Reverse logistics is easily confused with the recycling bin that sits beside your trash can. The bin’s recyclable contents are picked up by a green truck that looks suspiciously like your trash truck.
But reverse logistics (RL) is so much more. RL is the home of innovation.
Products from the RL world are probably in front of you right now. The plastic water bottles you purchase are made of recycled plastic. Haven’t you noticed how once-solid plastics bottles have been replaced by thin, soft containers that are practically weightless?
Let’s say that you visit a fast food restaurant or attend a sporting event, then decide to order some food and a couple of drinks. Most likely, you’ll be given a cardboard holder, made from recycled paper, glue and bits of cloth.
There is a company that makes stop signs from recycled ink cartridges. A miniature version of this sign is my bookshelf to remind me of the RL industry.
Innovation Is the Path into the World of Reverse Logistics
Innovation is the path into the world of reverse logistics. Melvin Kranzberg, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a technology historian, wrote about the six laws of technology.
He was concerned about what he called “our obligation to try to anticipate the potential impact of anything that is manufactured.” This philosophy applies to successful companies such as Pepsi or Coke as well as to an unknown startup with an idea for a new product. It is also the foundation for many business entrepreneurs in the field of RL.
One of Kranzberg’s six laws says that technology is neither good nor bad, but it is not neutral either. Bottled water seems like a good thing. Proper disposing of the empty bottles into the recycling bin is also a good thing. But placing those plastics bottles in the trash can is going to be a bad thing for the thousands of years they remain in the landfill.
There are other examples that are familiar to us all. When vehicles can no longer be repaired, they are turned into scrap metal. The autos are reduced to metal confetti and usually shipped overseas where some foreign company will use the scrap metal to turn out a new product.
China has been an open door for waste from the U.S., using it as raw materials for manufacturing of goods that are shipped back to the U.S. for sale. However, in 2017, CNN Money reported that China “notified the World Trade Organization in July that it plans to ban the import of 24 varieties of solid waste, including types of plastic and unsorted paper commonly sent from the U.S.”
Reverse Logistics Can Also Be Used for Repurposing Products
RL works in the world of repurposing, too. That world also encompasses the animal kingdom or at least one species.
It is estimated that Amazon alone shipped over 1.2 billion boxes during the Christmas period. What happens to all those empty boxes after Christmas? While all your friends are socializing with you, your cat takes up residence inside one of those boxes and repurposes it as her home.
If you’d like to see reverse logistics as applied in the animal world, the Spokane Public Library has a YouTube video on how to build a house for your cat from a cardboard box. There are dozens of similar YouTube videos for designing your cat’s own castle. For those who do not have access to YouTube videos, you can check out sites with written instructions and photos of cardboard cat houses.
So what would the late Professor Kranzberg think about our burgeoning RL industry? He would probably say something like, “Many of our technology-related problems arise because of unforeseen consequences.”
We live in a world full of digital innovations, artificial intelligence and knowledgeable machines. It is nice to take a step outside our digital world sometimes and see how a simple cardboard box – when recycled properly by man or beast – can bring power and pleasure to humans and cats. I’m not sure about dogs, though.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He is the former program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management, and Government Contracting. Dr. Hedgepeth was a tenured associate professor of Logistics and chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He has published two books, RFID Metrics and How Grandma Braided the Rain.