The next frontier in e-commerce packaging: reusable bags and boxes

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With consumer concerns growing about the waste generated by e-commerce, some companies are beginning to adopt a variety of reusable packaging strategies.

These strategies have gained relevance since US e-commerce sales exploded at the start of the pandemic and have remained active. This trend has created a corresponding need for plastic and cardboard bubble mailers, bags and insulated containers for delivery or collection services in a global packaging market worth billions of dollars. While some packaging can find its way through the recycling process, the vast majority – particularly items made from plastic – is sent to landfill or incinerated.

Kate Daly, executive director of the Closed Loop Partners’ Center for the Circular Economy, said reuse in this space is still in the early “experimental phase,” with long-term testing “crucial to gauge the best way forward” to create a real create circular economy reuse system.

“Operational, regulatory and cultural changes must be driven by brands, customers, policymakers and others if we are to achieve a future where the reuse of valuable materials and products becomes commonplace,” Daly said via email.

Loan systems within subscription models, as well as deposit-based systems and per-use fees are some of the approaches that currently show promise, although each model presents its own set of challenges. Daly sees great potential in subscription-based services, where refillable products are delivered and returned in reusable packaging; For example, Loop by TerraCycle enables this type of system for various food, beauty and other brands.

Another company that has ventured into this space is Returnity, which initially focused on reusable mailers and had online consignment shop thredUP as its first client and investor. But the logistics of the company’s original model — bags that were expensive to make and ship, then shipped empty to customers — didn’t make financial sense.

“To be honest, reuse is rarely about packaging challenges; It’s almost entirely about system challenges,” said CEO Mike Newman. The trick: find places where circularity already exists.

Returnity now works with fashion rental brands like Rent the Runway, shipping full garment bags both ways. This is similar to e-commerce platform Olive, which offers customers a reusable post-purchase option for brands like menswear company Rhone.

Returnity’s bags typically contain some post-consumer recycled plastic, although that adds to the cost, which Newman calls a “sensitivity.” The goal is a reuse rate of 90% to 95% with at least 20 cycles of use. Newman said anything above seven to 10 cycles of use “when you can clearly exceed the cost and environmental benefit thresholds.” However, he noted that studies show that the environmental benefits materialize after five cycles of use with a reuse rate of at least 80%. According to Newman, the reusable packaging that Returnity’s three largest customers have ordered from the company to date will replace 20 million single-use packaging.

As the company looks to expand operations, it has identified two new initiatives that are proving to be operationally efficient. The first is providing reusable containers for PayPal’s Happy Returns program, where products returned by customers are typically transported between warehouses and retail locations in an “insane” number of single-use boxes, according to Newman. The second is delivering reusable grocery bags to zero-waste delivery company The Rounds.

“These may seem like small parts of the supply chain,” Newman said, “but the impact of solving this reuse is huge.”

Additionally, retailers can retire and recycle the grocery bags for even more environmental benefits. “Even the most durable reusable packaging needs to be retired after many uses, so a design for recyclability is critical,” said Daly.

Like Returnity, the zero-waste brand Trashless is branching out from its original model into other reusable opportunities. The company supplies milk in glass bottles to over 50 local convenience stores and coffee shops. It also currently ships several hundred grocery, bath and beauty products to several thousand direct customers in Austin. These goods are supplied in reusable, insulated bags which are taken back on a customer’s next order with empty product containers.

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