Tom Szaky, CEO of recycling company Terracycle, firmly believes that ditching disposable packaging doesn’t have to mean disposing of its benefits. Affordability, mainstream selection, "having the cool, new thing," and, most of all, convenience, are all elements of modern retail Szaky feels can be preserved in a package-free economy. Brands, he believes, just need the right model.
In May, Terracycle launched a venture in circular economy shopping called Loop, bringing mainstream food and personal care products to consumers’ doorsteps in reusable, refillable packaging. The products come from some of the world’s biggest plastic polluters as defined by a 2018 Greenpeace audit across six continents. The idea has been to even out a skewed playing field between disposable and reusable packaging options, turning the complicated process of refilling and returning empty containers into a simple, one-click act.
Since the launch, Loop has been hailed as a new take on "the milkman," a nostalgic reference to the dairy industry’s unique, circular model of distribution that once had so much consumer buy-in across the United States. Yet far from the simple routes of the neighborhood milkman, Loop is reverse engineering circularity onto products and supply chains designed for recycling or disposability.
Its direct-to-consumer trial has been a virtuosic case study in marketing and reverse logistics. But the pilot – the object of much hype in the last six months, with a reported waitlist of 85,000 – was never designed to exceed 5,000 households in North America and another 5,000 in France. The company is planning to launch a more integrated approach and expand into multiple new countries next year.
And while TerraCycle says it is too early to know how these pilots will perform, many in the recycling sector are curious to see just how disruptive this concept might be. The experiment, as it has unfolded until now, begs a pressing question: What are the true environmental and logistical costs of convenience?
Szaky has good reason to want to bring convenience to a niche, package-free market. Currently, it’s in short supply.
Catherine Conway, a package-free consultant based in the U.K., said she has found one of the main challenges for this form of shopping to be the behavior change it asks of consumers. Her business Unpackaged targets waste by reinventing stores’ bulk aisles to encourage reuse and refill with bring-your-own containers.
"For the last 30 or 40 years, consumers have been told that all they should care about is convenience and price. So currently all they care about is convenience and price," explained Conway in an interview with Waste Dive. "You’ve now got to get across the message of why it’s going to be a bit inconvenient for them."
This, she says, is why package-free shopping has remained on the fringes of retail. Many are put off by the limited offerings available in bulk, or simply aren’t willing to perform the extra work it entails.
"I think there’s a lot of misconceptions out there about the number of hoops a consumer will jump through in the name of more sustainable packaging," Adam Gendell, associate director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), told Waste Dive.
After all, any system is only as good as the number of people who will actually use it, and most people will only use it if it’s easy for them to do so. Gendell lauded the "milkman style" distribution model that Loop has adopted, where little is asked of consumers and the company is "not asking people to take 20 steps to get the package back" but instead "saying 'Here’s your reusable package, please get the stuff out of it, put it back outside, and forget about it.'"
For shoppers, Loop’s direct-to-consumer model appears to do just that. The only behavior change required is to place used containers back in the Loop tote and schedule a pick-up online. Customers are incentivized to perform this last step because they have put down fully refundable container deposits on each item (a requisite for participation in the service), though these can be quite high.
In her review of the service, Supply Chain Dive’s Emma Cosgrove commented that in addition to some products being more expensive – Loop’s dry black beans, for example, were 60% more than a bulk price in a grocery store – the deposits were cause for some sticker shock. "On my first order," she wrote, "I paid $30.50 in deposits including the $15.00 deposit for the shipping box – 23% of my total order."
For brands, who also put hefty down payments and investment in new packaging to participate, Loop acts as an accommodating plug-in to a relatively hands-off reusable model.
"Everything we do is always as a third party," said Benjamin Weir, Loop’s North America program manager, in an interview.
The company's first task is working with brands to develop and test reusable packaging for each product. This can be simpler when brands request a "stock" container (a glass jar or an aluminum tin). It can get more complicated when they require customization, like in the case of the Häagen-Dazs stainless steel container or the Crest glass mouthwash bottle designed in conjunction with Kohler, featuring a silicone sleeve and a stainless steel cap.
