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Packaging as a Service

Packaging as a Service

Most packaging that is designed to be reused can also be offered to the customer through a service (provision) model. The packaging as a service model provides packaging that is offered as a service, providing either access (i.e. X number of uses, use until end of durability) or performance (i.e. delivers to the intended use of the package). The model can be supported by a deposit system. The main two differences that set a service model apart from a regular transaction model are that a reoccurring service fee is charged and that ownership is retained by the service provider during the duration of the service contract.

Packaging design choices

Reuse choice Reusability can have many forms; it can mean you intend create packaging that can be used by different users (after cleaning and refitting) over the course of its lifetime, or it might be that you focus on developing a compartmentalised package with reusable components. It could also be a hybrid between a single-use part (for instance a fitting) and a reusable vessel. In any case the choice made around the type reusability will not only inform the rest of the design, but will also impact the set-up of your business, logistics and your future communication strategy around your new packaging.
Durability Focussing on durability increases the longevity of your reusable packaging. If your packaging is offered as a service it will be returned once it breaks down. It is therefore better if your packaging last longer and suffers less damage over time, reducing the costs for replacement, repair or switching out broken components.
Appearance and consumer appeal Appearance and consumer appeal are always important for capturing the consumers attention and fulfilling the promise of the packaging. This is more important for a long-lasting reusable packaging that is offered as a service. Spending time on appearance will translate into higher perceived value, which enables the consumer to connect to it on a deeper level. The consumer is therefore less likely to cancel the service agreement, or to discard or dispose the packaging.
Limit component amount By limiting the number of components, the packaging is easier to maintain and has less chance to break. It is also easier to recycle after it is no longer possible to either revise or repair the packaging (i.e. when they reach their end-of-life stage).
Limit material types Limiting the amount of materials helps to create packaging that can be easier recycled at their end-of-life stage. As you will retain ownership of the produced packaging, using a limited amount of materials will make sure that the future waste streams associated with your packaging will be more homogeneous and therefore more valuable for recyclers.
Reduce material use Efficient material use can be achieved by considering why materials are needed and how the amount of material used can be reduced. It should be an elemental part of the design requirements. Within boundaries it will help reduce raw material costs and makes the packaging lighter and consequently requires less energy for transportation.
Reduce energy use Reduce the amount of energy that is used for manufacturing by carefully reviewing your manufacturing process and over time keep optimising your process. If possible, use renewable energy to reduce the overall environmental impact of your packaging.
Connection selection It is preferrable to reduce the amount of (movable) connections between components, but if this is not possible the aim should be to use the same materials in the connections as the materials used in each of the components that are included. Doing so will make future recycling efforts easier. However, given that ownership over the packaging is retained, the connections can also be made from different materials if this increases overall durability, but in that case additional care should be given to find a suitable end-of-life solution for the materials used in the connection.
Structural design With an increased emphasis on durability the structural design of a packaging requires serious consideration. Structurally strong packaging is more likely to be durable and thus less likely to break. Keep in mind that for connection points and movable components it will be challenging to make them more structurally sound. It might be difficult to achieve this without impacting the desired functionality of these components.
Cover and labels Covers and labels should be entirely removable or easy to dismantle and preferably made from the same materials, in order to assure homogenous material streams for recycling after the reaching the end-of-life stage. In case of using plastic for covers and labels, keep in mind that using coloured plastic affects the packaging’s recyclability. Uncoloured or clear plastic is preferred because it has a better range of possibilities for recycling than coloured or black plastic.
Sacrificial elements In some case it might not be possible to create long lasting components, in these cases it could be relevant to consider how these components can be sacrificed, retrieved and replaced.
Simplification Consider to simplify the individual components as this makes the components more durable, easier to replace and lowers production costs.
Renewable materials Consider using renewable materials. However, renewable material should only be chosen when the materials extraction rate is equal to or lower than its replenishment rate. Further, next to its properties, materials need to be selected based on their expected end-of-life treatment to avoid unintended consequences.
Recycled materials When using recycled materials, it is important to be aware of the variance in quality. This variance can occur between different production batches, but also between materials in the same batch. The variance can exceed the tolerances that are expected from virgin materials. Another aspect is understanding the composition of the recycled material as it can contain residual contamination of unknown origin.
Quality and safety Packaging approved for food products is subject to specific health and hygiene requirements. These should be considered carefully, and when choosing to use recycled plastic make sure the material is approved for packaging food products and that the relevant health and safety regulations are taken into account.
Non-toxic and low impact materials Aim to use non-toxic and low-impact materials. Toxic substances tend to accumulate in the biosphere and cause negative health effects for humans and other species. Design packaging with materials that are safe for the environment and that require less land, energy and water.
Technical characterization The regular aspects of packaging design still apply when considering material selection for reusable packaging. Consider questions like:
– What are the main technical properties of the material (e.g., its strength, fire resistance, etc.)?
– What are the constraints/opportunities of the material?
– What are the most convenient manufacturing processes to form the material?
– What about other manufacturing processes? How does the material behave when subjected to other processes?
Surface treatment Surface treatment will increase overall durability and resistance to damage, but will also impact the ease of recycling at the packaging end-of-life stage. It might be worthwhile to consider other options to increase durability.
Design for recycling Through recycling, the loop between post-use (end-of-life) and production is closed, resulting in a circular flow of resources. Design packaging that can be recycled, even if it is meant to be reused. Apart from exploring technical feasibility it is also relevant to check if the preferred end-of-life solutions can handle the expected waste volumes you will generate in the future. Find reliable partners that can help you during your expansion process and when you reach your desired market share. The design choice regarding recyclability should not compromise the packaging’s ability to ensure safe use. Avoid oxo-degradable and biodegradable plastics since these “contaminate” the other, main polymer types (PE, PP, PET) plastic streams that are earmarked for recycling.

