If you take a tour of a modern postal sorting facility, they are impossible to miss. Behind the scenes, reusable packaging products are integral to postal operations, and increasingly, for private sector parcel handling as well. They are crucial in this supply chain, where the urgency for timely delivery has never been greater. From the venerable corrugated plastic U.S. Postal Service letter tray to wire cages and from carts to nestable pallets, reusable packaging has been indispensable to the Mail and Parcel sector for years.
Now, the industry is transforming. Driven by the dramatic growth of e-commerce, increased automation, and growing sustainability concerns, the demand for existing and emerging reusable packaging solutions in this sector is in growth mode. Parcel throughput continues to increase rapidly. Overall, the global parcel market reached almost $430 billion in 2019, up over 15% compared to 2018. This trend is also driving the use of reusables. According to The Reusable Transport Packaging State of the Industry Report, 100% of respondents in the Mail & Parcel Industries reported that demand for reusable transport packaging had grown in the last 12 months. They universally expected it to grow again in the next 12 months.
Types of Reusable Packaging Used for Mail & Parcel
There are several types of reusable packaging employed in this supply chain. They include steel wire or plastic bulk containers, mail sacks, roll cages, carts, plastic pallets and lids as well as trays. Uniform loads of flats as magazines are shipped palletized from the printer to the mail facility. At the same time, the myriad of parcel sizes is better unitized in a bulk container for movement between sorting facilities or for receipt from high volume shippers. Trays of sorted mail are often loaded onto carts for delivery to the local post office.
As parcel volumes grow, sorting facilities continue to upgrade automation. Reusables must be compatible with handling equipment such as conveyors and tippers. As in other industries, reusable packaging design that helps improve operational efficiency is increasingly popular. Notable features include bulk container stacking to improve transportation and storage utilization, more convenient container access and greater ease of handling, as well as enhanced empty packaging return ratios through knockdown or nestable design.
One recent innovation has the development of a reusable pallet sleeve pack system, including pallet, top lid and corrugated plastic sleeve (sidewalls), to replace corrugated cardboard bulk bins for international mail shipments. Aside from eliminating single-use solid waste, the system allows for double stacking of bulk mail inside bins, optimizing truck freight and storage in facilities. Each of the three components of each pallet pack is RFID-tagged to support improved operational efficiency.
Reusables for Parcel Delivery
As the growth of e-commerce has burgeoned, one negative outcome has been the proliferation of empty corrugated cardboard and trash at households receiving parcel delivery. (See, for example, What A Waste: Online Retail’s Big Packaging Problem.) This issue is of particular concern from a sustainability perspective. Compared to the commercial recycling rate for old corrugated cardboard (OCC), the consumer level recovery rate is dramatically lower – in the range of 40 to 45% versus 90% for commercial recycling activity. The reason for only half as much corrugated getting recycled at curbside is that a large percentage of households that do not have access to recycling programs.
In response to waste generation and recycling challenges related to the home delivery of parcels, several reusable packaging solutions are emerging. These reusable packages typically are durable and of flexible or rigid design. They are increasingly popular for sectors such as fashion, sports and outdoor gear, as well as other categories. They can offer padding, insulation or cooling inserts, depending upon the use case.
Once emptied, there are several approaches for return of empty reusable packages. In some cases, they are placed in the nearest mailbox for return. Other reverse logistics practices involve return to the delivery driver at the time of delivery or a later date. Package deposit or incentive systems may be used to help encourage the return of packages. No matter what approach is adopted, the emphasis is on customer convenience.
As the parcel sector continues to surge, watch for the increased use of reusables. Backstage in transport and sorting facilities, they help deliver operational efficiencies and timely delivery. For final delivery to customers, they provide an elegant, value-added alternative to trash generation. Overall, reusables help the Mail& Parcel sector to keep pace with change and improve packaging performance and sustainability in this rapidly transforming supply chain.