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Plastic packaging – which makes up the majority of returnable / reusable packaging – has come under fire from all angles over the last 12 months.
Whilst businesses begin to focus on recyclable packaging solutions such as corrugated cardboard and other biodegradable materials, plastics have, rather simplistically, been labelled as bad for the environment.
And whilst this is most definitely true for single use plastics, returnable packaging such as supply chain totes and containers can actually be amongst the most sustainable forms of packaging currently available.
This guide aims to provide some perspective on the argument as to whether returnable and reusable plastic packaging could actually benefit the environment, as well as your customers and business as a whole.
Please use the links below if you would like to go directly to your specific area of interest.
Before assessing whether returnable packaging will be suitable for your business – as well as minimising environmental impact – it is useful to gain a full understanding of what is meant by the commonly used terms and definitions.
Reusable packaging, returnable packaging, reusable transport items (RTIs), returnable transport packaging (RTP) and other of similar terms are all interchangeable, and used to describe packaging that can be used over many trips and a prolonged time period.
As a result, products such as handheld totes, plastic bulk containers, pallets, shipping racks, dunnage (e.g. plastic dividers, inserts and cradles) and other related items are often classed as reusable.
Usually manufactured from moulded or fabricated corrugated plastics (e.g. Correx), they are designed to be durable, allow for ease of use, ease of cleaning, and provide the option to be repaired.
Besides this, they can usually be collapsed or nested to allow for inexpensive return transit and / or storage when empty.
Saying that, reusable packaging can be produced from a wide range of materials. This includes wood, metals, plastics, composites, and others – the material used is defined by the demands of the application and the properties of the specific material.
Whilst this can include consumer packaging (such as drinks bottles, retail bags etc.) the main application is for industrial, closed loop supply chains such as manufacturing. This type of packaging is particularly prevalent in the automotive industry for example.
Effectively, reusable or returnable packaging is designed for repeated reuse
Opportunistic reuse is also important to consider.
This is where packaging originally intended to be expendable or single use (for example, corrugated cardboard boxes, or lightweight wooden pallets), are used again for a different purpose.
This type of reuse is commonly referred to as opportunistic reuse or reusability, and generally isn’t considered to be within the scope of reusable packaging.
Yet whilst this technically would not be classed as reusable packaging under its strict definition, it can result in a number of similar benefits offered by reusable packaging, but just being more limited in scope (e.g. reduced cost per trip and avoided waste creation).
So can plastic packaging really be good for the environment?
There are in fact a number of ways in which taking advantage of a returnable supply chain can actually minimise your company’s environmental impact.
For example, if parts or components are constantly being shipped between factories or manufacturing sites, using single trip corrugated packaging can soon result in large volumes of waste material.
This may end up in landfill, but even if it doesn’t there is still a large amount of energy and natural resources required in order to repeatedly manufacture this expendable packaging. This is where reusable packaging can significantly reduce energy usage, raw materials and minimise landfill.
Reusable packaging – being more durable and robust – also tends to offer better protection of the products or parts within.
By minimising transit damage, it also helps to reduce the resources required to dispose of the unsellable products (or landfill), as well as to manufacture and ship the replacement.
If designed correctly, reusable packaging can also help to minimise C02 emissions through more efficient transit. When loaded, this can be through stacking and space efficient sizing (e.g. to completely fill vehicles). When empty, they can usually be collapsed or nested to prevent the shipping of “fresh air”. This also has benefits for storage too.
Specific reusable packaging – such as Correx – can also offer weight and volume savings, both of which can also help with reducing transport emissions.
And finally, the Packaging Waste Directive in the UK focuses specifically on avoiding packaging waste – something which has led to a rise in the popularity of returnable solutions.
Instead of expendable packaging being sent to landfill after a single trip (being unfriendly to the environment and expensive), returnable packaging offers a long lifespan – and usually the materials can be recycled at the end of their useful life.
Please see below for the differing types of stock and custom returnable packaging that your business can source from GWP.
So would it make more sense – economically and environmentally – to switch to reusable packaging at your business?
There are normally a number of factors and conditions that can help to ascertain whether switching would be worthwhile. These include, but are not limited to:
If any, or a number of these apply to your business, then it is worth exploring whether returnable packaging could be of long term benefit.
Besides looking at potential issues you have surrounding your packaging and supply chain, there are also a number of well-established applications that lend themselves particularly well to using returnable packaging.
This includes delivery of raw materials or ingredients to processing plants, or sub-components to assembly facilities (this is usually termed “inbound”).
Work in process is similar, in terms of materials or products being transported between different parts of your manufacturing facility or different sites entirely, or even for temporary storage before final processing.
The same also applies to finished goods and the shipment of products to customers either directly or through distribution networks.
Service parts and after market is another area where reusable packaging is prevalent, as it allows for the return of damaged or worn parts or products back to service centres to be refurbished. This is particularly true of the wider automotive industry.
Finally, returnable containers are increasingly being used to aid recycling, through movement of waste and recyclable materials from various sources to the recycling plant.
Reusable packaging has become well established in a number of specific industries too.
These are generally characterised by highly developed and well managed supply chains, and where costs and efficiency are tightly controlled and monitored.
As such, returnable packaging is often found in the following markets / sectors:
The following questions are a useful starting point when undertaking analysis of whether you should consider using returnable, closed loop packaging.
However, if you would prefer to receive guidance and advice from a reusable packaging specialist, please do not hesitate to contact us at GWP – a member of our team will be happy to discuss the best option for your specific requirements.
