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Weekend musing: the reusable delivery packaging idea

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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?

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

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