The Basics of Reusable Packaging

Reusable packaging is an approach that is yet to reach its full potential. Reusable or returnable packaging can be redeployed many times, offering significant benefits in terms of sustainability, productivity, food safety and more. Perched to help industries and society achievetheircircular econaspirations, it can be a powerful component of sustainability initiatives. Here are the basics.


What is reusable packaging?

Reusable packaging, also known as returnable packaging, returnable transport packaging (RTP), reusable transport items (RTI) as well as other terms, consists of durable handheld and bulk containers, pallets, shipping racks, dunnage and other related items intended to be reused many times.

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What Is opportunistic reuse?

Key to the definition of reusable packaging is its design for durability and reuse. Oftentimes, pallets and containers of lighter construction are also reused opportunistically, or for applications other than the original intention. Technically we would not call this reusable packaging, however such applications enjoy some of the same benefits of reusable packaging on a more limited scope, such as reduced cost per trip an avoided waste creation. Examples of opportunistic reuse include the reuse of corrugated cardboard banana boxes for shipping other products, or reuse of lightweight expendable pallets when they are still usable. Such usage has been referred to as opportunistic reuse or reusabilly, and generally isn’t considered to be within the scope of reusable packaging. Some consultants believe it is prudent for organizations to master the reuse of limited life packaging reuse before investing in more expensive durable packaging.

Built to Last, Delivering Verifiable Savings

Reusable packaging is intended to be used many times, and is robustly constructed for this purpose. In spite of initial investment, the reuse of such packaging in many applications delivers a rapid return on investment over a number of uses or trips, and a lower cost per trip than single trip alternatives. Additionally, reusable packaging is increasingly engineered with new features that deliver additional value to users in terms of enhancing ergonomics and productivity, product quality, storage and transportation efficiencies, food safety, supply chain visibility, and more. The savings achievable through conversion to reusable packaging systems have been verified quantitatively in a range of applications.

What Types of Materials Are Used?

Reusable packaging is typically produced from a range of durable materials, including wood, metals, plastics, composites, and others, depending upon the match between the demands of the application and the benefits of the material being utilized. Proprietary corrugated cardboard reusable containers, for example, have been successfully used in Frito Lay’s reusable container program for many years.

Where Is Reusable Packaging Used Today?

A great number of businesses deploy reusable packaging across the span of manufacturing, transportation, storage, distribution, retailing, and more. Here are some illustrative examples :


  • Automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and Tier parts suppliers
  • Industrial products manufacturing such as appliances
  • Pharmaceutical suppliers
  • Electronics and computer manufacturers and assemblers
  • Pharmaceutical manufacturers
  • Several other varieties of manufacturers

Food and Beverage

  • Producers of meat and poultry, as well as processors and distribution
  • Food and beverage manufacturers and distributors
  • Poultry and meat producers, processors and distributors
  • Fresh fruit and vegetable growers, processors and distributors
  • Grocery retailer suppliers of dairy, produce, meat and bakery
  • Bakery and dairy deliveries
  • Confectionary products manufacturers

Retail and consumer product distribution

  •  Restaurant chains and suppliers
  • Superstores and club stores
  • Magazine and book distributors
  • Retail pharmacies
  • Airline caterers
  • Department store chains
  •  Food service companies
  • Fast-food retailers
  • Auto parts retailers

There are a number of noteworthy applications where reusables provide a superior solution. These include:

Inbound – This includes the delivery of raw ingredients to processing plants or sub-components to assembly facilities.

Work in process – This comprises materials or products moved between different parts of the plant or company, or for temporary storage before final processing.

Finished goods – This involves the shipment of finished products to customers either directly or through distribution networks.

Service parts or after market – This embraces the use of reusables for after market parts to dealers, often seen in automotive/industrial, for example, as well as the return of damaged or worn parts or goods back to service centers for refurbishing.

Recycling – Increasingly, reusables are utilized for the movement of organic waste and recyclable scraps from grocery retailers, institutions, and other generators.

In any of the scenarios outlined above, successful reuse dictates that an effective system is in place to prevent the loss of reusables, and where they have been transported to another location, to facilitate the return of empties.

A Systematic Approach to Reusable Packaging Control and Management

Depending upon the application, proactive management of the reusable packaging program may or may not be required. For example, reusables used in-house, or in a closed loop between a distribution center and retail outlets, may require little oversight if there is minimal loss of them. However, in more complex operations, or in other applications that experience an unacceptable degree of reusable packaging disappearance, a more proactive approach to management should be taken, which may include the use of a pooling or rental provider.

Emerging Trends

While reusable packaging continues to provide a substantial benefit stream associated with repeated reuse, newer opportunities continue to emerge in such areas as traceability and sensors, parts access, floor-ready retail display, increased cube efficiency, weight reduction, ease of assembly and disassembly, as well as others.