What Is Reusable Packaging?

Reusable Pallets and Containers Help Businesses Achieve Zero Solid Waste Targets

Smiling man carrying a reusable beer keg in a warehouse full of kegs on pallets.
••• Sigrid Gombert, Getty Images

Reusable packaging is packaging that is used more than one time. It is often designed to promote durability, ease of use, ease of cleaning, ease of repair, and collapsibility or nestable design to provide an inexpensive return when empty. Reuse can also be opportunistic, utilizing packaging that is not necessarily designed for reuse such as lightweight plastic shopping bags or cardboard boxes.

Reusable packaging can include primary consumer packages, such as beverage containers, as well as transport and industrial packaging. The focus of this piece is on transport and industrial applications.

What Are the Main Types of Reusable Packaging Used?

There are several categories of reusable packaging typically found in industrial use. Examples of reusable packaging include:

  • Reusable pallets
  • Pallet collars
  • Reusable handheld containers
  • Reusable bulk containers
  • Reusable dunnage
  • Reusable wraps and straps

What Are the Benefits of Reusable Packaging?

The use of reusable packaging can be an attractive option in terms of positive economic, sustainability, and social outcomes.

Economic benefits can include direct savings in packaging purchase and disposal cost as a result of repeated reuse. Higher initial purchase price ends up translating into a lower cost per trip through repeated reuse.

Other economic benefits can come from productivity gains where reusable packaging better addresses the needs of the work process. An example of this benefit would be a design for better parts presentation to assembly line workers. The improved presentation can result in faster production, as well as improved ergonomics which reduces the risk of workplace injury.

Reusable packaging is also associated with better protection of parts and reduced damage. Storage and transportation efficiencies also result from their superior strength for stacking of full containers, and when empty, through a collapsible or nestable design of pallets and containers. 

Sustainability is aided by the avoidance of expendable packaging, thus negating the need to dispose of it or to divert it away from the landfill through efforts to recycle. Better product protection in reusable packaging also aids sustainability through reduction of damage and the investment of resources required to dispose of the unsaleable product as well as to manufacture and ship the replacement merchandise.

In terms of social outcomes, reusable packaging can be designed to improve ergonomics, through the creation of handheld containers with handholds, for example, or drop doors that allow material handlers to work in close proximity to items to be handled.

Under What Conditions Does Reusable Packaging Offer the Greatest Advantage?

When companies have conditions such as those listed below, they may be in a good position to take advantage of the savings offered by reusable packaging. Such conditions include:

  • High-volume shipments
  • Frequent deliveries
  • Shorter distances
  • Dedicated delivery provider
  • High volumes of solid waste
  • Frequent shrinkage or product damage
  • Expensive expendable packaging
  • Underutilized trailer space in transportation
  • Inefficient storage or warehouse space
  • Worker safety or ergonomic issues
  • Significant need for cleanliness and hygiene
  • Need for unitization

What Industries Use Reusable Packaging?

Reusable packaging is used in many industries, and in many points along supply chains. A list of industries where reusables are often used includes:

  • Beverage
  • Produce
  • General manufacturing
  • Appliance
  • Automotive
  • Food and grocery
  • Pharmaceutical
  • Electronics
  • Aerospace
  • Chemicals
  • Textile

What Are the Concerns about Reusable Packaging?

Worldwide, the supply chain is still dominated by expendable packaging. Reusable packaging is difficult to cost-justify in situations where return logistic costs are high due to long-distance or low volumes. Another issue of concern in some applications is pallet and container theft. Approaches for more effectively managing reusable packaging to prevent theft are becoming increasingly well understood. Reusable packaging and pallet loss is another barrier to success. Oftentimes, a pallet deposit system can help reduce loss. In the final analysis, reusable packaging presents an opportunity for many companies to help achieve their economic, ergonomic and environmental goals.