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in conversation with… Arjo Bronkhorst, Gerco van de Brug, Renger Hazeleger and Wouter Vermeulen

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Return loading: the key to increasingly sustainable transport

The VanDrie Group has a large network of raw material suppliers and veal farmers in Western Europe. Every year, lorries belonging to the three regular logistics partners of the VanDrie Group drive around three million kilometres to supply veal farmers throughout the Netherlands with calf feed. Since the first load was transported about 25 years ago, a great many things have been learned, developed and improved together in order to reduce the CO2 impact of this fleet. 

As operational manager for Alpuro and Navobi, Wouter Vermeulen is the key figure when it comes to the production locations, provisioning and transport. Together with logistics partners Arjo Bronkhorst (HBT), Gerco van de Brug (Van de Brug) and Renger Hazeleger (Van Veluw), he works together on organising the logistics flows in an increasingly smart and efficient way. A good relationship based on mutual trust plays an increasingly important role in that regard.

What are the most important points to focus on when transporting calf feed?

Vermeulen: “GMP+ is an important quality standard for the VanDrie Group. This also applies to our transport. The GMP+ standard includes guidelines that every driver must comply with in order to be able to guarantee the food safety of animal feed. For example, the standard sets out the way in which certain products have to be loaded and unloaded while maintaining quality, and which cleaning regimes are necessary between each load. This demands a specific professional competence on the part of the driver.”

Hazeleger: “In addition, it is important to us, but also to the VanDrie Group, that the driver speaks the language of the veal farmer and knows what is going on in the agricultural sector. After all, in his/her contact with the customer, the driver is acting as an extension of the VanDrie Group itself.”

Are there also points for attention when scheduling transport?  

Vermeulen: “We try to keep the calf feed orders, the majority of which we transport within the Netherlands and to Germany and Belgium, intact and not to split them up. The ideal situation is one trip for one customer with a maximum load. It is a waste, of course, with 30 tonnes of capacity, to set off with only 28 tonnes on board. We are obviously dependent on the capacity at the veal farmers’ premises, but they have also made substantial investments in storage capacity in recent years in order to reduce the number of transport movements required.”

With return loading, we drop off an end product and we reload a raw material for our feed using the very same lorry.

An important development that has led to greater efficiency is return loading – bringing back other loads. How did return loading come about and how does it work in practice?

Vermeulen: “About twenty years ago, the transport of our outflow of calf feed and the inflow of raw materials was still separate. In practice, that could mean that an empty lorry and a full lorry crossed each other halfway along a route. That is not particularly efficient of course. With return loading, we drop off an end product and we reload a raw material for our feed using the very same lorry. That requires slightly more planning and flexibility, but leads to considerably less travel movements. Through proper cooperation between transporter and other stakeholders, we are becoming increasingly efficient and therefore more sustainable. As VanDrie Group, we also encourage Gerco, Renger and Arjo to take along follow-on freight that is not intended for the VanDrie Group.”

Hazeleger: “In practice, that means that my drivers for Tentego drive to North Germany with a freight of calf milk powder on a daily basis and come back with whey powder from a dairy factory in the vicinity. Every product that is transported has its own IDTF code and also therefore its own cleaning regime in accordance with the GMP+ standard. That means that in the case of calf milk powder and whey powder, we need to clean the compartments in between with a broom.”

Bronkhorst: “Our equipment, including the vehicles of Gerco and Renger, distinguishes itself by the compartmentalised trailers. Between us, we have vehicles with two to eleven compartments. This is important as it allows us to bring along separate consignments. Transport with return loads requires us to make changes in terms of the equipment we use. The standard tanks with which we bring our products to the veal farmer are not always suited to transporting return products.”

Van de Brug: “That’s right. If you drive with smaller – and therefore more – compartments, it is less easy to bring a new load along with you during the trip back. Complications are also more likely to occur. For example, a compartment may flood more quickly during the return loading. For an efficient transport, the availability of the right equipment is therefore of great importance.”

The VanDrie Group works together with three different transport providers with more or less the same qualities. Why didn’t you choose just one transport provider?  

Vermeulen: The relationships with HBT, Van de Brug and Van Veluw go back many years – even before Alpuro, Tentego and Navobi became part of the VanDrie Group. We attach great value to that relationship and by working with Arjo, Renger and Gerco, we have found a way of working together in which they also increasingly work as one. While they were previously just three separate transport companies, I see them much more as a transport combination. This is very valuable to us.” 

Bronkhorst: “We previously saw each other more as competitors, but for some time now we’ve been looking for what we have in common a lot more and how we can work together to ensure that the VanDrie Group comes first. Together, we have about one hundred years of experience in transport, so there is a lot we can learn from each other. Not only is that very important to us, but it’s also important to the VanDrie Group.”

Van de Brug: “We’ve started working together more closely at trip level. We’ve also come closer together when it comes to sharing knowledge. We apply the same quality standard and learn from each other’s innovations in the field of sustainability.”

What are the results of the good mutual cooperation, smarter loading innovations and technological developments in terms of CO2 reduction?

Vermeulen: “I estimate that we drive about three million kilometres transporting finished products in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany each year. The largest source of CO2 emissions can be limited by means of return loading. Nowadays, it leads to a saving of at least 12 to 13 percent in terms of emissions. Those are significant results and the end is not yet in sight. Cooperation within the VanDrie Group, but also with and between chain partners, plays an important part in this. Examples include thorough freight planning and proper coordination with our purchasing department and production locations. But also transport providers and storage tank builders who together think about adjustments to loading possibility of raw materials.”

As transport providers, we too can make more effective use of data.”

What opportunities and developments do you see in the future?

Vermeulen: “As far as the VanDrie Group is concerned, most of the opportunities I see involve creating predictive capacity. The food requirements of a calf, for example, are dependent on a range of variables at stall level. If we can use data to predict the needs of the veal farmer more easily, we can translate that data into the volumes that we need to produce and therefore transport.”

Van de Brug: “That would be ideal for us. For example, we could accept return freight for trips that have not yet been scheduled, but which we are certain are coming up. As transport providers, we too can make more effective use of data.” Examples include increasing our ability to chart the daily distance driven, empty kilometres, CO2 reduction, loading and unloading times and the hours that the lorries are not being driven.  By exchanging knowledge about this, between ourselves, but also by learning from other sectors, we can work together towards achieving even greater savings.”

Bronkhorst: “All of us are already using the most fuel-efficient Euro 6 engines. Using electric vehicles is not yet an option when driving distances of about 700 to 800 kilometres per day. The main opportunities I can see when it comes to making gains lie in our choice of fuel. HVO [Editor’s note: a biodiesel with 89 percent CO2 reduction] now exists, which can be mixed with regular diesel. In addition, we hired someone years ago to create more awareness among our drivers with regard to sustainable driving behaviour. We currently drive at a maximum of 85 kilometres per hour, which has resulted in a saving of between 2.4 kilometres per litre and 3.4 kilometres per litre of fuel.”

Hazeleger: “In the short term, most of the opportunities I see lie in the area of alternative fuels. For example, a new lorry is being delivered to us on Friday, which drives on LNG. LNG is a liquefied gas that emits twenty percent less CO2. We are also looking at the possibility of refuelling with bio-LNG. You will then be taking a step towards one hundred percent CO2 reduction.”