Supply chain impact

Supply volume Guaranteeing enough supply is instrumental to selling packaging, but for a packaging as a service model maintaining supply levels is even more relevant. As you offer a service you will need to be able to provide the packaging when it is needed. Your supply system also needs to account for replacing damaged packaging (or packaging components), beyond the delivery of new packaging to prospective customers. It is best to consider your supply system as the backbone operation for providing an accountable service to your customers, for the duration of their service contract.
Recollection Your customer (often) needs to be able to replace packaging on short notice, for instance when maintenance is required, or when the packaging is broken and needs repair. It can also be that the service contract is disbanded. Retrieving packaging’s from your customer will therefore be a new addition to your company’s operational processes as you contractually maintain ownership over the packaging. In order to organise this system, the recollection method needs to be designed as an integral part of your company. Considerations will be:
– Method of collection (through mail delivery, in-person collection, or drop-off at third-party site)
– Incentives for returning the product (see deposit section)
– Setting-up a separate collection system or using a reverse logistics system from a third-party
Distribution distance The distance between your customer (or retail outlet) and your distribution centre impacts the environmental performance and cost of your service, with longer distances resulting in higher emissions and costs. Finding the right balance between the need for delivery and recollection, and reducing the travel distance is tricky. This should be taken serious as the associated logistical costs will need to be properly accounted for in your service fee. Similarly, if third-party cleaning is required this additional travel should be factored in too.
Storage Storage becomes more important when providing a service, as relying on traditional turn-key on-demand logistics will be less suited to the management of a service that retains packaging ownership. Both in-house storage of replacement components and packaging will require dedicated space to have sufficient inventory stocks available, while at the same time your storage needs will also increase to accommodate for broken packaging waiting for repair or end-of-life processing.
Cleaning As packaging or packaging components are returned, they will need to be cleaned before they can be safely and hygienically be handled by your staff for maintenance or repair. Cleaning can be done in-house or contracted to a specialised third-party supplier. Do keep in mind that cleaning can have a negative impact on the environment due to detergent and water use.
Repair and replacement operations Repair and replacement will be central to the operational set-up of the service provision business. As your service depends on providing reusable packaging, it will require either setting-up an in-house department with skilled personnel or the repair activities will need to be contracted to a specialized third-party supplier. In case of contracting it is important to clearly outline the repair requirements and service times.
Identification Packaging identification (for instance through barcodes) in supply chain operations is central to organising efficient distribution and recollection. An identification system connects the physical packaging with your internal IT systems, creating records that can be referenced in the future. This should be done both before sending the packaging out to a customer and once it is retrieved. Keep in mind that some packaging might be difficult to identify after heavy use.
Sealing The sealing of the packaging should be given special considerations. This is especially relevant for e-commerce or packaging used in distribution systems. The breach of the seal is connected to packaging insurances and the handling of associated liabilities. Furthermore, the choice of material of the sealing should also be given careful consideration (see material selection). It would be preferable to make a reusable seal, but it should be checked if this does not create issues around breaching and the insurance terms.
Registration system Your IT registration system is central to managing the packaging life cycle and inventory. This will drive your understanding of where your packaging is, what is needed to meet customer demand and help to plan cleaning, repair and replacement. It might be worthwhile to connect it directly to your invoicing system, but its main purpose must be to keep track of packaging over its entire life cycle. Registration of materials that have been used and the status of individual components are relevant factors to include in your registration system records. For instance, the records on the materials that are use are useful when the packaging is sent to the recycler. Knowing which materials are used will increase the ease of recycling and might increase the value of the waste.
Attrition rate Not all packaging will be returned to your facilities and some that do come back will be damaged beyond repair. Therefore, your stock of packaging will be reduced as you suffer this attrition, and this attrition translates into replacement costs. Managing attrition rate is important, as it will help you reduce your costs by planning accurately for replacement of older packaging and packaging components. By actively engaging your customers you can make sure they actually return damaged packaging or return it when they end their service contract. A higher attrition rate generally also leads to a worse environment performance for your reusable packaging.

