What is in this article?:
Additional Sustainability Awards coverage:
Unified Grocers has made sustainability improvements in warehouse lighting and forklifts.
Unified’s emphasis on sustainability has certainly been influenced by its presence in California, perhaps the most environmentally progressive state in the nation. For example, several years ago the state government encouraged fleet owners to install particulate traps on tractors, and Unified acted. “It wasn’t especially efficient because you lost a little mileage,” Plamann said, “but it was the right thing to keep particulates out of the air.” That practice has since become a regulation.
Unified’s desire to upgrade its fleet has led it to purchase, at a cost of $7 million, 63 clean-diesel tractors, which will be delivered by year’s end. “In the next three or four years, all tractors are going to have to come up to this standard, so why not get on board now?” he said. In contrast to the particulate trap, “the newer [emissions-reducing] technology does not rob you of miles per gallon, so we’re not giving up anything.” Unified is also adding new on-board computers to its fleet and is exploring temperature-sensing devices for trailers that can keep a constant temperature in refrigerated units and reduce fuel usage.
California — especially in the Los Angeles area — poses special transportation challenges to food distributors because of its dense traffic patterns. Whereas most routing systems look for the shortest distance between two points, in Southern California the critical issue is “how long a tractor-trailer sits on the freeway,” said Plamann. By subscribing to the California highway patrol and local LA systems, Unified constantly monitors traffic patterns at different times of the day, adjusting for seasonal changes, and making routing changes on the fly.
These traffic constraints put a premium on communicating with drivers, and Unified’s “end target” is to have “constant communication” with them, which current onboard technology may not yet deliver, Plamann said.
In its warehouses, Unified has addressed the environmental friendliness and efficiency of its material handling equipment. For example, it has been giving preferential treatment to vendors whose equipment is manufactured with recycled materials — such as a forklift with batteries that use recycled lead.
A number of the forklifts in Unified’s Stockton, Calif., facility are powered by liquid-methanol fuel cells that have extended the battery lives of the units by about 20%, allowing the forklifts to run longer without work stoppage. However, the fuel cells are still in the developmental phase and Unified is helping to improve them in concert with a supplier he declined to name. “The units are not as reliable as we initially thought, but the concept is still something we’re supporting,” Plamann said. “Over the next one to two years we will have made significant improvements in them — we expect to double battery life — and they will probably be the future of fuel cells.”
Unified leverages a program offered in Los Angeles to slow down or shut off electrical usage when the grid reaches a certain peak level where premium rates would otherwise kick in. At its LA warehouse, the company shifts receiving and shipping so that they don’t coincide with peak-hour slow-downs. “We try to schedule receiving and shipping in chilled and freezer facilities so the doors are not open when the power is shut down,” Plamann explained. “I haven’t had negative comments from anyone about this.”