Reusable Packaging Rules of Thumb


The Rules of Thumb handbook from TranSystems has been a great facility planning resource for years…why not something for reusables?

Rules of thumb for reusable transport packaging is a terrific idea. It is catchy and can provide a snapshot of returnables or reusables, their benefits, and where they most likely make sense. The Rules of Thumb handbook for facilities planning, by way of comparison, has been an extremely useful guide over the years.  But rules of thumb can be limiting also, and can be more like “under my thumb” in terms of narrowing your options. I’ll revisit that thought further below.

“As a rule of thumb, reusable packaging costs five times as much as expendable packaging, but it lasts 100 times as long,” says Eric Fredrickson, president of Thor Consulting, Boston, Massachusetts, in a new article introducing and promoting the use of reusables at  The article benefits from additional comments by Eric as well as Justin Lehrer of

The article lists the basic benefits of reusables, including:

  • Lower cost per trip through reuse and elimination of disposal costs
  • Improved operational efficiencies
  • Improved worker safety through right sizing and ergonomic design with handholds, and the control or elimination of potentially hazardous fasteners as well as the activity of carton cutting
  • Improved product protection
  • Improved environmental performance through reuse, reducing the amount of packaging manufactured and landfilled

While the benefits are numerous, reusable packaging is not for everyone. On the manufacturing side, it works well for manufacturers that:

  • Handle large volumes inbound or outbound
  • Have minimal dwell time for empty containers before being returned
  • Have trading partners will to participate
  • Have some control over the supply chain process.
  • Have minimal changes in terms of seasonal requirements, container specification or supply chain

The article does take some care to be material agnostic, noting that “reusables are typically made of durable plastic, metal, or wood, and often incorporate recycled content.”

At first read, one thing that I wish would have been done differently is to push the envelope beyond the rule of thumb around the idea of reverse logistics. Sure, reusables work best where they can be emptied and taken back on the same delivery truck, or accumulated for a full load return back to the production plant, but such rules of thumb may blind us to opportunities such as pooling or other innovative approaches to packaging asset management.  And really, that same perspective could be applied to smaller volumes, higher dwell times, highly changeable supply chains, and so on. It is only creativity that stands in the way of making reusables make sense in more places. So my point is that ‘Rules of Thumb’ should be viewed as an important first chapter in getting up to speed on reusables, but not one that should needlessly close doors to those just beginning their consideration of this powerful approach to transport packaging.

Still, I like the idea of a ‘Rules of Thumb,” and welcome all contributions if you care to share.


  1. Thanks for sharing this article and adding your insight, Rick. I completely agree with your point that additional info on how reverse logistics can work quite well with reusables via pooling and asset tracking would have been valuable.

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