Closed-loop systems using regular plastic return containers are already fairly common, especially in the automotive industry. With containers like Schaefer's NewStac, these systems can even speed up assembly. (Source: Schaefer Systems International)
GTO - You are correct - many times, the accessories added to the plastic containers can cause a problem when recycling, requiring removal of said components before grinding.
In Schaefer's designs, we addressed this by eliminating dissimilar materials so that a whole box can be placed in the grinder with no added handling. We replaced the steel rods usually used in hinged lids with plastic hinge clips, metal rivets with plastic push pins, designed our collapsible containers to lower the loads on the pivot pins so that we could use PP pins, not nylon, and make our add-on cardholders out of the same material as the boxes they attach to.
Labeling protocol has also improved and for the most part, eliminates the high number of labels that get permanently affixed to the plastic tote. One approach is to use a placard - it is a shiny surfaced 4x6 label that sticks to the box permanently - all tracking labels are placed on it and easily removed at the end of the delivery loop. The placard substrate causes no problems when ground up.
Returnable/reusable containers are typically more durable than disposable containers. While the up front cost may be more the overall cost of the returnable containers can be less than disposables. The containers can be custom designed for each application as well. A company near me has been doing this for quite a while. Take a look at PolyFlex Products: http://www.polyflexpro.com/index.html
Having worked as a teir one supplier to Ford and GM for over 25 years, they have been doing this for quite some time. One side note is that sometimes the returnable dunnage becomes obsolete. This is either the product that is shipped in the returnable is obsolete and no longer used or the returnable size is obsoleted (this meaning that the assembly line has revised workspaces and the returnable does not fit the new configuration). Most of the time, we as suppliers had to purchase the returnable packaging and then amortize the cost into the part price. Some suppliers simply do not want to take on that cost.
When the returnable is obsolete, recycling is hit or miss. Ideally, these are thermoplastic containers that are 100% recyclable. Reality is that they are usually covered in labels, or have metal attachements for drop down openings (used to enhance the assembly function). These tend to sit on the suppliers backlot in large stacks (in fact we have three large stacks). As a result the recycling companies do not want to disassemble and/or pay the shipping costs. This is getting better as recycling is cost effective, but still not enough.
One other side note, some of these bins work great to organize stuff at home in the garage!
Ann, you are right. I know in my childhood age, we used to have banana leaves for serving food at home and for packing food to school/colleges. Still as a part of tradition we used to have feast in Banana leaves during functions and festival seasons like Christmas, Easter etc.
Actually, no-waste packaging is a lot older than the industrial age. Banana leaves and other large pieces of fibrous plant material can be used as a (nonedible) wrap or plate for cooked food and then wrap more food to cook it. And there are many more examples from pre-industrial times.
Thanks, Lou, that's a good point about consistency of packaging in the plastic return containers. What surprised me is that they can actually be designed to help production line workers be more productive.
Sorry - I couldn't resist the headline. This is a good example of product lifecycle thinking, something that we could use more of. I'm reminded of a story attributed to Henry Ford in which he specified an elaborate and expensive crate for shipping car engines. Most engine manufacturers no-bid the project due to the cost. Henry got the last laugh, though when these elaborately constructed crates were dismantled to become the floorboards for his Model T cars. It seems that "no waste" packaging was a concept pioneered by the automotive industry.
Ann, another advantage of this type of reuse is that the containers are consistent over time. In the many round trips obtinaed from each container, you are getting a piece that is known to work in your production environment. If you were having to replace disposable containers all the time, you might not end up with a product that is exactly the same. This can eaisly happen when a supplier of containers is swithced or an existing supplier makes a change.
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