Select Page

Every package has a life cycle. Companies that manufacture, package, and sell products are tasked with determining the life cycle of every piece of packaging using a variety of factors that all boil down to value. This is no small task. Considerations like cost, sustainability, product integrity, employee efficiency, and customer perceptions all loom when it’s time to decide what the intended lifetime usage of a package should be. The first decision a brand must make comes down to how many times a single piece of packing should be used. This ultimately leads to the question of whether to use single-trip packaging or returnable packaging. It’s time to unpack the rationale behind using either of these packing options.

What Is Returnable Packaging?

Returnable packaging is exactly what the name suggests. It’s packaging that has a life cycle beyond just being a single-use item for holding a product. Returnable packaging is intended to be used as part of a system for processing products instead of a standalone item. Some common forms of reusable packaging include:

  • Metal.
  • Bins.
  • Pallets.
  • Reusable plastic containers (RPCs).
  • Totes.
  • Trays.
  • Extremely sturdy cardboard boxes.

The thought process here is that durability equals sustainability. Returnable packaging can seem intimidating at first due to the fact that it is more expensive to purchase. However, there are many reasons why returnable packaging actually shakes out to be a smart, cost-effective option for many situations.


Returnable packaging is made of durable materials that are simply capable of handling more weight. This can be essential in many product-processing environments. Returnable packaging can make it much easier for workers to safely stack, store, and transport products. By contrast, single-use packaging can buckle under the weight of inventory. Returnable packaging is also typically weatherproof.

Stacking Potential

Stacking is an essential part of product processing in many production environments. First, being able to stack goods and materials is important for preserving both workspace and storage space. The ability to stack packaging can help companies to reduce costs by using square footage more efficiently. Stacking can also make it easier to organize and categorize products. Finally, stacking can help to clear walking areas to reduce trip hazards, fire hazards, and other workplace liabilities. Materials like plastic and metal can be stacked as high as 20 feet while holding thousands of pounds of merchandise.

Environmental Benefits

Returnable packaging wins when it comes to using sustainable, eco-friendly processing in manufacturing, storage, or shipping environment. Packaging made from a material like wood has a short shelf life. Unfortunately, wood-based packaging is quick to break down due to factors like weight, strain, and moisture. In addition to having to cover replacement costs, companies must also think about landfill costs associated with safely and responsibly disposing of wood packaging materials. Costs for recycling large quantities of cardboard can also be quite high. This is something that can be difficult for smaller startup companies to handle if they haven’t yet established the processes and relationships necessary for cost-effective, responsible waste disposal and recycling. Lastly, most materials used for returnable packaging can actually be recycled after providing years of performance. This creates a double environmental benefit. Many brands pivot to returnable packaging as part of their green initiatives.


Yes, returnable packaging comes with a larger immediate investment. However, investment is precisely the right word. Each packaging piece that is purchased will have an elongated life cycle that allows a company to incur a single cost instead of repeated costs for replacement and disposal. This actually leads to long-term cost savings. The sturdiness of returnable packaging also leads to potential cost savings stemming from reductions in product damage. Cost savings from returnable packaging can also come from reduced transportation costs that come from being able to ship products using standardized volumes.


Brands that are worried about shipping and transport costs should know about a “hidden” element of ordering returnable packaging. This type of packaging can often be customized to your specifications for cost savings in shipping. Many designs can actually be made to nest, fold or collapse when empty. This reduces both volume and dimensions during transport. What’s more, custom packaging that folds down to a smaller size can also help companies to save on storage costs when packaging is not being utilized. Returnable packaging can also be trackable for loss prevention and accountability.

Employee Experience

Returnable boxes add to standardization in a processing cycle. This can be important for improving work speed. In addition, reusable packaging reduces the amount of time workers need to spend handling, breaking down, or disposing of one-way packaging. Workers also don’t need to worry about following recycling rules on the spot because the packaging is being reused in real-time.

Employees handling packaging enjoy better ergonomics when lifting, gripping, and moving boxes that are standard sizes instead of picking up packaging of all different sizes. This can help to reduce workplace injuries, missed days, liabilities, and compensation claims. Being able to consistently anticipate packaging weight also helps workers to handle products with greater care. This reduces the risks of dropped or damaged packaging. Lastly, the consistency of weight and size can also make it easier to locate products and materials.

Are There Any Cons to Returnable Packaging?

Returnable packaging isn’t perfect. The higher initial costs mentioned earlier can certainly make this feel like a riskier choice for some smaller companies focused on immediate budgets. In addition, heavier packaging does require careful handling and expertise. Lastly, there is also the risk that reusable packaging won’t be returned once it is deployed as part of the process chain. This can result in notable losses if it occurs repeatedly.

What Is Single-Trip Packaging

Single-trip packaging is essentially single-use packaging. It is lighter and “flimsier” because it is not intended to serve a purpose beyond its initial use. Single-trip packaging is sometimes referred to as expendable packaging. Here’s a look at some of the key things to know about single-trip packaging:

  • It typically needs to be purchased in bulk orders. This can make it difficult to get the customization needed.
  • It will need to be disposed of responsibly.
  • It won’t necessarily be weatherproof. This means that it may be necessary to invest money into shielding packaging during storage and transport.
  • It’s often necessary to account for the time and costs needed to assemble single-use packaging.
  • The same goes for breaking down single-use packaging after it has served its purpose.
  • Dedicated storage space will be needed to store packaging before it’s used.

Cost is another big factor to look at. Single-trip packaging is considered much cheaper than returnable packaging. This mostly comes down to the material type and volume used for single-trip packaging. Most “expendable” packaging is made from wood and cardboard. Of course, it’s important to maintain perspective when attempting an apples-to-apples cost comparison. Single-trip packaging has a much lower initial cost than returnable packaging. However, that lower cost will be a repeated cost compared to the limited cost incurred by ordering packaging with a long, semi-permanent life cycle.

Choosing Between Returnable Packaging and Single-Trip Packaging

Finding the right packaging choice comes down to merging durability, sustainability, and operational needs. Ultimately, many companies will have some uses for both returnable packaging and single-trip packaging. The good news is that there are many great options for affordable and eco-friendly single-trip packaging for the times when this is the most appropriate option. However, returnable packaging provides the reliability, efficiency, sustainability, weather protection, and costs savings that most companies that deploy goods are going to need.

Finally, choosing reusable packaging that gets more eco-friendly miles from every raw material used is the way to win over customers. The way that brands handle sustainability is increasingly shaping customer perceptions. Nearly 70 percent of customers today are actually making their purchasing decisions based on eco-friendly principles.

It’s essential to speak with a packaging expert before you make a decision about which type of packaging to bring into your distribution chain. Are you ready to analyze returnable packaging versus single-trip packaging for your brand? Mid-Atlantic Packaging is here to help you work out the numbers with a custom estimate. Request your quote for a wide variety of packaging options today!