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Corrugated cardboard or reusable in the mail order business?


Year after year, the mail order business records new record sales. But more shipments also mean more packaging,  more waste and more CO2 emissions. In order to limit the impact on the climate, the packaging industry is therefore constantly looking for new, environmentally friendly concepts for packaging and shipping.

One trend that is becoming increasingly apparent, for example, is the use of reusable packaging such as plastic shipping bags and boxes. The underlying concept is simple: the packaging is quite simply returned after delivery, cleaned and reused.

In practice, boxes and cartons made of corrugated cardboard are still the undisputed number 1 in the mail order business, with a share of 90 percent. This is unlikely to change in the near future, because there are many good reasons for using corrugated cardboard - both practical and ecological.



Reusable products generate less waste than disposable products. However, this does not mean that reusable packaging is always the more sustainable option. This is the conclusion of a study by the bifa environmental institute on the greenhouse gas balances of reusable and disposable packaging.

As part of the study, various forms of packaging were used (including shipping boxes, cardboard boxes and bags) and examined for their ecological impact on the basis of typical use cases in mail-order and online retailing.

The conclusion: Both solutions have their justification. Which one is better for the environment, however, depends on the specific practical case. In most applications, however, corrugated cardboard shipping packaging performs slightly better. Waste prevention is desirable, but not the decisive criterion, according to the conclusion.




The good life cycle assessment of cardboard and corrugated board packaging is due to several aspects. For example, the bifa Environmental Institute positively evaluates the resource-saving and energy-efficient production.The decisive factor, however, was the strong protective performance with only a low packaging weight.

Reusable plastic boxes are much heavier than corrugated cardboard boxes with the same protective performance. This means that more material is required and more CO2 is emitted during transport. Added to this are environmental impacts from the additional transport and cleaning processes.

The situation is similar for shipping bags: Reusable plastic bags are ecologically more advantageous than cardboard boxes, but they do not perform any better than disposable shipping bags made of corrugated board. Moreover, shipping bags can only be used for certain goods. This means that they are only suitable to a limited extent as a replacement for cardboard boxes.



Reusable packaging is not yet widespread in the mail order business. In a representative survey by IFH Cologne, only one third of respondents said they were aware of reusable solutions for mail order - and only around one in nine had already used them.

In terms of acceptance, the study came to mixed results: A large proportion of respondents, 85 percent to be exact, were open to the use of reusable packaging and generally rated the concept positively.

However, 66 percent of respondents also associate reusable packaging with extra effort and do not want to have to do much with the packaging after unpacking.
Interestingly, the more pronounced the awareness of sustainability issues was among the respondents, the more critical and negative their attitude towards reusable packaging.



According to the IFH study, shipping packaging made of corrugated cardboard enjoys a significantly better image among consumers. More than twice as many consumers would prefer corrugated cardboard if online retailers offered it alongside reusable packaging. There are many reasons for this, frequently mentioned are:
  • The low effort
    With corrugated packaging, no return is necessary and no deposit system is needed.
  • The natural raw material
    Corrugated cardboard is made from renewable raw materials. Plastic, on the other hand, is viewed critically even when used several times.
  • The easy recycling
    Recyclable materials are explicitly desired by consumers. The recycling process is simpler than the reusable system.

Nevertheless, most consumers are in favor of reusing packaging, including corrugated cardboard: Nine out of ten respondents agree that they would like online retailers to offer corrugated cardboard packaging from returns again.
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