martin December 23, 2019 at 1:09 pm #

    Thank you very much for your efforts. From a European perspective: Couldn’t ordering via an European distributor reduce environmental impact even further? I think about tires being sent from Japan to the US and further on to Europe. Or am I mistaken and there is a direct distribution alternative? Kind regards

    • Jan Heine December 24, 2019 at 12:23 pm #

      We have a number of distributors in Europe: 2-11 Cycles in France, Sven Cycles in the UK, Just Pedal for the Benelux, Dailybread Cycles in Germany and TacTac Cycling in Switzerland.

      This doesn’t reduce the environmental impact – when the parts are shipped to Seattle in a container, it doesn’t matter whether the container is 85% or 95% full, so everything goes to Seattle first. But it definitely avoids the hassles of dealing with international shipping and customs.

      • Martin December 25, 2019 at 2:48 am #

        Jan, Thanks for detailed information. Was not aware of the distributer network. Best, Martin

  8. Wilson Wilson December 23, 2019 at 3:17 pm #

    With rethinking packaging, any thoughts on East coast supply to reduce time in shipping for those on this side of the Rockies? Is there a vendor who keeps a healthy stock of your tires on this side of the world?

  9. Joe December 23, 2019 at 8:46 pm #

    If you really want to be effective at reducing waste then have the magazine available digitally? Sure there is nothing like having a magazine in your hands to hold and read, but digital downloads eliminate lots of hassle for the producer and the reader.

    BQ isn’t really a magazine. It’s a quarterly journal about actual in-depth stories and experiences of people on bikes sharing their adventures in a well worded documentary loaded with beautiful pictures of places, people, and all things bicycles.

    I love BQ! Keep up the great work!

    Joe T

    • Jan Heine December 24, 2019 at 12:28 pm #

      The main reason we can’t offer Bicycle Quarterly digitally is that we’re too small to do two completely separate editions. With half as many printed copies, we couldn’t continue to publish the magazine, and half of our subscriber base also isn’t enough to pay a provider for the digital distribution.

      We choose paper because we love to sit down with a cup of tea, look at beautifully reproduced photos, and read a magazine away from our screens. It’s like riding our bikes in the mountains – not the same as riding a trainer in front of a screen that flashes the scenery at you.

      As an aside, the environmental impact of a digital edition isn’t zero. Servers use a lot of energy, and electronic devices get replaced frequently and create some of the most toxic waste out there.

      • Jacob Musha December 24, 2019 at 4:24 pm #

        Jan, I’m surprised you haven’t written a blog post about why the magazine won’t go digital. Unless you already have. Is there any question you’ve been asked more often?

        • Jan Heine December 26, 2019 at 9:03 am #

          It’s a bit like asking us why we don’t offer carbon cranks. There isn’t much wrong with carbon cranks in the right application, but for what we do, aluminum works better. Digital content is great for many purposes, but it cannot capture the beauty of photography with the same brilliance and resolution as print. Digital also isn’t as durable as paper, and we don’t enjoy reading on a screen as much as we do ‘unplugging’ with a book or beautiful magazine. Unfortunately, we’re too small to do both digital and print, so we have to choose.

  10. Jamie December 24, 2019 at 7:24 am #

    Always in favor of reduced packaging and reduced plastic use. Love your tires too!

    However, Jan, one thing I have long enjoyed about your writing is that, unlike many (most?) other bike bloggers/influencers/company heads, you are usually very good about keeping politics out of the discussion. This blog is generally refreshingly different — actually focused on something we all have in common: enjoying the ride.

    So I was extremely disappointed to see the dig at Uline based on the owners’ political affiliation. Please, keep politics out of the discussion. The world is divided enough already. By inserting politics, you turn off half of your customer base.

    • Jan Heine December 24, 2019 at 12:36 pm #

      I agree that we should be tolerant of other political views. We choose not to do business with Uline not because of the owners’ political views, but because of their support for causes that we consider harmful to the earth. By giving money to the company and its owners, we are complicit in how that money is spent. Another benefit for the earth is that we’ve finally stopped receiving their massive and frequent paper catalogues that used more paper than all my magazine subscriptions combined.

      • Owen December 24, 2019 at 3:55 pm #

        I respectfully disagree with Jamie. I had no idea Uline’s owners supported such anti-environmental policies and used their money to buy local, state, and national influence on such large a scale. In many countries–usually the ones where money plays less of a role in politics–environmental advocacy and resource conservation aren’t viewed as radical political acts. Nor for that matter is riding a bicycle. Both are considered basic common sense. I appreciate having this information and will now avoid Uline products as well.

    • Jake December 24, 2019 at 2:06 pm #

      to Jamie-

      Politics – more accurately, political decisions, made by actual humans with real agendas – controls every single part of our lives. Trying to compartmentalize that as some kind of “other” space is really damaging to everyone.

      Uline is terrible for many reasons; they are anti-union and make horrible environmental decisions. Thank you Jan for your stance and your very true assertion that we are complicit in everything we do.

  11. Kenneth Taylor. December 25, 2019 at 11:56 am #

    Hello Jan, Thanks for a most interesting article on Packaging,
    I did all the crate making and Air freight cartons for the
    Jack Taylor Cycles, and my problem was getting every thing
    into the smallest carton, because I paid for the cubic area it
    took-up in the aeroplane, and every person who received them
    kept the cartons for storing things in them along with the
    writing I wrote on the carton, “Have a Nice Ride” Taylor Bros”
    Good Night, Ken Taylor..

    • Jan Heine December 25, 2019 at 8:33 pm #

      Good to hear from you! I’ve seen the photos of the shipping crates on the loading dock at Jack Taylor Cycles… works of art!