Strategies for a Circular Economy Packaging

Strategies for a Circular Economy Packaging

1. From your experience working in the packaging sector, what are the key drivers of a circular economy?

What was once “green” became “sustainable” and is now “circular,” but they all basically mean the same thing - offering goods and services in a more environmentally sensitive manner. The packaging drivers ultimately are no different than they are in any other field; positive impact comes from scale, and scale comes from economic competition. Therefore, measuring the cost of a full packaging lifecycle is the only driver for companies to pivot to circular economy packaging. I’ve found that building blocks for low-cost reusable packaging use are all around us.

2. What are some of the best practices employed by Returnity to reduce wastage of materials and packaging expenses?

Packaging innovation is traditionally driven by product designers who are trained to think that smart packaging designs will unlock a more circular future. Returnity helps our clients understand that reuse is about systems first - then the packaging itself. We frequently tell clients “no” when they want to apply reusable packaging in an operationally or economically unscalable manner.

Though the implementation must be thoughtful, the core concepts are simple. You have to get the packaging returned at least 95 percent of the time to truly reduce waste, since reusables require more materials to manufacture than single-use packaging.

Your logistical costs to get the packaging back must be at least equivalent to the single-use packaging you are replacing, or else it will be too expensive to scale. And the bag or box has to be the right size, include the right branding and protect the products.

3. Looking at some of the noteworthy trends in the industry, are there any green initiatives that interest you, likely to be adopted in the near future?

I believe that reusable packaging is both enabled by - and an enabler of - rapid last-mile logistics evolution. Change is happening so quickly, it can be hard to realize. 

The integration of everything from in-person ecommerce product returns, drones, autonomous delivery vehicles, to refillable packaging results in a very different consumer experience than even two years ago. The change is by no means complete, but the evolution empowers a more circular, lower-impact lifestyle, including how your products are packaged for delivery.

4. Would you like to share with us any experiences involving environment-friendly ventures/projects that you have led in the past?

Yes, Returnity has worked on some really exciting customer projects over the years to help them create and sustain circular packaging systems. Examples include:

• Walmart:Returnity supplies reusable bags optimized for home grocery delivery service and manages the cleaning and resupply of the packaging. This initiative came about through Closed Loop Partners’ Beyond the Bag program.

“At Returnity, we help our network understand the value of return rates, and we’ve worked to ensure our average bag or box has a 95.5 percent return rate”

• New Balance:Returnity leads reusable shipping packaging deployment for the New Balance Team Sports initiative, creating an efficient and environmentally-friendly system to ship samples to and from partners. New Balance ships sample sport uniforms and footwear in Returnity's reusable bags and boxes that have an antimicrobial coating on them to keep garments, footwear, gear, and textiles fresh and lasting longer. This reusable packaging replaces 10,000 shipments of single-use cardboard boxes, reducing emissions up to 63 percent.

• Aveda: Aveda (an Estée Lauder company) partnered with us to create their Returnable Shipper Program specifically for Aveda's one-litre bottles. Each Returnable Shipper can be reused up to 20 times or more, helping to reduce corrugate packaging weight by at least 89 percent.

•Happy Returns | FedEx: Happy Returns revolutionizes how goods are moved between stores and warehouses with their Return Bar network. With Returnity, shoppers can now exchange and return e-commerce items without printing, packaging, or person-to-person contact. Returnity designs and manufactures the packaging used for all Happy Returns logistics, powering tens of thousands of shipments per week.

• Izzy: We supply reusable shipping bags for Izzy, the world’s first zero-waste mascara brand. Note the brand was recently included in the Good Housekeeping 2021 Sustainable Innovation Awards.

5. Finally, do you have any advice for people pursuing green initiatives in their enterprise?

Understanding return rate value is crucial for those looking to incorporate reusable packaging into their logistics stream, as this is primarily driven by how often it is returned - not by how durable it is.

For example, a 75 percent packaging return rate might seem high, but it actually means the average shipper is only used for four outbound shipments before it’s either thrown away or tossed into a customer’s closet.

Independent studies have shown profound environmental benefits when reusables get to seven to ten shipments, but that necessitates a more than 95 percent return rate. Failure to understand that dynamic leads brands to make poor decisions around reuse and circularity. That’s why at Returnity, we help our network understand the value of return rates, and we’ve worked to ensure our average bag or box has a 95.5 percent return rate.

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