Could Reusable Shipping Boxes Help Save The Planet?


It’s no secret that the apparel industry isn’t great for the environment, but I don’t think most people know just how bad it really is. After big oil, it’s the worst polluter on the planet. That’s right all you (and me) people buying protest t-shirts online, that won’t be relevant in six months, to march against politicians who won’t do anything about global warming because of their ties to big oil… well you see where I am going here.

As a multi-brand retailer we don’t control much of the supply chain so we’re always looking for ways to clean up our act where we can and I keep coming back to one obvious problem. One of the largest contributing factors to the damage is single use shipping containers. Almost all boxes get thrown away. I hope I can show even the science denying weirdos out there, who don’t believe in climate change, that the lowly box is due an upgrade that can make shipping more efficient and save just about everyone an enormous amount of money.

The scale of the cardboard problem is pretty massive. Paper and cardboard account for 41% of landfills. While the next layer of data doesn’t exist, I would guess a large majority of that cardboard is the result of single use shipping containers for commercial and ecom. If you walk the alleys of any commercial district you’ll find dumpster after dumpster filled with almost nothing but cardboard. During our slow season I will fill my car, seats folded, front seat included, floor to ceiling, twice a week for recycling runs. Full disclosure I drive a pretty small car but it’s still a lot of cardboard.

In the same way the solution to single use plastics isn’t skipping straws it’s changing plastic, the solution to cardboard waste isn’t recycling dumpsters, it’s changing shipping. This is such a solvable problem that’s a win for everyone but Uline.

There is a great episode of Seth Godin’s podcast, Akimbo, called Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There.  He discusses why we clamor for feel good solutions instead waiting for or working towards real solutions. People get rightfully angry at seeing mountains of recyclable materials being discarded, and so the thing that feels good is to get rid of this particular cardboard right now. But getting rid of this particular cardboard only makes room for the next day’s cardboard. We need solutions that mean there won’t be a new mountain of cardboard to be dealt with tomorrow.

I can see no reason why durable, reusable shipping containers would not serve every constituent of the shipping chain. Somewhat ironically, I think our solution to landfills of recyclable cardboard is likely plastic but, materials withstanding, we need uniformly sized, flat packable, or nestable, reusable boxes. UPS trucks are already spending a lot of their day empty, and certainly have the capacity for this proposal starting at the first delivery of the day.

How It Works

The idea is so simple I am shocked if it hasn’t been considered and tested already. Chris (our neighborhood UPS driver who happens to be the best one in the country) would swing by with our daily 5-10 boxes, we would have the flattened containers from the previous day’s shipping ready for him to throw onto his cart and back on the truck. At the end of his route those would get unloaded into the UPS hub, sorted into sizes, then packed onto the empty larger trucks bound for larger scale shippers; let’s say Levi’s.  As that driver pulls into the docking bay of Levi’s, he would unload the flattened containers they’ve requested and load their shipping like any other trip. That goes back to the hub, out to businesses and the cycle starts over.

Aside from the obvious environmental benefits, these are the ways I see each participant in this proposal benefitting:


One option would be the counter-intuitive approach of a surcharge for using other packaging. In theory they would outfit their trucks with modular shelving optimized for their uniformly sized boxes. The thinking being that anything that is not uniform, and thus less efficient, costs them more to handle.

If that didn’t test well, I would recommend going the other way by charging a box subscription fee with different tiers based on the size of the business (then eventually rolling out the first option as phase two to force adoption) and rewarding businesses for returns with a credit-card points sort of system. Depending on the size and complexity of the box, a certain amount of points go to the business owner’s account which can be redeemed for anything from shipping at the highest exchange rate down to gift cards and points transfers to partners. Business owners love points programs so you’d get even more of a reason to have owners demanding their vendors ship with UPS.

The reusable containers could house any number of inexpensive tech upgrades that could modernize shipping in ways we’ve never seen. They could have GPS chips and RFID tags embedded in every box. This wouldn’t make sense for single use containers but for something designed to get hundreds or thousands of shipments out of it’s a no-brainer. Instead of “out for delivery” you could see where your specific shipment was or more easily find lost boxes. RFID tags could carry additional information and help with sorting and scanning. Layering on navigation apps with traffic data could re-route drivers in real time to make their days more efficient based on the final locations of each individual box.

