Practical advice for implementing reusable packaging: charting a realistic path forward for adopting reusables, one use case at a time.
When I first started going to trade shows like ProMat and the North American Material Handling Show, the forerunner of today’s MODEX, back in the 1990s, the theme of reusable packaging presentations was typically to start with the low-hanging fruit, opportunities like in-plant or tier to tier, or from distribution center to retail store. Start small, do pilots, validate, replicate – something along those lines. And those ideas shaped the tone of the stories I wrote at the time.
Close to 30 years later, I’m not sure that wisdom has changed for many providers of reusables. They continue to design and deliver great niche solutions. Unfortunately, the value of specialized applications is not something we talk about nearly enough in the press. For better or worse, the news we cover tends to subscribe to the theme of “Go big or go home.” Big idea, big funding, big PR, and, too often, big losses.
But packaging is a huge market, and smaller, incremental wins are critical, as I was reminded watching Mike Newman’s conversation with RPA’s Tim Debus at PACK EXPO 2022.
Retail has accelerated initiatives to make its packaging more sustainable, noted Newman, CEO of Returnity. “We started calling it the Taco Bell tipping point because when Taco Bell came out as a retailer that was going to be all reusable, recycle and compostable, there’s something happening in the market, right?”
With 2025 closing fast, however, there is still a gap between retailer initiatives, their public proclamations, and the looming expectations of regulators.
Reusable packaging practical advice: avoid a broad brush approach
“I think the first thing is we have to abandon the idea that reuse is going to somehow become how we get all our shipments,” Newman said. “It’s just not it’s not going to be the case. And I don’t say it with joy. I just think it’s better to start from a baseline of reality.” For a reusable packaging program to work, high return rates (>90%) are critical, and if you are shipping to disengaged email customers who are used to “dumb, cheap and easy” packaging, the likelihood of success is questionable at best.
He noted that reusable packaging implementations often talk about approaches such as better education, labeling, infrastructure and incentives to promote packaging return, but the reality is that the recycling sector has used the same approach with little success for 40-plus years.
“Our recycling rates have not moved and they’re terrible, so the idea that somehow magically this is going to change for reuse is a fallacy, but that doesn’t mean for us it can’t be effective,” he continued. “It is effective.”
He noted that within supply chains, there are many components of it that are naturally circular – both internal and external. So an ecommerce shipper might not want to use a reusable for a one-off shipment to an ecommerce customer, but it should definitely recognize the opportunity for engaged repeat customers such as those in product subscription programs. One of Returnity’s keystone clients is the clothing rental provider Rent the Runway. Targeting those naturally circular clients is the right place to start, and not with a broad brush approach, he said.
Over the last year or so, Newman said that Returnity is no longer searching for “shiny objects.” The company has established use cases that work, presenting significant opportunities to scale.
The bottom line, whether for consumer-facing supply chains or others, look for those applications that are naturally circular as a launch point. It is an approach that can limit financial exposure while you prove the worth of reusables, and while you build the organizational acumen and mindset necessary to scale usage going forward. It is an approach of a shift to reusables one lane or link at a time, versus the “Go big or go home” approach we too often cover.
Newman offered other candid views, such as on the limited value of asset tracking and big data to his company, but I don’t want to give everything away. You can watch the replay of this presentation and the other RPA videos at this link.
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