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Analysis: Single trip packaging vs returnable packaging

Ian Cook: Last Updated 18th February 2022
Posted In: Efficiency & Productivity | Guides and Advice xx 31616

Is returnable packaging right for you?

Deciding whether multi-trip, reusable packaging is the best option for your business

Making a decision whether to use single trip packaging such as corrugated, or returnable transit packaging (RTP), can have a surprisingly significant long term influence on your costs. Not to mention your environmental impact.

But how do you decide whether you should use returnable packaging or single trip? This guide, if not providing all the answers, will certainly offer you the information you need to make an informed decision. It covers:

  • Definitions, and what is truly returnable packaging
  • Applications / scenarios when single trip is most suitable
  • When you should switch to returnable transit packaging

If you need still need assistance after reading through then please don’t hesitate to get in touch. As a supplier of both single and multi-trip packaging, we will be happy to offer genuinely unbiased advice.

Quick Reference / Contents


Why should you care what type of packaging you use?

Running a manufacturing operation is a difficult job. Running one that spans multiple sites and / or suppliers, is even more difficult.

And this is even before talking about how to do it cost-effectively and efficiently.

There is a lot to consider. From managing the logistics and supply chain through to the manufacturing equipment and processes, raw material procurement, stock management and storage, as well as motivating and training an engaged workforce.

All of this (and much more besides) can make deciding whether to use returnable transit packaging or single trip packaging seem somewhat insignificant.

However, getting this right can have a surprising impact on your business’ manufacturing productivity, and therefore competitiveness, costs and ultimate success.

01: Definitions

Defining what returnable packaging actually means

Before ascertaining which format is right for your operations, it is important to define what is meant by single trip and multi-trip packaging.

Returnable or reusable packaging – which you may also hear referred to as returnable transport packaging (RTP) or reusable transport items (RTI) – is as the name suggests. A reusable container or tote that will be used over multiple journeys.

These are generally manufactured from durable materials such as moulded polypropylene, corrugated plastics such as Correx®, or indeed other materials such as wood or metal (although these tend to be less common).

Single trip packaging vs returnable packaging
Deciding between single trip vs returnable packaging can have an impact on your business' ongoing costs and efficiency

Reusable packaging can take the form of bulk containers, hand held totes, shipping racks, dunnage and even pallets.

Single trip packaging, on the other hand, is designed to only make one journey – such as from a factory to an end user – before being disposed of / recycled.

Commonly produced using corrugated cardboard materials, they may also be produced from lightweight plastics, films and even wood on occasion (pallets being a good example here). Most commonly, however, single trip packaging will be corrugated packaging and boxes etc.

02: Opportunistic Re-use

Don’t get confused with opportunistic re-use

A key point to note here is that it is fairly common for packaging originally intended to be used as a single trip solution is repurposed and used again.

Whilst this could be argued makes it reusable packaging, it is technically termed as “opportunistic re-use”. So whilst this packaging will realise some of the benefits of reusable packaging in a more limited scope – such as reduced cost per trip and minimised waste – it is for the purpose of this guide still termed single trip.

Supply chain packaging
Supply chain packaging should not be confused with what is termed "opportunistic reuse", whereby items intended to be single trip are reused

Examples of this in practice include the (surprisingly common) re-use of wooden pallets until they become damaged, or corrugated boxes that have been used to ship specific components then being re-used to send other products or parts to another point on the supply chain.

Whilst not within the scope of returnable packaging, this does actually present an opportunity for many organisations that may not be ready to fully committing to a closed loop reusable setup.

Where is single trip and reusable packaging most common?

There is a number of points where the use of these types of packaging cross over, whilst there are others where one type is more prevalent than the other.

For example, both reusable and single trip packaging may be used for “inbound” logistics, such as the delivery of raw materials. Service parts or “after market” logistics also commonly use both types, as evidenced in the automotive parts sector and also with the return of damaged or worn items for refurbishment.

However, single trip tends to be most commonly used for shipment of finished goods to the end consumer (even if this is via a retail outlet or distribution network), partly due to the marketing opportunity this may provide, and also the customer burden of returning the pack.

Multi-trip containers and packs are more frequently (although not always) used for in-plant movement of parts and components (i.e. line side totes and handling containers), and are becoming prevalent in recycling applications too.

03: Single Trip

So why would you choose to use single trip packaging?

There are a number of benefits of using single trip packaging, and that is why it is still popular across a wide range of industries and applications.

Firstly, the upfront cost of purchasing the packaging is lower, due to the lighter weight, more cost-effective materials (i.e. corrugated cardboard) that it is manufactured from.

This point is further enhanced by the fact that less packaging is also required in the short term, as there is not the need for the (potentially) empty return containers that are part of the returnable “loop”.

This not only makes the inventory easier to manage – and can even allow for a just in time stock holding service to be used – but also cuts down the need for collaboration (and the investment / effort this requires) from all entities within the supply chain.

A final advantage that single trip packaging is also inherently more flexible. If a product changes and a different size is required, once the existing stock is used a new version can be implemented immediately.

This also means it is easier to design / engineer specific characteristics into your packaging if required.

Single trip corrugated packaging
Single trip packaging offers a number of benefits, including being more flexible to changes to your products / parts, as well as a lower upfront cost

The main disadvantage of single trip packaging however is the ongoing costs. Whilst initially cheaper, there comes a point where having to constantly purchase new inventory overtakes the cost of setting up a returnable supply chain.