Hand-trucks could also be made to specifically accommodate the uniformly sized boxes ensuring the load is secure from truck to door, making one of the hardest parts of the job easier on the driver. The boxes could literally have loose male and female connection points built in so they could stack on carts or in trucks like legos.

More durable boxes on shelving made to better secure (also a good usage of the lego idea) it would mean a huge decline in insurance claims UPS has to pay as well as thousands of administrative hours dealing with them. I can’t find mention of insurance claims in their annual report but lets say .01% of their 5.1 billion annual packages results in a claim. That is 510,000 packages to be tracked down and/or paid for each accounting for several minutes or hours of time and likely millions of dollars. If dealing with these took an average of only 10 minutes per package, that would amount to 85,000 hours annually! I should note that last number is the product of several assumptions, but even if it’s pretty far off, it’s bound to be a very large number.

Commercial Shippers

Most commercial shippers have uniform box sizes they are working with anyway, so there won’t be a huge advantage there. However, these more durable boxes could be built with features in many cases eliminate, or greatly reduce, the need for internal packaging, further multiplying the environmental benefits and reducing costs to vendors.

I can promise you, wholesale companies of the world, that zero businesses care about the branding on the exterior of your box. Instead, the resources devoted to custom boxes could go towards digital assets designed to be activated when the box gets scanned in or POP materials that could actually help advance sales as opposed to logos on cardboard which only serve the ego of the sender.

The scarcity issue of dealing with ordering and storing branded boxes goes away. They simply request a couple of weeks of containers at a time and receive them from the same truck pulling up to the dock for their outgoing delivery. I know from our humble shipping department how much space is devoted to shipping materials. A business like Levi’s could likely shed thousands of square feet only going to house boxes.

While it’s true lost or broken shipments are typically covered, that also requires a significant amount of time and effort on the part of the shipper and receiver and ultimately lost margin and business for both. With my sort of apparel at least, goods are produced in limited supply so a lost or damaged package usually means we just missed that delivery.

Speaking of security, if you are worried about tape, magnetic locks could be built into the boxes that either automatically unlock when the box gets scanned in or when a pin is entered.

Building on the lego idea, a range of the boxes themselves could be built so that the lego connections were also electrical connections that fed off of the truck so companies like Blue Apron or Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams could have reusable electric coolers with a smaller amount of insulating materials or icepacks only meant to keep things fresh for the final few hours of a delivery. I am sure there are other uses for an electrical feed built into shipping containers but this seems like the most obvious.

Receiving Businesses

For my business. we spend an average of one hour per week hauling recyclables.  I don’t really know how to come up with a super defendable number as the variables of access to recycling programs, distance from a recycling dumpster are so all over the place. But there are around 28 million businesses in America, if even 5% of those are diligently recycling something like this would account for a millions of labor hours per year which could go towards something more productive.

Cities / Developers

The foot print of a dumpster is not small; the standard is 7′ x 4.5′. For dumpsters on city land each one could be restrooms, playground equipment, temporary shelters, electric car charging stations, trees, bike share parking, mass transit platforms, the options are endless but all of that stuff we think we don’t have room for in dense areas could easily fit in the space devoted to storing otherwise recyclable material for a few days. For developers every 15-20 dumpsters could be the footprint of a small storefront.

Will It Happen?

I am sure there are innumerable other cost and environmental benefits to a program like this. It’s clear in most areas of our economy, that we are moving towards systems similar to this so it seems like only a matter of time until a shipping company has the courage to revolutionize the industry. UPS, FedEX or DHL would be smart to try and adopt something like this first but my money would be on Amazon doing it, and using it to leverage it’s private shipping service into carrying more third party goods, further compounding their knowledge of the retail sector.

If you have any thoughts on other benefits or hurdles I would love to hear them.





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