User experience

Adoption delay Your customer needs to make a conscious choice when considering opting into a packaging as a service model. It requires familiarity to do so, therefore it might take time to build the needed exposure to the service concept before a new consumer decides to opt in to your service. Make sure to account for this uptake delay in your market introduction strategy.
Point of Sale communication Creating consumer familiarity with a packaging of as services model starts with communicating about the options your service offers. This is best done at the Point of Sale. This can be either directly targeted to consumers or through offering supporting communication to your customers (like retail outlets) which they then can use to inform their own customers (most likely consumers). Even though this might not initially lead to a directly to a new subscription to your service, it does increases familiarity and plants a seed for shifting towards opting into the service model. Furthermore, the reusability aspect of your packaging increases the value of your service model versus a regular transaction associated with a non-reusable product.
Ease of return Your packaging needs to be returned if it breaks down or if the service subscription is cancelled. If this is easier for the costumer to return it to you, it will lead to lower attrition rates and reduce the costs of replacing lost packaging for your company. The ease of return has a direct relation to the packaging service model and the set-up of the recollection system, so it is best to consider them jointly.
Proprietary packaging Developing proprietary packaging for specific clients can help provide a unique offering or help building a reuse community around a group of clients, but this can also undermine your efforts to market your own brand recognition.
Community model Setting-up a community model can be beneficial for bringing your customers together to amplify your message around your reusable packaging and service model. Do consider upfront how such a community ties into the way you market your service and also consider the rewards for participation carefully.

