Reusable packaging is manufactured with durable materials that enable reuse without impairing its protective function. For certain applications, the packaging may need to be cleaned, sanitized, or repaired to be reused. Reusable packaging broadly includes refillable and returnable packaging, but can also be reused by the consumer for purposes beyond containing the original product.
This strategy can be used in the place of single-use packaging as part of a closed loop system, or repurposed by the end consumer. Examples include shopping bags, garment bags, food storage containers, cleanable bottles, jugs and drums.
Why choose it
Reusable packaging can be a worthy gesture when considering exactly how a product fits into a customer’s lifestyle. This consideration can build brand loyalty and make your product easier to use. Consider frozen food that ships with a cooler bag for easy travel, or a set of toys that comes with a cotton drawstring bag to keep all of the pieces together, long after it ships.
Why not choose it
Manufacturing reusable packaging typically has a higher upfront cost and environmental impact than a single-use alternative. To reduce the overall environmental impact it is therefore essential that the item is actually reused in practice2.
Material footprint is the primary tradeoff when choosing any reusable alternative to single-use packaging. For example, equipping plastic bags with thicker material or zippers increases the material footprint of an item. Alternatively, fabric bags last longer, though it should be noted that the environmental impact of fabric is so high that it must be reused hundreds of times before it meets the environmental impact of plastic1.
A 2018 study by Denmark’s ministry of environment and food found that a standard cotton bag would need to be reused 52 times to match the climate change impact of an LDPE bag. That number goes up to 7,100 times when accounting for water use, and energy use1. Because fabrics like cotton draw heavily on resources, this investment can end up becoming an unnecessary drain on your budget and the environment.
If the packaging is ultimately not reused, the added material and energy is adding up to a footprint that’s likely higher than that of a single-use alternative. Messaging is essential to ensure that reusable packaging lives a long life.
For certain products, opt-out options may also be applicable so that customers can decide for themselves what they can and can’t use.
Frequently asked questions
Valentina Bisinella, Paola Federica Albizzati, Thomas Fruergaard Astrup, Anders Damgaard. Life Cycle Assessment of grocery carrier bags (Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark, 2018)
Michael Sturges, Greg Wood. Single Trip or Reusable Packaging - Considering the Right Choice for the Environment (WRAP, 2010)
Dr. Stephen Siang-Guan Lee, Dr. X William Xu. Design for the environment: life cycle assessment and sustainable packaging issues (International Journal of Environmental Technology and Management, 2005)