Once packaging is selected, a sanitation system is determined and then audited by brands. Loop outsources this portion of its work to specialized vendors at a cleaning facility located in Pennsylvania. It’s a learning curve, Weir told Waste Dive, as vendors providing sanitation services typically clean medical-grade equipment or aerospace parts – products far too valuable to dispose of after a single-use. For Loop’s purposes, they must be trained to clean consumer product-sized goods.
In addition to cleaning services, Loop also provides brands with fulfillment – not to be confused with product refilling – at a warehouse in New Jersey, where orders of Loop totes are packed and prepared for delivery. These warehousing services are also outsourced. Finally, once the orders are prepared, totes are delivered to shoppers’ homes by UPS, the carrier Loop has partnered with for logistics.
Balancing sustainability with availability
Preserving ease-of-use for brands and consumers doesn’t come easy.
The dairy industry to which Loop is so often compared enjoyed the luxury of managing just one product, produced and distributed regionally, with a standard package that had been designed with reusability and sanitation in mind from the very start. Production, cleaning, fulfillment and distribution all happened in the same place and dairy farms had relative control over their local supply chains. And milk, a product consumed regularly, was delivered on a "subscription" basis making the demand for refills constant and stable.
Loop enjoys almost none of those advantages. The pilot offers 123 products on its website featuring over a dozen different types of packaging, each with its own distinct sanitization process. And being a third party means that, while Loop is responsible for sanitation of containers in regional warehouses, refilling remains in the hands of manufacturers located throughout the country. Nestlé, who is trialing Häagen-Dazs ice cream with Loop, told CNN they’re trucking refills of product from California to the East Coast.
The winding reverse logistics for products that are – unlike the milkman – not locally sourced have caused some to question whether the additional impacts aren't nullifying any sustainability goals.
"Loop is trying to minimize waste, but does that process still take into account the emissions to take that product back and reuse it and wash it and reprocess it and send it back out?" queried Alexis Bateman, director of the Sustainable Supply Chains program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in an interview with Waste Dive. "I think that overvaluing one impact over another is usually the pitfall that these kinds of solutions come into."
Weir said Loop is aware of some of the environmental impacts posed by adding mileage to the supply chain and using higher grade materials.
"We’ve always said that this system is not always designed to service a large quantity of households. You’ll never see more than 5,000 households in our system right now, as is," he said.
Working with the consulting firm Long Trail Sustainability, Loop has performed life cycle analyses (LCA) on all of its packaging to determine the cradle-to-grave environmental impacts. Rick Zultner, Loop's vice president of research and development, told Waste Dive these assessments showed that at 10 reuse cycles, the Loop e-commerce trial had a 35% reduction in global warming potential as compared to a "similar model."
"The Loop system is very proficient at solving the waste problem, but we have to think beyond that," said Weir. "We have to think about the sustainability of the entire ecosystem and whether we are creating new problems with new solutions. That’s of course never the goal."
Limits of LCAs
Reusable systems like Loop open the door to a larger debate within the field of environmental accounting. In recent years, officials at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) have surveyed literature and pioneered studies assessing the sustainability of reusable systems in a range of contexts, from water bottles to beer kegs.
"There’s no simple answer to the question of disposable versus reusable packaging," said Peter Canepa, an LCA practitioner at the DEQ, in an interview with Waste Dive.
At the request of local brewers in Oregon, the DEQ performed an LCA to determine the impact of the industry’s traditional reusable stainless steel kegs when compared with the rise of new single-use plastic beer kegs.
"Even with the washing and sterilization, all those steps were accounted for and reusable stainless steel kegs were more beneficial," said Canepa, referring to the LCA results. "But there started to be a point of inflection."
Reuse made sense for breweries in Oregon who distribute their product locally, but numbers began to tilt in favor of disposable as distance was added to the supply chain. According to Canepa, breweries distributing East of the Mississippi found there were sufficient environmental implications, to the point that "making a new plastic keg, using it once, and disposing of it was actually less impactful."
It is at this point that the LCA school of thought diverges from the one Loop more closely adheres to. Advocates of circular economy theory (like SPC’s Gendell) still promote the use of LCA as a tool, but put far more weight on systems being regenerative. The idea is that waste from one system forms a resource for another.
