Packaging in response to disaster

On the morning of 29 July 2018, a 6.4-magnitude earthquake struck the island of Lombok, near Bali, Indonesia at a shallow depth of 14km. The quake was the foreshock of two further quakes that hit a week later on 5 and 6 August measuring 6.9 and 7.0.

As a result, a total of 563 people were confirmed dead while more than 1,000 were injured, and a further 417,000 people were displaced. Two months later, about 1,650km north of Lombok, on 28 September 2018, another shallow 7.4 magnitude earthquake struck in the neck of the Minahasa Peninsula, with its epicentre located in the mountainous Donggala Regency in Central Sulawesi.

The quake triggered a six-metre-high tsunami that hit the coastal town of Palu, and the combined earthquake/tsunami destroyed roads, bridges, homes, schools and places of worship leaving survivors cut off or without shelter.

Current estimates put the casualties at more than 1,600 dead with more than 170,000 homeless – this is certain to rise daily because entire remote villages completely disappeared below the ground, sinking like quicksand, due to a process known as liquefaction.

The aftershocks of the Sulawesi quake continue. As I write, more than a week after the initial earthquake (9 October) in Makassar, about 150km south of the zone, two further quakes measuring 4.0 and 4.9 in magnitude struck the Palu area. International emergency relief was quick to respond, and more than 17 Hercules C130 military cargo planes from the UK, Singapore, Australia and the USA are supporting the Indonesian military and relief workers ferrying supplies of food and blankets into Palu’s small airstrip before the November monsoon rains come.

 

Packaging’s role

It is timely to review the role of packaging following disasters such as the Lombok and Palu earthquakes. In the aftermath of the 2011 Great Eastern Japan disaster, a joint expert working group was set up to analyse the role of packaging in relief efforts and to identify where it failed to function, was not fit for purpose and in some cases actually hindered aid workers.

It comprised experts from all of Japan’s professional organisations: The Japan Packaging Institute (JPI); Institute of Packaging Professionals Japan (IPP); Japan- Certified Packaging Professionals Club (JCPPC); Japan Packaging Consultants Association (JPCA); and the Japan Packaging and Logistics Consultants Society (JPLCS).

“The impact of the disasters can be viewed in three phases,” says Mitsuhiro Sumimoto, president of Sumimoto Packaging Consultancy and a member of the Japanese of Professional Engineers. “Immediate, Aftermath and Recovery Strategies.

“Immediately after the disaster the area tends to be devastated by a massive collapse of infrastructure. The loss of roads, ports and even petrol from refineries, cause serious problems across the country, transport stops and import capabilities are damaged.”

This is the current position of Pulau. “In the affected area, the hospitals are frequently gone so there is no proper medical care, shelter or toilet facilities.”

Clean drinking water is rarely available. After the Lombok quake, ships were deployed to use their on-board reverse-osmosis desalination systems to take water from the sea and pump it into 8-tonne orange PP water tanks to be ferried ashore on fishing boats.

The Aftermath and Recovery phases are currently being faced in Lombok. The challenge is to supply consistent deliveries of food once the emergency relief flights stop, as they surely will when the immediate threat to life has passed.

 

Packaging failures

Unlike emergency food and medical supplies, which are custom-designed for their emergency purpose, packaging for fast moving consumer goods is rarely designed to be used in emergency situations.

In analysing the immediate relief efforts, the Japanese working group found that some packaging that while perfectly serviceable in normal situations proved to be completely useless in the relief centres in an emergency, and some even hindered the relief efforts.

Facing particular criticism were hard-to-open packs that require additional tools to open: Canned food and drinks without easy-open ring-pulls added a degree of unnecessary difficulty as can openers had to be shipped in along with the relief packages.

Can-openers occupy vital space in an airlift and have a tendency to get misplaced in a busy aid centre, wasting time in a situation where speed is vital to the success of any disaster relief effort.

Additionally, difficult-to-open food pouches, such as those without easy-open tear- tabs were also found to be useless since they could only be opened with sharp tools such as scissors and knives, which again were easy to misplace.

In a tropical country, where temperatures can reach 34 deg C and where disaster areas have unreliable electricity supply, frozen food packs are dismissed as absolutely useless.

 

What excelled

Some package formats excelled in the relief efforts in the immediate aftermath: PET bottled water and cup noodles not only provided immediate sustenance to refugees but could be re-used as containers where cups and plates were in short supply. Of particular use was food that could be eaten without needing water or heat to cook, such as boxes of biscuits, pre-packed bread and rice ball packages. However, retort pouches of pre-cooked food (with laser-cut easy-tear openings) were star performers allowing aid centres to provide instant nutritious hot meals without delay, difficulty or culinary expertise.

Medical supplies in ready-to-use multi-packs and personal care products in the West are generally sold as travel packs in supermarkets and pharmacies (containing soap, shampoo, toothbrush, toothpaste and razors), and they are widespread in Indonesia and also highly praised by evacuees and aid workers alike. However, being single- use, plastics tend to come under fire from the environmentalists.

Multiple-use corrugated containers also performed well beyond their intended function, originally arriving in the Japanese disaster areas as essential shipping containers for the initial transportation of supplies into the zone. When unpacked, the same boxes were re-used to improve living conditions at the evacuation centres, functioning as floor mats to sleep on and as partitions giving additional protection from the cold and providing some privacy for the displaced refugees.

Retail-ready boxes were also found to be very helpful. For example, once delivered, a case of 12 units of PET bottled water could be easily displayed in relief centres merely by pushing the easy-open tabs at the sides and tearing off the top half of the case. Where speed is often of the essence to delivering relief, retail-ready packs saved aid workers the task of removing the bottles from the carton.

 

Standardisation

However, because the transport cases are not all standard sizes, relief workers wasted precious time stacking them in storage areas or attempting to fit cases on pallets, in containers, and on the back of trucks to transport them to outlying areas.

While acknowledging that “it is difficult to have standardisation for all products and purposes”, the study group recommended that “we need to have standards for certain kinds of things in advance”.

One proposal from the Japanese report was to have three standard sizes for transport boxes: 540x360x300; 360x270x300; and 270x180x300. This would allow effective stacking, storage and re-distribution.

A further complication came from the international nature of the relief effort. As foreign aid and personnel rushed to assist, relief workers found it hard to identify the actual contents of each carton. Mostly corrugated cartons are printed with the brand name in the local language, but rarely indicate what the actual product is; if a worker is unfamiliar with the brand or cannot read the language, then vital time is wasted.

As a result, the study group recommends that QR codes could be used for first-aid and other aid boxes to make it easier for relief workers to identify the exact contents of each package simply by scanning the QR code with their mobile phone.

This could be further developed by using colour-coded QR labels so that the generic contents of cartons can be easily identified and classified by relief workers. A five- colour labelling system has already been proposed: Blue for beverages; Orange for food; Green for articles for daily use (personal care, household products); Purple, articles for elderly people and Red indicating feminine-use products.