Envirotainer being loaded into a British Airways aircraft

The false economy of passive cold chain solutions

When shipping life-saving, temperature-sensitive consignments such as pharmaceuticals, medical ingredients and vaccines, the end goal is to ensure their integrity is in no way compromised while in transit.

It’s an incredibly complex supply chain that requires expert handling and seamless collaboration between all partners, from freight forwarders and cold chain providers to cargo carriers and ground handlers. For freight forwarders in the cold chain market, two types of technology are on offer: passive and active. But what is the difference, and why should you care?

The difference between active and passive

Active containers have electrical cooling and heating systems. They can be plugged in and continue to protect the cargo’s temperature in the event of flight delays or other unexpected events.

Passive solutions, however, are boxes or containers that use insulation and an energy source such as dry ice or gel packs to climate control shipments. They don’t have the capability to self-adjust according to ambient temperatures or manage temperature control in the event of a schedule changes or long layovers.

“They’re designed for a period of time, and then that’s it,” says Don Harrison, Head of Global Key Accounts, Airlines at cold chain solutions provider, Envirotainer. “With a passive solution, action needs to take place, you need to take the product out of the package, put it inside a cool room or add additional dry ice, for instance, to the container. That’s not always easy to do in a customs or warehouse environment.”

An active solution, however, affords autonomy and protection to the cargo, alongside the ability to manage complex trade lanes with minimal intervention. But there are also potential cost savings.

RAP envirotainer containers

“When you look at total landed cost of an entire shipment – air freight, handling, set-up – you typically find that an active solution will be on par, cost-wise, providing a better level of quality – but in many cases it could even be cheaper,” says Harrison.

“When you take it down to the per package level, the cost comes down quite significantly, because you can get more product into an active container without the additional insulation and energy source required in a passive container.” For small pallet passive shippers, insulation, cooling material and the box itself can make up a large part of the total volume, with only 25% of the container efficiently being used.

“An active container needs very little management beyond turning it on and getting it to the correct temperature,” adds Harrison. Many passive solutions can take several hours to put together, which in turn incurs labour costs. Charging the energy source, whether it’s dry ice or another cooling agent, brings about an additional cost on top of the packaging, all of which contribute to the shipment’s growing carbon footprint.

Sustainable solution

The environmental argument for active solutions is also incredibly persuasive. “Life cycle analysis of Envirotainer’s RAPe2 container shows that the carbon dioxide emissions per vial shipped equate to 0.9kg, or the equivalent of the emissions generated from producing a McDonald’s hamburger,” says Mattias Isaksson, Envirotainer’s Head of Marketing.

Supply chain containers converted into CO2e |By Envirotainer

“If you look at some of the passive solutions, there’s a lot of waste at the end of its life cycle, such as empty packaging, but also the CO2 emission per vial is 11.6kg.”

Being unit load devices, or ULDs, active containers are also more readily adaptable to the space within the aircraft’s hold. ULDs are structured in such a way that they can be repositioned efficiently to utilise otherwise unused cargo space. These maximise the aircraft’s payload volume, so no space is wasted, or emissions fruitlessly released.

“When it comes to mitigating risk, the benefits of an active solution are self-evident”, says Don Harrison.

“The main thing that we think about is that, at the end of all of this, there’s a patient. A mother, a grandfather, a daughter, who is going to receive a lifesaving medicine, potentially. Why would you want to take a risk in preventing that person from getting medication that they desperately need?”

Interest piqued? Here are 8 more reasons why your next pharmaceutical shipment should use an Active solution.