Returnable Packaging

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Returnable Packaging Basics

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What is returnable packaging?

The Returnable Packaging Association (RPA) defines ‘returnable packaging’ as packaging which includes “...reusable pallets, racks, bulk containers, hand-held containers and dunnage that move product efficiently and safely throughout the supply chain. Reusable packaging is typically used by manufacturers/processors and their suppliers/customers in a well-organized supply chain, with very tightly managed shipping loops. Returnable packaging is constructed of durable materials such as metal, plastic or wood and is designed to withstand the rough handling of a typical logistics system.”

So, what does this all mean? The process begins with a ‘returnable pack’ – which is a vehicle that will go to the point of destination and come back. For example, a semi-truck you see on the highway is a returnable pack. Even the Space Shuttle is a returnable pack! Returnable packaging is broken down into small components — the containers inside a returnable pack and the dunnage inside the container holding a part. Learn more

Is returnable packaging right for your company?

Now that sustainability has entered the mainstream, more companies are looking at whether their operations might be a good fit for reusable packaging. There are various industries that have already discovered reusable packaging: Automotive, Aerospace, Pharmaceuticals, Appliances, and more. Jerry Welcome, of the Reusable Packaging Association (RPA), says the industry has seen annual growth of 10 percent over recent years. According to the RPA, reusable packaging includes reusable pallets, racks, bulk containers, handheld containers, and dunnage made of durable materials such as metal, plastic, or wood. (A cardboard box, although it could be used more than once, would not be considered reusable packaging.) The benefits of using reusables are manifold, experts say. They can reduce a shipment’s impact on the environment. They are more cost-effective than buying one-way or nonreturnable packaging. They are typically stronger and easier to clean than their single-use counterparts. Finally, there’s the aesthetic appeal. Reusable packaging usually looks better and often takes up less warehouse space because it is usually stackable and collapsible. Learn more

Is plastic less environmentally friendly than paper?

A lot of people have the misconception that paper is more environmentally friendly. However, when considered over the entire life of the packaging, paper and cardboard embody far more greenhouse gasses than their plastic equivalents. Paper products take substantial amounts of energy to make. Crushing a tree down into small fibers, mixing the wood pulp into a slurry, and then passing the wet mass through huge rollers cannot be done without the use of enormous quantities of power. Making cardboard is one of the largest industrial uses of energy on the planet. A second concern is that many paper and cardboard products end up in landfills, where they rot down anaerobically, creating greenhouse gas, methane, in the process. Plastic doesn’t rot and sequesters its carbon forever. Learn more

How much more does returnable packaging cost?

  • A returnable pack can pay for itself in as little as seven trips
  • Customers experience between 40%-70% savings on overall packaging costs when they switch to returnable packaging.
  • Profitability achievable in the first year
  • Savings on transport costs thanks to the light weight of the plastic material
  • Once folded down, returnable packaging has an 85% reduction in volume, translating into space and cost savings for storage and return transport.

Find out how much you could save using this savings calculator

Will the cost difference between expendable packaging and returnable packaging give you your desired ROI?

Some of the factors that come into play are the following: 

  • How many expendable boxes or containers do you use per year?
  • What is the average cost per expendable box?
  • What are the additional costs for tape, banding, shrink wrap, and miscellaneous materials?
  • How many hours per year are spent assembling packaging, if any? 
  • What are some of the additional costs? Pertaining to product damage (caused by exposed staples, split boxes, general lack of protection, water contamination, etc.)
  • What are the storage costs associated with packaging materials?
  • What is the total quantity of plastic containers required to replace the disposable/limited trip system?
    • Take into account the following:
      • Number of containers packed each day
      • Number of containers collected at a time
      • Frequency of collection
      • Time to unpack and return containers (days)
      • Shrinkage @ 2% per year
      • Buffer stock for seasonal peaks, if any

Find out how much you could save using this savings calculator

What is Work In Progress (WIP) packaging?

WIP packaging is used to protect the product while internally in transit, as well as, improving all-around workflow practices. Transit returnable packaging (shipping back and forth between different locations), is particularly suited to any closed logistics network. Meaning, as soon as a regular circuit between a shipment location and a delivery location is identified, returnable packaging enables a considerable reduction in expenditure and an improvement in short or medium-term profitability. This type of packaging can also be referred to as "over the road" packaging. Moving parts within a facility from point A to point B. Learn more

What are laminates?  

Laminates ensure products remain blemish free. In the case of shipping a Class-A part, a part that cannot be scratched or marred, laminates provide premium protection during the rigors of transport from point A to point B. In work-in-progress (WIP) applications, laminate provides a dual purpose. Protection for both the part and the operator's hands. Without a laminate, the plastic corrugated package can be sharp. When the operator is taking the part out of the packaging on the assembly line, the laminate protects them from potential injury. Not only does it provide protection, rolled edge laminate applications have many benefits. Learn more

Can returnable packaging handle my product?

Returnable packaging can be customized to just about any specifications. Plastic corrugated, foam, HDPE, and other similar materials are available in many different sizes, thicknesses, weights, etc. A returnable packaging manufacturer, like Amatech, will be able to make sure the packaging for your product is a perfect fit. Learn more

What do I need to get started with returnable packaging?

The following are some expected questions that will be asked and will help you better prepare:

  • What is going inside the packaging?
  • What is the size of the part or product that needs packaging?
  • What is the overall size of the package that will work for the application? Is the size the outside or inside diameter?
  • What is the overall size of the fleet of containers needed?
  • How many parts/products do you ideally want to be inside a package?
  • How many total packages will you need?
  • Are there any special features of the part? (i.e. special surfaces, type of material)
  • How much weight will be going into the box?
  • What kind of flaps does the box require: top and/or bottom?
  • Will the box require any screenprinting?
  • Do the boxes need handles or handholds?
  • Will the boxes be stacked? If so, how high?
  • Is there an existing expendable packaging that works for you? It is possible it can be replicated.
  • Will the boxes be knocked down to be sent back and reused?
  • When will this project need to be quoted, sampled, and produced?
  • Is there an acceptable cost level/budget that you need to stay within?


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