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Weekend musing: the reusable delivery packaging idea

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Some weekend musings, bear with me.

I read a clever idea in Wired earlier this week: reduce solid waste by integrating packaging into popular consumer products. This is what Aaron Mickelson proposed for his master’s thesis at Pratt University: making the products the packaging itself, like the Glad trash bag that comes in a trash bag, to dissolving Tide laundry detergent PODS. You can see Aaron’s designs at his project’s website: The Disappearing Package.

Aaron Mickelson's redesigned GLAD trash bags. The last bag acts as the product wrapper while retaining all product information. From The Disappearing Package.

But then it struck me: what about the packaging that other packages come in? The large cardboard boxes and plastic wrap that protect products from manufacturing line to store shelf. And what about the products that aren’t purchased on a store shelf, bought online and delivered to your door?

After all, it makes sense to reduce consumption before having to recycle, so like Aaron’s idea, why not reduce even more packaging?

As someone who shops via Amazon Prime frequently, I receive dozens of cardboard boxes each year that end up in the recycling bin, which are then picked up by the City and trucked to a sorting facility and ultimately a recycling center out of town. While some portion of that box will have a second life as part of another box, the process of trucking and recycling and manufacturing new boxes is energy intensive.

My initial thought was to have a retailer like Amazon switched to reusable shipping containers instead of recyclable cardboard, but the more I thought about it, I think it would make more sense for a delivery service (say UPS) to provide reusable shipping supplies to retailers as part of an all encompassing shipping solution. Instead of only moving boxes, UPS could provide the boxes to their customers.

Amazon boxes ready to be recycled, having fulfilled their duty. These two are just from the last week.

An outfit like Amazon would have stacks upon stacks of reusable shipping containers at its fulfillment centers in varying sizes to accommodate all types of products. The containers would be made of something sturdy and durable (most likely plastic) and could even mimic the standard box types already used by Amazon. UPS would come and pick up the to-be delivered packages, while dropping off empty containers for new orders.

Once the package arrives at your house, it could work like the milk bottle delivery system of old. The next time you receive a delivery, you would leave the previous container on your doorstep. The UPS delivery person would leave the new container (which has your package) and take back the old one, which would eventually make its way back to a fulfillment center.

The Milk Carton 2.0. Our local farm-to-table coop drops off fresh fruits and vegetables every other week in a reusable container.

The reusable container idea is already happening at the local level. My housemates and I are members of a local farm-to-table program where, every other week, someone drops off a plastic bin full of fresh locally grown fruits and vegetables. The bin is picked up the following visit to be reused.

It sounds like a plausible idea. Am I missing something?

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? david.m.wogan@gmail.com Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. PatriciaJH 5:10 pm 02/17/2013

    Storage, shipment, and management of all those reusable boxes has to happen — while of course that’s replacing storage and shipment of the cardboard, there’s a shift from the purveyor of boxes to the USPS.

    Economics — who pays for the movement of those boxes, how, and when? I suppose they could just be treated as mail back to Amazon, perhaps at a “reusable box” rate, if politically feasible. What’s the cost? How does the cost relate to the current cardboard box cost? Municipalities are currently bearing the cost of recycling those boxes, can they be brought into the game?

    Link to this
  2. 2. Supriyasingh 7:19 am 02/18/2013

    The players in the flexible packaging industry worldwide are increasingly coming up with innovative and effective flexible plastic packaging products and solutions. With huge potential to innovate and experiment, Uflex Ltd. too has entered the innovative packaging trend.
    http://www.uflexltd-packaging.com/

    Link to this
  3. 3. larkalt 10:28 am 02/18/2013

    Packaging stores already accept for reuse the plastic pillows, styrofoam peanuts etc. that objects come packed in. At least the one near me does. They don’t take the odd-shaped molded styrofoam pieces that heavy objects are packed in, though.
    As for using more durable plastic boxes instead of cardboard boxes, would that really be environmentally better? Cardboard boxes can be reused too, and they’re biodegradable when they fall apart.
    However, people with severe allergies would have to get a new cardboard box or else something durable enough that it could be treated to denature allergens.
    Probably getting manufacturers to package things in a more environmentally sound way, would help more than reusing cardboard boxes. Like not using molded styrofoam or working out some way to reuse it; not using the plastic shells that are around so many items, not giving you stuff, packed in 5 different layers (!), having a bring-your-own bag discount at the grocery store, etc. etc. Perhaps low-environmental-impact packaging should be legally enforced.
    For me at least, cardboard packing boxes are a minor issue compared to plastic grocery store bags. The big plastic bags that cashiers pack groceries in, can be replaced easily enough by fabric bags. Small plastic bags for produce are more of a problem because something transparent and lightweight is necessary. My best solution right now is to rinse them after use if necessary, and reuse them. Our food supply involves a LOT of trash, right now.

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  4. 4. BillR 11:11 am 02/18/2013

    There is one other packaging technique that is not mentioned here that wastes a lot of space in the dumps. Many products are packaged in over sized containers supposedly because if they were packaged in a smaller box it would be too easy to shop-lift it. Shop lifting is not a problem from mail order sites but you still get those items in these excessively large packaging materials. That increases the cost of shipment as well.

    An example would be a memory stick. If it came in a small foam sleeve instead of the big plastic packaging material, it could ship in an envelope instead of a box.

    Web based retailers like Amazon should get with the manufacturers of those products for optional packaging for their customers.

    Link to this
  5. 5. davidwogan 12:53 pm 02/18/2013

    @Patricia yes, the economics would have to be favorable to switch to something other than the current model of only moving boxes. I’m thinking along the lines of UPS provide a comprehensive shipping solution where they also get to sell their customers their boxes as long as they ship with UPS, assuming they can beat whatever Amazon currently pays for cardboard boxes.

    @larkalt: using plastic for the reusable boxes complicates things. Perhaps a different material that still meets the design requirements (protecting against moisture and impacts) for shipping boxes could be used.

    @BIllR I too find that type of packaging wasteful and frustrating. The refrain I hear is that the hard plastic shells are to reduce/discourage shoplifting in stores. I have noticed that Amazon is shipping certain items in what they call “Frustration Free Packaging”, which is usually a cardboard box with a cardboard mold to hold the product. No more cutting in to plastic.

    Link to this

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