August 19, 2013
material handling update | Packaging

Is reusable packaging right for you?

Reusable packaging has a well-earned reputation for being good for the environment and the bottom line. But it's not for everyone.

By Susan K. Lacefield

Now that sustainability has entered the mainstream, more companies are looking at whether their operations might be a good fit for reusable packaging. Indeed, according to Jerry Welcome of the Reusable Packaging Association (RPA), the industry has seen annual growth of 10 percent over the past few years.

According to RPA, reusable packaging includes reusable pallets, racks, bulk containers, handheld con┬Čtainers, 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.

But for all the positives, reusable packaging does not make sense for everyone. Reusable packaging is not cheap, so to get a return on these assets (or to justify the fees if the units are rented from a pooler), a company has to make sure that it can get the packaging back. "You've invested the capital, the time, and the labor resource," points out Lisa Knight, director of marketing at Container and Pooling Solutions (CAPS). "If you are not able to get those [assets] back, you're going to be in some trouble."

For that reason, reusables tend to work best in a closed-loop system, where the units are exchanged among the same few parties, says Knight. She notes that there are circumstances under which reusables can work in nonclosed-loop environments—for example, if all of the end users' facilities are located close together, you could set up a regular milk run to retrieve the units. But even under such an arrangement, it would still be necessary to have a tightly controlled supply chain with a limited number of participants, she says.

But even if you have a tightly controlled supply chain, a reusable packaging program is not always a slam dunk. You have to put some thought into the program's setup. What follows are some steps you can take to make reusable packaging work for your company:

1. Calculate closely how many assets will be needed. To determine your asset requirements, it's important to know not only how many shippers are in the system but also the assets' cycle time. How long will it actually take to get reusable containers or pallets back from the end users? How many should be returned at one time? Is it worthwhile retrieving five or six containers or pallets, or should the return be postponed until a full truckload is built? Other questions center on the consistency of packaging volumes and whether there's a peak season for the packaging. Understanding all these factors will ensure the right amount of containers or packaging units are on hand and avoid the need to pay for expedited shipping from the end user, says Knight.

2. Conduct a lifecycle analysis. It is naïve to automatically assume that reusables will be cheaper or greener for the business, says Jack Ampuja, founder of the packaging advisory firm Supply Chain Optimizers. For that reason, he urges managers to perform a detailed eco-analysis tailored to their specific enterprise.

"Go back to what the original raw materials are and how they are converted into the packaging product, [and] look at how they come to your system, how they are transported, what you do with them," says Ampuja.

Ampuja adds that it's important that the analysis cover issues surrounding the packaging product's end of life. For example, many reusables are made out of plastic. "But plastic doesn't just disappear when its life is up," he says. "The [units] can be recycled, but in many ways, they can be much harder to recycle than paper."

3. Get supplier/customer buy-in. There are some cases where companies are only using reusables to ship between their own facilities. Most of the time, however, the items are being shipped back and forth between the company and one or more of its suppliers or customers.

In those cases, make sure suppliers or customers are on board with the reusables initiative. "Don't go down the path of doing the conversion [from nonreusables to reusables] without making sure your suppliers or customers understand what they are doing and the objectives behind it," says Norm Kukuk, vice president of marketing for Orbis Corp., a reusable packaging supplier.

One way to get partner buy-in, says Kukuk, is to show how reusable packaging will help them reduce overall costs. Another possibility, he says, is to point out how reusable packaging could support any objectives they may have, such as complying with new food safety requirements from the Food and Drug Administration.

Before you select a type of packaging, Kukuk recommends getting a customer's and/or supplier's input on how they would like to implement a reusable program. Ask them how they'd like to receive the packaging and return it and how they'd like their employees to pick out of the asset or place items into it.

4. Manage the assets. Reusable packaging is inherently valuable and can cost anywhere from $60 to several hundred dollars per piece. In order to get the most from these assets, companies must have processes in place to track, return, clean, repair, and eventually recycle or dispose of the material.

A pooler can help with the nuts and bolts of tracking and maintaining the assets. For example, many poolers will provide their customers (and their customers' partners) with scanners and systems to track assets. They will also ensure the assets are returned in a timely manner and that they are cleaned and repaired.

But contracting with a pooler doesn't mean you can simply step away from the operation; customers still have to be actively engaged in the process. "You need to understand [exactly] how you're going to be charged and who is responsible when one of these valuable pallets or totes goes outside the system or is broken," says Craig Densmore, a consultant with Supply Chain Optimizers and a professor of packaging at the Rochester Institute of Technology. "You don't want to receive a bill for a million dollars from the pooler because you can't account for reusables that they say are in your possession. It does take some administration from both sides."

It is also critical that your suppliers or customers play an active role in managing the fleet of assets. "Don't allow them to sit on inventory," says Kukuk. "Make sure you've detailed exactly how much they are allowed to keep on hand. Without that, you can get into a situation where your suppliers or customers are just building up buffers of packaging, and you find that your fleet is not turning over as fast as it could be."

That's a situation you definitely want to avoid, says Dave Mabon, head of contract packaging for third-party logistics service provider Genco. For cost reasons, you need to get as many turns as possible from each asset, he says.

5. Train, train, and train some more! To get the most out of the investment, employees must be properly trained on how to use and care for the asset, says Densmore. That might mean, for example, making sure associates know how to collapse and/or stack the items for maximum cube utilization when they are in return mode, he says.

6. Periodically reanalyze your packaging needs. Companies should recognize that as business conditions change, they may also have to adjust their packaging. For example, a business that has recently automated its operations might find it has to switch to a different type of reusable packaging. Or as the type of product being shipped changes, a company may need to switch to bigger or stronger containers.

The important thing, according to Kukuk, is to have procedures in place to ensure your program is re-evaluated on an ongoing basis. Companies with successful reusable packaging programs, he says, are continually "rightsizing" their packaging to make sure they are using the right packaging for the right application.

More articles by Susan K. Lacefield

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