As well as the little known environmental benefits, there are a number of clear business reasons why you should consider the use of returnable packaging.
These can generally be split into 3 main areas – economic, social and sustainability (which have been covered under the section above).
As soon as a regular supply chain between a shipment location and delivery location is established, reusable packaging offers a considerable reduction in overall expenditure, as well as improvement in short to medium-term profitability.
Despite a higher upfront investment, reusable packaging actually delivers a fast return on investment. This is due to a lower cost per trip than the single use alternatives. Effectively, the cost is per trip is less than the cost of purchasing new expendable packaging each time.
Typically, there can be between 40-70% saving on the overall cost, with profitability achievable from the first year onwards.
Besides this, reusable totes and containers can provide productivity benefits, such as improving ease of use, enhancing accessibility of items to production line staff and allowing for multiple parts to be handled in a single container (when using dividers for instance).
Reusable packaging will also protect products and parts through the supply chain. This reduced damage not only lowers costs through minimising written off stock, but also prevents the admin and additional transit requirements of manufacturing and shipping replacements.
Finally, collapsible and nestable containers can also improve space efficiency (and therefore costs) when is storage or transit.
The “social” benefits are generally realised through improved ergonomics and usability – but in terms of reducing worker fatigue, workplace injuries (including RSI) and generally making life easier for those who interact with the totes or containers.
And of course, the sustainable benefits include reducing your organisation’s carbon footprint, reducing material sent to landfill, as well as the potential for reduced obligations under the Packaging Waste Regulations (the latter of which can also reduce admin, paperwork and the associated costs).
Please see below for a selection of the reusable packaging products that have been successfully designed and manufactured at GWP, that have had a significant, positive impact on their users businesses.
Despite the potential advantages of switching to reusable packaging, there are applications and industries where doing so would not prove to be sustainable or make financial sense.
For example, reusable packaging is difficult to justify in terms of cost where return logistics prove prohibitively expensive due to long distance or low volumes.
Besides this, and depending upon the application, proactive management of the reusable packaging may be required.
When used in-house or in a closed loop between a distribution centre and retail outlets, it is unlikely there will be significant loss of containers and inventory.
In more complex setups however, or in any situation where there is an unacceptable degree of damage, loss or theft, a more proactive approach to management will be required. This will add resources and cost.
And whilst reusable packaging continues to provide substantial benefits as detailed above, developments and improvements are still being realised in terms of traceability, parts access, storage and transit space efficiency, weight reduction and ease of assembly / disassembly.
However, perhaps the main reason why businesses shy away from using returnable / reusable packaging is the perception amongst the wider public.
With an ongoing focus on using recyclable packaging and biodegradable materials, many businesses are pressured by consumer demand to eliminate plastics and other perceived unsustainable materials from their packaging and supply chains – even if the concerns around these materials can often be unfounded.
Ultimately, many businesses need to consider what their customers want, how their brand is perceived and its position in the market – and choose their packaging accordingly.
Despite the negative coverage that it receives, there are a number of little known plastic recycling facts that highlight the improving picture in this area.
For starters, only 26% of all plastic used in the UK ends up in landfill.
In terms of plastic packaging, 45% (1,015,000 tonnes) of all plastic packaging used in the UK was recycled in 2016. This is an improvement of 15% from 2015 (Source: Environment Agency. National Packaging Waste Database)
In terms of overall plastic recycling, the UK is now ranked 10th out of 30 EU countries. For plastic packaging recycling, the UK is ranked 7th overall and 2nd for commercial and industrial packaging recycling.
However, many types of plastics packaging are long-life artefacts – reducing the need for recycling. For example, returnable crates have lifespans of over 25 years.
The UK government has set out a waste hierarchy, in order to encourage appropriate use of materials.
The hierarchy indicates the preferred method of waste management, beginning with the most desired option, prevention. Reuse follows, then recycling and recovery. Disposal, the final point on the hierarchy, would see plastics go to landfill – something that should be avoided in all scenarios.
Please see the diagram for further details.
Source: WSR Recycling
Good environmental practice also requires us to use the least material to do the job required – and then to reuse or recycle by recovering material or energy from the products at the end of their life.
For that reason, most plastic packaging is either recycled or sent to energy-from-waste plants (if recycling is not the best environmental option).
Plastics are a very effective energy source because they have a high calorific value (higher than coal). In fact, in 2012 Sweden’s energy from waste plants produced heat for 810,000 households and electricity for 250,000 houses.
Where products are not presently collected for recycling it may be because there are high levels of contamination (e.g. from food), or the energy / resources required to recycle simply makes it unsustainable or uneconomical.
It must also be noted that currently available compostable and biodegradable plastic materials fail to recover either material or energy – and that no materials have been proven to biodegrade successfully in marine environments.
GWP Group have been designing and manufacturing tailored returnable packaging solutions for more than 25 years.
However, a key difference between us and our competitors is that we also design and manufacture single trip corrugated packaging too. This breadth of knowledge and product range means we can offer a truly impartial assessment of the type of packaging that would be most appropriate for your business, and provide a solution accordingly.
This is in addition to a huge range of other environmental initiatives and practices, that ensures whatever packaging you choose, it is manufactured efficiently, minimises material usage, does not create excessive waste / recycling requirement and – most importantly – is fit for purpose and cost effective.
If you would like advice or guidance on how to switch to reusable packaging (and if this really is the best option for your business), then please speak with one of our experts today.
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