How to Manage a Cradle-to-Grave Supply Chain

Oct. 1, 2009
Reusable transport packaging can help support sustainability efforts.

Sustainability. It is one of the hottest topics in just about every industry and in many homes. A Google search of the term delivers more than 30 million results. Yet, in spite of the multitude of information available, many industries find it difficult to incorporate and measure strategies that support sustainability.

To help address these issues, the Reusable Packaging Association has created an in-depth, peer-reviewed white paper on the topic, “How Reusable Packaging Impacts Sustainability.” The paper details how reusable packaging fits into the broader context of sustainability and offers industries a way to measure the impact of reusable packaging. (For a copy of the white paper, visit

The paper begins by defining “reusable transport packaging.” We think this is important not only for those new to the concept, but also because there is still ambiguity as to what truly makes a “reusable” package. We outlined four primary criteria to identify which packaging systems can be deemed reusable:

1. The selected reusable packaging is reused for the same or similar application.
2. The packaging must be able to meet the original design requirements for three consecutive uses (i.e., two reuses).
3. During its useful life, the packaging is repeatedly recovered, inspected, repaired and reissued into the supply chain for reuse.
4. There is an existing process for recycling and/or reuse of the packaging at end of life.

Another pivotal section of the paper focuses on ways to measure the environmental impacts of reusable packaging through lifecycle assessment (LCA). LCA is a comprehensive and scientific methodology that emphasizes a focus on the overall lifecycle of a product as opposed to focusing on a single aspect when determining environmental impacts.

According to Life Cycle Assessment: Principles And Practice (EPA & SAIC, 2006), “Lifecycle assessment is a ‘cradle-tograve’ approach for assessing industrial systems. It begins with the gathering of raw materials from the earth to create the product and ends at the point when all materials are returned to the earth. LCA enables the estimation of the cumulative environmental impacts resulting from all stages in the product lifecycle, often including impacts not considered in more traditional analyses (e.g., raw material extraction, material transportation, ultimate product disposal, etc.). By including the impacts throughout the product lifecycle, LCA provides a comprehensive view of the environmental aspects of the product or process and a more accurate picture of the true environmental trade-offs in product and process selection.” We believe understanding LCA will help users make better informed decisions and guard against unintended consequences in the overall system footprint.

While reusable packaging does not work for every application, a well managed reusable transport solution can have significant environmental impact. The RPA conducted an LCA on multi-use reusable transport packaging versus single-use packaging in the produce industry. The study evaluated 10 produce commodities and, compared to single-use packaging, reusable transport packaging, on average:

• requires 39% less energy;
• produces 95% less total solid waste;
• generates 29% less total greenhouse gas emissions.

The RPA created the white paper because we believe reusable packaging is uniquely positioned to impact corporate sustainability initiatives in a meaningful way, and it is also good business. Wall Street is creating indices to measure how well companies are performing when implementing sustainable business strategies. Investors clearly understand that companies that measure and control these costs can be profitable now and in the foreseeable future. Reusable packaging is a viable option for companies concerned about the triple bottom line: economic, environmental and social impacts.

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