In an era where sustainability has become a focal point for industries worldwide, recent surveys have revealed that 61% of companies are planning to increase their investments in sustainable supply chains through the cold chains over the next three years. This shift reflects a growing awareness of the urgency and significance of improving the sustainability of supply chain operations. Among the multitude of factors contributing to a more sustainable supply chain, the cold chain stands out as a crucial area for accelerating the adoption of eco-friendly practices.

However, the pursuit of sustainability within cold chain operations comes with its own set of unique challenges. This article delves into the hurdles, opportunities, and advancements in the cold chain sector and its pivotal role in achieving sustainable supply chain goals.

Preparing for Challenges In Supply Chains

Supply chains cold chains

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, traditional food and pharmaceutical supply chains underwent disruptions, leading to stricter safety requirements and heightened complexities in cold chain logistics. Unlike other logistics operations, cold chain management necessitates effective telematics data management to ensure food safety and traceability of specialty commodities.

A survey conducted by OpenText indicates that 76% of respondents in the United States feel overwhelmed by information overload, stemming from data generated by operational software systems, sensors, and trackers. The influx of data poses a challenge in converting raw data into actionable plans while fostering a culture of data accessibility and analytics across organizations.

Cold chain fleets typically employ a variety of technologies, business systems, and vendors, each generating data in unique formats and often duplicating content. Standardizing, integrating, and harmonizing data from these diverse sources is essential. This may involve integrating data feeds from multiple refrigeration units and telematics vendors into a single fleet management system, establishing common monitoring and analytics rules, and metrics to ensure comprehensive fleet visibility and standardized analysis. Another example is streamlining alarm handling and visibility, enabling the effective allocation of personnel and operational resources.

Visibility Challenges

Maintaining visibility over each vehicle and shipment within the cold chain is another critical issue. With the global cold chain market projected to grow at a compound annual rate of 18.6% between 2023 and 2030, ensuring that every product maintains the correct temperature throughout its journey is paramount. Achieving total cold chain product visibility requires the implementation of software systems and processes utilizing embedded sensors to seamlessly monitor and track temperatures and time-stamped locations over warehouse fixed networks and mobile transportation assets.

Moving to Electric

While refrigeration is essential for preserving the cold chain’s integrity for food and pharmaceutical products, it is often energy-intensive and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Balancing the cold chain’s environmental impact with compliance, temperature history maintenance, and product visibility remains a constant challenge. A notable avenue for minimizing emissions and fostering sustainability is the transition to electric vehicles and refrigeration units. However, this shift is slower in the cold chain sector compared to standard fleets, owing to the additional infrastructure, technological requirements, and overall expenses involved.

One consideration in adopting electric vehicles for cold chain fleets is the capacity of batteries to hold a charge for longer distances. Charging times for these vehicles can be substantial, potentially compromising the safety of perishable goods. Investing in the right software solutions plays a pivotal role in enhancing the efficiency of electric cold chain fleets, encompassing aspects such as recharge network planning, transportation forecasting, and fleet size projection. With robust software support, businesses can anticipate and plan their electric fleet migrations, determining the number of vehicles required for delivering specific products to designated lanes and within specified cycle times.

Opportunities to Increase Sustainability In Cold Chain Operations

Annually, a shocking 1.6 billion tons of food are discarded worldwide, with 1.3 billion tons of it being perfectly edible, as reported by the FAO. This wastage also translates to a staggering annual cost of approximately $750 billion for the global economy.

Implementing the right software and processes within cold chain operations can significantly reduce food spoilage, even in the face of extreme temperature fluctuations, thus minimizing waste.

Real-time digital logs have streamlined the process of confirming that food shipments were maintained at proper temperatures, reducing compliance concerns and ensuring adherence to FDA safety regulations. 

The use of cold chain fleets also presents opportunities to promote more sustainable consumer lifestyles. Frozen foods, with their longer shelf life, can substantially reduce food waste as consumers prepare only what they need, saving both money and resources. However, the quality, safety, and lifespan of frozen items heavily rely on optimized cold chain fleets capable of supporting increased transportation demand.

A well-operated cold chain not only enhances sustainability through improved food management but also contributes to reducing medical waste. It has been estimated that more than 25% of some vaccines are wasted globally each year due to cold chain failures. Enhanced software systems play a crucial role in identifying temperature exceptions swiftly and coordinating resources to minimize, if not eliminate, opportunities for medical waste.

Investing in cold chain infrastructure is crucial for sustainability and global healthcare improvement, ensuring the longevity of vaccines and drugs, reducing waste, increasing shelf life, and enhancing accessibility to communities with limited resources.

The Way Ahead

Innovation and technology are pivotal drivers for transitioning to more sustainable operations with reduced waste. Organizations should seize the opportunity to invest in and adopt improved fleet management software, sensors, and processes, not only to expand their businesses but also to contribute to global sustainability efforts. The cold chain, with its unique challenges and opportunities, is poised to play a pivotal role in building a greener and more sustainable future for all.

In conclusion, as companies strive to make their supply chains more sustainable, the cold chain sector represents both a challenge and an opportunity. By overcoming data overload, improving visibility, embracing electric technology, and reducing waste, the cold chain can help organizations accelerate their journey toward a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future.

Author

I'm a Post Graduate in Food, Nutrition and Clinical Dietetics. Currently I'm thriving in my role as a Senior Sub-Editor at Food Infotech Magazine. My passion-driven research and engaging interviews with industry leaders captivate readers, bridging the realms of taste, health, and innovation in gastronomy while sparking curiosity about the future of food.

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