Business model

Access model The customer pays a service fee to get access to the packaging. This means that they get packaging which they can use for as long as they pay the fee. If the packaging is in need of repair or is broken it can be returned for repair or switched out. Keep in mind that you will retain ownership over the packaging during the full lifecycle of the packaging.
Performance model The customer pays a service fee for the use of the packaging (and its associated performance), with a specific amount determined for number of times the packaging is used. You retain ownership of the packaging and you ensure the desired performance.
Ownership Your customer does no longer becomes owner of the packaging, but your product it is marketed as a service instead. This means that your company now retains responsibility (and at the same time control) over the full lifespan of the packaging. This ownership also extends to taking care of the end-of-life of the packaging.
Deposit setting Your packaging needs to be returned and using a deposit system can help as it stimulates your customer to see the value of returning the packaging. However, it is worthwhile to take the time to experiment with different price points for the deposit. The deposit should not become too high in relation to the service fee itself as this adds an extra barrier, but should also not be too low either. If it is too low there is limited incentive to actually return the packaging.
Accountancy Keep in mind that service models are relatively new. It requires a think through how to accurately represent the retention of ownership in your company’s annual accounts. Make sure to obtain insights from your accountants on how they will look at your new services and its associated financials.
Non-payment risk Contrary to a single transaction the risk of clients not paying their outstanding fee increases in a service model. Due to unforeseen circumstances your customer might not be able to pay one or more instalments, which would require reaching a settlement. In other cases, they might not be able to continue at all and then your packaging needs to recuperated from a potentially unwilling customer. Consider these scenario’s while designing the service model for your packaging.
Impact on existing relations Launching a new service model might mean you will start to market directly to customer instead of offering it through an existing relation, like a third-party distributor or preferred retail outlet. This might put a strain on your existing relationships, so it can be worthwhile to consider how they might fit in your service model and partner with them.
Understand customer needs Always design packaging that actually deals with a problem or pain-point that is experienced by your target customer. Sustainability or reusability is in itself not enough to entice subscription to a service model. However, if the packaging delivers on a clear customer need, then the sustainability angle offers additional value, and provides extra incentive to buy into your proposition.
Contractual arrangement The contractual arrangements for the service should be made easy to read and should be understandable. It is important to make sure that potential liabilities are covered, but make sure that it doesn’t overshadow the contractual obligations relating to reusable nature of the packaging you offer as a service.
Understand sales environment of customer Your customers (like a retail outlet) act within a set of constraints resulting from how they service their own customers. Understanding clearly why they make certain choices helps creating packaging that is responsive to their needs. If this is done correctly your packaging (and the associated service model) helps to offer more value to your customer.
Impact on the business of your customer Be aware that implementing a service model might have impact on staff routines and other operational aspects of your customers business. Try to find ways to accommodate your customers as best as possible, but to do so, you need to know your customer intimately. Aim to increase your understanding of their processes and build thrust to get the necessary information. In case you are also considering recollection at their Point of Sale it is important to scope space availability for storage, certainly in inner-city environments this might be challenging.
Aim for cost neutrality Aim to prevent large cost disparities between your service provision model and the existing transactional model. Your customer will have to stay involved with your packaging over the full duration of their service contract, and in some cases might need to invest to accommodate implementing your reusable packaging in their business. Considering how to make it cost neutral for your customer will increase the uptake of service. Therefore, it pays to build a good understanding of all of the costs that play into your service model, and make sure to understand how these costs contrast to the transactional model. It could be that there are hidden costs, that are currently not incurred as the transaction model externalises these costs. A good example is packaging waste that ends up in the environment, which represents a cost but which currently isn’t accounted for in the existing transactional model.


Plastics recycling (if plastics are included) When using plastics in your packaging there a number of things you can do to increase the ease of recycling:
– Mono polymer design
– Prevent layering different polymers
– Avoid dark pigments and fillers
– Mark large plastic parts to facilitate sorting
– Avoid thermoset materials
– Avoid using coatings on plastic
– Avoid using composite materials
Recycling processes There a different types of material recycling that can be considered for your end-of-life. Consider the following processes for fit with the chosen material and environmental impact:
– Remould
– Mechanical
– Thermal
– Chemical
Upcycling Upcycling means recycling in which resources retain their high quality in a closed loop industrial cycle. When thinking of your end-of-life solution it is important to consider the possibility of upcycling. The idea is that your waste stream ends up creating a new packaging with new value added to it, that ideally goes beyond low value applications for recycled material.
rPET can for example be used for new bottles, food trays and food tubs.
rPE and rPP can for example become pipes, buckets or containers for non-food products.



RePack Packaging service for online retailers and shoppers, whereby delivery packages can be conveniently and easily returned, and then reused. Customer return is incentivised through discounts on next order in the webstore.
Ozarka Reusable food packaging service. Specifically designed around takeaway and delivery service needs.
IQpack IQpack offers a packaging service model for businesses. Their system is a performance based model and is supported by IT solutions for tracking and tracing.

Design methods

If you want to know more about design methodologies that can help make your design responsive to your customer’s needs, read our page about design thinking & user-centered design.


Developing a reusable product can lead to lower environmental impacts. Many of the aspects listed below will provide you with insights on what to consider to reduce your future impact. A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) can help you understand the environmental performance of your new product, which can support you in developing appropriate communication messaging. Here you can learn more about LCA.

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