The environmental impact of single trip packaging is also higher (even through corrugated cardboard is easily and widely recycled), and the burden for this disposal or recycling is placed on the end user.

This can in certain situations make it less convenient for those in the supply chain, and can also lead to increased efforts required to comply with Packaging Waste Regulations.

Finally, the levels of protection offered by single trip packaging are usually lower than that of reusable packaging. This is due to corrugated being more susceptible to moisture and impact. This can, in turn, lead to higher numbers of items being damaged in transit, and the associated costs of returns, replacements and delays.

Single trip transit packaging
Whilst single trip packaging can be engineered with surprising strength, returnable plastic containers are often more suited to heavy duty applications

04: Single Trip Summary

Single Trip packaging advantages / disadvantages summary

In summary, these are the advantages of using single trip / disposable packaging:

  • Lower (initial) cost
  • Easier to manage
  • Suitable for longer distances / dispersed recipients
  • No requirement for supply chain collaboration
  • Smaller up front inventory
  • Flexibility to changes

And these are the negative points to consider before using single trip:

  • Customer disposal
  • Ongoing / lifetime costs
  • Environmental impact
  • Protection
  • Customer convenience

05: Returnable Packaging

When would using returnable packaging be more appropriate?

Returnable packaging is already well established in a number of manufacturing industries (being particularly prevalent in the automotive sector / supply chain) for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the “lifetime” costs of the packaging are lower. Although initially more costly (as a higher volume needs to be purchased, and the more durable nature of the materials used), their longevity and reusability make them the more cost effective long-term option.

This can actually provide significant savings over the course of a couple years, particularly for businesses using large volumes of standard corrugated cardboard boxes.

As a result of this, many companies now view returnable packaging as a capital investment, whereas single trip packaging is viewed as a “cost”.

Besides this, the handling of the packaging is usually improved – being easier to integrate handles, lids and even wheels – than single trip where the cost needing to be minimised inhibits the inclusion of such features.

As well as improving efficiency of handling, this also improves safety of any manual handling too.

The greater strength of the material used in returnable packaging also means that the contents are afforded more protection during shipping, reducing written of stock and the associate costs.

And if the containers are then also used “line-side”, the use of dividers and dunnage options for totes makes retrieval and stock checking the contents much easier than with corrugated packaging.

Finally, the environmental impact is also lessened due to decreasing the amount of packaging that needs to be disposed of or recycled – as well as the energy required to continually manufacture new packaging.

Reusable packaging
Reusable packaging, besides lasting significantly longer (meaning lower overall costs), can be enhanced using inserts and dividers

The disadvantages of returnable packaging is that there is a significantly greater upfront cost due to the materials used and also the requirement for additional inventory to ensure there is sufficient for use in all parts of the supply chain.

When not in use, the returnable packaging is also likely to take up considerably more space than single trip (which is usually supplied unassembled), leading to higher storage / warehousing costs (at least until the majority of containers are in the supply chain).

Certain systems, however, such as Rapitainer, can be folded flat and therefore returned at relatively low cost to alleviate this issue.

The cost of replacing damaged, lost or stolen containers is also higher, and can be significant if there is ongoing loss of the packaging.

Finally, they are less flexible to changes in requirements (i.e. new products or components that are different in size), although this can be mitigated by the use of internal dividers and dunnage.

Closed loop packaging containers
Closed loop packaging containers do have a number of drawbacks depending on their intended use, which is why it is important to assess what is right for your business

06: Returnable Packaging Summary

Returnable packaging: summary of pros and cons

To summarise, these are the main advantages of opting for a returnable “closed loop” logistical setup:

  • Lower lifetime cost
  • Capital investment vs expense
  • Environmental benefits
  • Protection / durability
  • Improved handling / processes
  • No end user disposal

Whilst the disadvantages when compared to single trip packaging are as follows:

  • Increased upfront volume required
  • Requires collaboration in supply chain
  • Less flexible once integrated (dividers mitigate)
  • Availability of space required
  • Ongoing loss / replacement cost

07: Making Your Selection

So should you choose single trip or returnable packaging?

The answer to this really depends on the scale and nature of your business.

The larger your manufacturing or distribution grows, the more likely returnable packaging will begin to make economic sense. However, this will involve taking a longer term, strategic view of your supply chain, and ensuring that all other companies / organisations within it are able to make it work effectively.

It will also require specific conditions to be met – such as a cooperative customer base, having transport systems in place that can handle the return and management of the transit containers, and delivery locations which are not too dispersed.

Returnable packaging
Regardless of whether you opt for returnable packaging or single trip boxes, GWP can provide a solution tailored to your specific requirements

Single trip may always have some place in your packaging requirement, particularly if you supply any products or parts direct to the end consumer. But utilising multi-trip reusable packaging as much as possible – both through your supply chain and within your manufacturing facility – will realise cost savings and environmental benefits.

For further information on whether you should use single trip or returnable packaging containers, and the options available to your business, please visit the guides section of this website.

In Summary

Still can't decide between single trip and returnable packaging?

GWP will be happy to offer your business genuinely impartial advice on what is the best solution for your specific market, product, application or current situation.

As a supplier of both single trip and returnable packaging for almost 30 years, we have the skills, know-how and manufacturing capabilities to ensure you see the maximum benefit from your packaging processes.

Further Reading...

About the Author

Ian Cook, GWP Group managing director

Ian Cook

Managing Director | GWP Correx®

Ian heads up GWP Correx®, having outstanding knowledge and understanding of supply chain, reusable packaging & handling products [Read full bio…]

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