Returnable packaging is designed to be used for at least two shipments, e.g. from the company to the customer, and the customer back to the company.
To be returnable, packaging can be made from sturdier materials and/or designed with built-in features for the return trip. Examples include a corrugated box with a resealable glue tab to allow returns and exchanges to ship in the original packaging, or garment bags that are meant to be shipped and returned for clothing rentals. Whether it needs to survive two trips or many trips, Lumi defines either packaging scenario as returnable.
Why choose it
When consumers use new packaging for returns, reverse logistics has a larger material footprint. Returnable packaging can directly translate to less long-term material usage. This means a lower carbon footprint and less of a strain on natural resources.
When comparing returnable mailers made from woven recycled plastic to single-use mailers made from LDPE, a study found that woven returnable mailers have a larger carbon footprint in initial production, but ultimately achieve a smaller carbon footprint between the second to the eighth trip depending on the type of plastic used1.
From a customer standpoint, returnable packaging is an opportunity to demonstrate a brand’s willingness to invest in sustainability in a tangible and impactful way. It also eases the burden on the customer to source and ship their own packaging which may be used only once5.
Why not choose it
The logistics of collecting returnable packaging can be quite challenging4. Brands can either provide a prepaid return shipping label, or set up designated collection points. Customers may need to be effectively incentivized to take time and effort to return the package. This can be daunting for small brands or brands with a widely dispersed customer base.
Returnable packaging also requires a greater investment in materials and production. For example, if returnable packaging needs to be washed after it’s returned and before it’s reused, that complicates logistics. Early LCAs comparing recycling beer bottles to returning them found that returning the bottles had a lower environmental footprint because there was no energy was used to fabricate glass in recycling2.
More thorough LCAs which account for bottle cleaning tell a more complex story3. Returnable bottles still have a lower impact after the second use when accounting for global warming, acidification, photochemical ozone creation, critical air and water volume, human toxicity, energy and raw-material consumption. However, the contribution of returnable bottles to eutrophication, ozone depletion, solid waste, water and auxiliary material consumption is larger even after several reuses.
And finally not all products lend themselves to returns. Underwear brands may be best advised to seek out other sustainability strategies.
Frequently asked questions
L.L. Gaines, M.M. Mintz. Energy Implications of Glass-Container Recycling (NREL)
Teresa M. Mata, Carlos A. V. Costa. LCA: Comparison Between Recycle and Reuse of Glass Beer Bottles (University of Porto, 1999)
Diogo Aparecido Lopes Silva, Gece Wallace Santos Renó, Gustavo Sevegnani, Tacila Berkenbrock Sevegnani, Oswaldo Mário Serra Truzzi. Comparison of disposable and returnable packaging: a case study of reverse logistics in Brazil (Journal of Cleaner Production, 2012)
Michael Sturges, Greg Wood. Single Trip or Reusable Packaging - Considering the Right Choice for the Environment (WRAP, 2010)