Feb. 2 2011 02:11 PM

Long before plastic, corrugated or paper board were invented, most everything shipped in boxes made of wood. Those handcrafted crates were valuable and expensive, so they were reused many times until the lumber eventually completed its life cycle as fuel in someone’s stove or fireplace. 

This packaging idea of the past is back in vogue in the form of reusable packaging, which is simply packaging that by design can be used more than once. Please keep in mind there are many types of reusable packaging, including pallets, drums, totes and returnable/refillable bottles made of glass or plastic. However, for the purpose of this article and audience, we’ll focus on reusable shipping containers. 

New Reusable Packaging Options Daily
Packaging manufacturers now know there are companies that for environmental and economic reasons are determined to minimize their use of disposable packaging. Those green-minded packaging buyers are willing to pay a premium for reusable packaging if there is a legitimate benefit and/or a quick ROI. 

Distribution and logistics experts have delivered dramatic savings by identifying “closed loop” situations where packaging can be easily recovered and economically returned to the place of origin for reuse. At the same time, marketing and sustainability focused people have discovered that with minimal additional cost, they are able to design stronger shipping containers, encouraging their reuse and able to carry or reinforce a valuable green message to their green consumers. 

Reusable Packaging — Plastic or Paper?
At the local grocery store, this might be a question of preference, but in reusable packaging the application typically determines the correct or best substrate. 

For applications where the objective may be dozens or more uses, the surprisingly best option is plastic - the same, much maligned material many greenies love to hate. However, reusable shipping containers made of plastic corrugated board are frequently made of recycled plastic, partially relieving some of the green guilt. In return, plastic offers some valuable and unique characteristics. It is extremely durable compared to most paper corrugated options and it is also washable, moisture resistant, lightweight and can easily be die cut or formed into just about any size, grade or shape. 

By far, the biggest down side of plastic is the cost that can be as much as eight to ten times the cost of a similar corrugated paper shipping container. However, depending on the application, it may be able to be used as many as eighty to ninety times making it a far less expensive option on a “cost per use” basis. So, for closed loop applications where you are absolutely sure to get the container back for reuse, plastic can be the much lower cost option. 

When is Paper the Best Option?
Paper is usually my suggestion when fewer than 10 uses are expected or required. Again, much depends on the application specifics but it is ideal for two common situations:
1.) The shipping container can be used multiple times between the same two or more users and locations. Ideally shipping back and forth for loaners, warranty, repairs, replacement, etc or intra-company. 
2.) It can be potentially and likely to be reused by the recipient but not necessarily back to the shipper. This often includes an eco message as well as a marketing plug of some type. End box here

Once again, the variations are many, such as the Globe Guard Reusable Box we created that can be easily inverted inside out, providing a distinct look on the return trip while avoiding labeling. Another entry into the reusable shipping box arena is the one recently launched by EBay. It is essentially a heavy duty, coated, die cut mailer that eco minded EBay sellers should be able to use multiple times. 

Part of the beauty of corrugated board is that it is available in countless weights and grades and can be inexpensively printed or coated. Clients are usually surprised to find out that a slight increase in quantity ordered will usually offset most changes designed to make it more reusable. Of course the greatest benefit of paper based shippers is that they can easily be recycled just about anywhere and will usually end up as new corrugated containers. 
Dennis Salazar is president and co-founder of Salazar Packaging, Inc. and one of the most prolific writers in the area of sustainable packaging. Contact him at dennis@salazarpackaging.com.