The Pros and Cons of Reusable Containers

by Thomas R. Cutler,
TR Cutler, Inc.

Green sustainable packaging solutions are as simple as reusing containers. Reusable Container & Pallet Association (RCPA) members are leading suppliers of the reusable/returnable industrial plastic containers, pallets, and packaging. They supply solutions worldwide and in virtually every major manufacturing and distribution sector.

The Pros
RCPA notes that pallets and containers are the fundamental products for transporting, distributing, and storing almost all products and materials. Using containers and pallets made of plastic offers benefits for sustainable and efficient operations. Plastic pallets and containers are reusable and do not require treatment for pests. The benefits of plastic pallets and containers include hygiene, constant quality and dimension, no splintering or nails, and no water absorption. Plastic pallets and containers also are weather-resistant, stack and nest for excellent space utilization, can be easily repaired or replaced, and can be uniquely colored.

Used returnable packaging already is utilized extensively and many firms have incorporated this green initiative into their distribution system to some extent. Since almost all plastics businesses sell to other manufacturing companies, the returnable container portion of that equation provides a unit that is strong, stackable, and forklift-transportable. With the right returnable container (often a plastic pallet container), the products are protected from damage during transportation. The used pallet container works like a fortress — if anything hits, stabs, or bumps the container, the container is strong enough to protect whatever is being stored or transported inside.

The secondary portion of the equation is the dunnage. Dunnage refers to a network of soft sleeves or pigeon holes within the pallet container itself. Dunnage is custom-made based on part dimensions and is placed into the plastic pallet container. It functions to give each part its own protective environment and prevent the parts from scratching or damaging each other. The dunnage protects the parts from other parts and is often required to transport “Class A” surface components (anything that is visible to the end user of an assembled good).

According to David Madden, president of ContainerExchanger, “Plastic businesses which do not currently use returnable packaging should consider the use of returnables in an effort to reduce transport damage, such as crushed cardboard boxes or cardboard boxes stabbed by forklifts in transport. Returnables also help prevent part-on-part damage, by providing a protective housing for each individual part.”

Warehouse space also is at a premium and returnable containers help to greatly increase the storage capacity of any warehouse. Returnable containers can be stacked on top of each other and entire stacks can be moved about the warehouse to reshuffle and organize the products.

Madden noted, “Returnables almost always make sense. Plastics firms can maintain control of the bins, reuse them for multiple parts and projects, and when done, they can be resold.”

The Cons
Logistics problems can create a challenge if there is a weak relationship with the customer, or if a solid return system is not in place. Containers can get lost and create an expensive problem.

In addition, transportation costs must be factored into the equation. If the cost of return shipping of the container (from the customer) is greater than the savings achieved through defect reduction, floor space savings, and expendable packaging costs, then returnable containers may not make financial sense.

If the project is short-lived, or has a potentially low volume, it may take too long to pay back the original investment of purchasing the used returnable container.

The floor space savings that can be achieved only make sense when there is an abundance of one type of product utilizing a significant amount of floor space. Warehouse racks can make more sense from a storage standpoint if there is a large variety of different parts or if the parts do not take up a large volume of space.

In general, the pros outweigh the cons in using returnable containers. The metrics are easily quantified and the financial calculation not difficult to assess. The typical costs of cardboard, including labor assembly, quality control issues, and reshipment costs, make reusable, returnable containers a wise option.

Thomas R. Cutler is the president and CEO of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based, TR Cutler, Inc. Cutler is the founder of the Manufacturing Media Consortium of three thousand journalists and editors writing about trends in manufacturing. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, Online News Association, and American Society of Business Publication Editors, as well as author of more than 300 feature articles annually regarding the manufacturing sector. Cutler can be contacted at or