TLP Packaging LLC

Reusable bags - the innovation in e-commerce packaging 

Thursday, 01/12/2022

Because of the Covid-19 Pandemic, the number of online orders has significantly increased, which can cause destructive impacts on the environment because of the production of trash.

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Therefore, a myriad of startups are thinking of alternatives as Cyber Monday draws near. Additionally, as consumer awareness about the trash produced by e-commerce grows, some other workable solutions are being implemented by some businesses such as using a range of reusable packaging solutions which can minimize considerably the large fraction of trash. 

Due to the fact that U.S. e-commerce sales soared at the beginning of the pandemic and have continued, these methods have grown more pertinent. In a multi-billion dollar worldwide packaging sector, this tendency has prompted a corresponding demand for cardboard boxes, plastic bubble mailers, bags, and insulated containers for delivery or pick-up services. While some packaging may be recycled, the great majority, especially those made of plastic, is dumped in landfills or burned.

Kate Daly, managing director of Closed Loop Partners’ Center for the Circular Economy, said reuse in this area is still in its nascent “experimentation” phase, with long-term testing “critical to gauge the best path forward” in creating a truly circular reuse system. “Operational, regulatory and cultural shifts need to be navigated by brands, customers, policymakers and others for us to achieve a future in which reusing valuable materials and products… becomes commonplace,” Daly said via email

Some of the tactics that are promising range from fee-per-use, deposit-based to subscription- based lending models, although each model has its own particular set of challenges. Daly believes that subscription-based services that offer refillable goods in recyclable packaging and take them back for reuse have a lot of potential. For instance,this kind of system is supported by TerraCycle’s Loop for various supermarket, cosmetics, and other brand clients. Another business that has entered this market is Returnity, which began by specializing in reusable shipping bags and attracted investors from thredUP, an online resale store. However, the original business model’s logistics - high cost to create and mail bags that were then sent empty to customers - didn’t make sense from a financial standpoint. “Reuse is, frankly, rarely about packaging challenges; it’s almost exclusively about systems challenges,” said CEO Mike Newman. The trick: finding places where circularity already exists.

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Source: Fast Company

Currently, Returnity collaborates with rental apparel businesses like Rent the Runway and provides entire clothing bags in both directions. Similar to the online store Olive, which offers customers a reusable shopping option at the time of purchase for merchants like menswear brand Rhone, this offers customers a comparable convenience. Although Returnity’s bags typically include some recycled plastic, Newman refers to this as a “sensitivity” in the pricing structure. With a minimum of 20 usage cycles, 90% to 95% reuse is the desired rate. Anything greater than seven to ten usage cycles, in Newman’s words, “when you can clearly pass economic and environmental benefit standards.” He did, however, mention studies demonstrating that, with at least 80% reuse, environmental benefits start to show up after five usage cycles.

Two new initiatives that are proven to be operationally effective have been identified by the corporation as it looks to expand up operations. The first is providing reusable bins to PayPal's Happy Returns program, where Newman claimed that typically, merchandise returned by consumers is transported between warehouses and retail locations in an "insane" quantity of single-use cardboard boxes. The second involves giving reusable shopping bags to waste-free delivery service The Rounds. Retailers can also retire and recycle the grocery bags for even greater environmental success. "These may seem like small components of the supply chain," said Newman. "But the impact from solving this problem is immense." Even the toughest reusable packaging needs to be decommissioned after numerous uses, so designing for recyclability is critical,” said Daly.

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Similar to Returnity, the zero-waste company Trashless is expanding beyond its basic model to consider more reusable options. Over 50 neighborhood convenience stores and coffee cafes receive glass-bottle milk delivery from the company. Additionally, it currently sends hundreds of food, bath, and beauty products to thousands of direct customers in Austin. These items are shipped in reusable, insulated bags that are recovered the following time a consumer places an order along with empty product containers. A single insulated bag can be used 300 times. According to the firm, each one prevents 600 single-use plastic bags from entering the waste stream because it is double the size of a typical bag. In 2023, Trashless will launch hubs in five as-yet-undisclosed sites around the United States using this approach, according to CEO Yogesh Sharma.

Sharma is building a new reuse initiative around this original one and using it to grow his business. In time for Cyber Monday, Trashless will begin shipping products across the U.S., in some of the billions of cardboard boxes that normally occupy space in consumers’ recycling bins. Sharma plans to source some of these from existing customers, who will be instructed to fold and stash them in the insulated bags they’re already returning to the company. These will be tracked by QR codes and inspected, with customers earnings 20 cents for each box that passes muster. The plan for now is to give these boxes just one more use. 

Sharma is expanding his business by constructing a second reuse program around the first one. Trashless will start distributing goods across the country in some of the billions of cardboard boxes that often take up space in customers’ recycle bins in time for Cyber Monday. Some of them will come from existing customers, who will be told to fold and store them in the insulated bags they are already returning to the business, according to Sharma. Customers will receive 20 cents for each box that passes inspection and is tracked by QR codes. For the time being, the intention is to use these boxes just once more. But Sharma anticipates that down the line - with the five new hubs also acting as “marketplaces” for used boxes - the company might achieve enough circularity to use them four or more times. A pilot please has proven popular with 100 customers, he said: “They can’t wait to participate, so clearly there’s a nerve we’ve struck.


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