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Comparison Of Active And Passive Cold Chain Packaging Systems

Much has been written about cold chain logistics, however, successful and efficient planning still presents many challenges. One of them is choosing an appropriate packaging system. (You can learn more about overcoming cold chain logistics challenges in our White Paper "Best Practices in Cold Chain Logistics Planning".)

One of the most important first steps in selecting appropriate packaging is to identify whether a passive or active shipping system is needed. We have come across situations where shippers selected a passive system they use for dry ice shipments and assumed adding cold packs to the insulated design would keep the 2-8c shipment cold. However, shippers take a great risk making this assumption especially if the packaging system has not been tested under these conditions. Companies should always use packaging that has been properly tested or qualified for maintaining the required temperature range.

Passive Shipping Configurations

Passive shipping configurations are manufactured systems that are typically insulated with polystyrene, polyurethane or vacuum insulated panels. Many have been pre-qualified to hold a particular temperature for a certain amount of payload capacity for a specified period of time: 24, 72 or 96 hours, and more. With these types of configurations, the shipper must create the environment based on the manufacturer’s exact specifications using gel packs or other types of phase change materials in order to maintain the desired temperature.

If an off-the-shelf pre-qualified design doesn’t work, many manufacturers can customize a solution for a company’s specific needs. In either case, passive systems can vary in costs, ranging from very basic inexpensive polystyrene coolers to more complex configurations using phase change materials and vacuum insulated panels costing hundreds of dollars.

Active Shipping Configurations

Active shipping configurations are usually leased containers with advanced temperature controls that are often powered by electricity and/or battery. Some may have a heating and/or cooling system built in, or may work using dry ice as a coolant and system to push cool air into the payload area to maintain a specific set temperature. These types of configurations are generally designed to hold one or more pallets and, as such, are ideal for large shipments, although smaller units are also available.

Active shipping configurations are considered to be more secure than passive systems, where units lock and are never opened during transport. If the temperature begins to fall outside the range, batteries are replenished or the system may have an added feature that enables it to be plugged in during a delay to maintain operation. As a result, this design helps reduce the risk of theft and may help with compliance to certain regulations.

Comparison of Passive and Active System

Both systems have their pros and cons and much depends on the specific needs of your cold chain shipment. This table may help you identify which system will be more appropriate for your cold chain:

Shipping System




No warehousing since unit is typically leased, not owned

Highly secure; reduced risk of theft

Quick loading/unloading; less labor intensive

Environmentally friendly; no need to dispose of non-biodegradable packing materials 
    Cost effective when payload is maximized; ideal for large bulk shipments

      Since product is leased, availability can be an issue (i.e., active flu season, typical increase in bulk vaccine shipments)

      Limited lane segments; may not be able to ship to all destinations or may be cost prohibitive if there is no nearby hub station for returns

      Mechanical issues
        Winter use can be risky if dry ice and/or D-cell batteries get too cold 
          Not cost effective if payload is too small; end up paying for empty space


          Holds tighter temperatures 

          Certain configurations may have reverse logistics capabilities for reuse

          Can be shipped anywhere 

          Year round use

            Warehousing required

            Refrigerant must be conditioned according to specifications

            Longer pack-out with more complex shipping configurations

              With many options on the market, it is important to choose the packaging that has been designed and properly tested to hold the required temperature of the shipment.