"That can’t always be measured with any type of precision with a tool like LCA, which is an important, but imperfect science," Gendell explained. LCA, for example, does not yet have a way to quantify the effects of litter on marine or land environments, a category in which disposable materials score very poorly.
Unpackaged’s Conway agrees that literature on reuse can often be difficult to decipher. "The thing that’s annoying is that it’s very hard to get independent environmental data … These industry-sponsored studies are not 100% reliable."
She argues that just because reusable systems like Loop require more upfront resources than disposables shouldn’t be a reason to discount them, even if the LCA initially says otherwise. Especially in the beginning, it may be the case that they just require a bit of scale to make it worth it.
"I don’t think that’s a bad system until they get to that point, I think they just have to be aware that it’s probably going to be inefficient to start off with," she said.
The experiment continues
Loop’s pilot model (the length of which is said to be undetermined) preserves extreme convenience, but that likely will not be way this service grows in the future.
"What we’re doing now, to make it as convenient for consumers as possible, is really allowing them to order and return packaging at any time," explained Weir. "The purchasing of the products and the returning are truly two separate interactions."
In an ideal world, pick-ups would coincide with drop-offs and vice-versa. And retailers, who have their own fleets of trucks, would leave warehouses full in the morning and come back full with returns (as opposed to returning empty, as they do now).
In the future integrated version, consumers will purchase and return Loop products at retail locations directly. Confirmed partners include Walgreens and Kroger in the United States, Carrefour in France and Tesco in the U.K. The advantage to this model is that products would be sold in locations many shoppers already frequent, side-by-side with disposable counterparts of the same items.
"That kind of brick-and-mortar shopping is going to open up additional avenues for the consumer," said Patrick Browne, director of sustainability at UPS, in an interview with Waste Dive.
The company continues to work with Loop on the e-commerce model, but Browne said that retail deliveries would pose less of a logistical challenge. They take place in more dense settings, where drivers are delivering multiple packages per stop, making them more efficient. Whereas "in e-commerce, which is residential, typically your stops are a little bit farther in between houses."
Loop’s decisions about reuse and disposal are not purely determined by environmental impact, sparking further complications. This comprises perhaps Loop's biggest challenge: balancing the complex, fragile world of environmental accounting with the extremely qualitative world of corporate branding, which has an altogether different set of values.
For the companies Loop works with, packaging isn’t just about getting a product from here to there, or even strictly about safety. It’s also about maintaining brand uniformity and image. Disposable packaging, where each purchase yields a fresh container, does this quite well. Conversely, "packaging that is reusable will naturally scratch. It will naturally bend," said Weir, "There are very few ways around that. Especially when we’re looking at high, high numbers of reuse cycles."
Loop’s challenge has been encouraging companies to reconsider their traditional stance on wear and tear, which is typically viewed as a performance failure. In the end, participating brands determine what is the standard for reuse, and where to draw the line between refilling and disposing. It is Loop’s job to adhere to that standard, meaning disposal may occur on the hundredth cycle, or the tenth.
"The positive side is that I think these solutions are important to start to change the dialogue on end-of-life packaging and waste that’s become so normalized in American culture," said MIT’s Bateman, suggesting that even if the future of Loop looks very different from what it is now the trials of today are essential to shifting the discourse on disposables. "Single-use packaging really can’t be the future anymore, so how can these practices maybe begin to change that behavior?"
At the end of the day, Loop reveals an inconvenient truth about reusable systems: In the current market, it takes more work to make less waste.
According to DEQ's Canepa, that extra work is necessary because, in a reusable world, more durable materials with a higher lifecycle impact raise the stakes. “This sounds really banal, but if the thing made to be reusable is not reused, or more specifically is not reused a specific number of times,” he explained, “then you actually may be doing worse [sic] for the environment.”
Reusable programs thus require vigilant stewarding to ensure proper use, an inescapable part of Loop's grand experiment.
"They can’t be left to operate to themselves,” emphasized Weir. “There needs to be certain rules, there need to be certain frameworks. Because one-to-one, a stainless steel container versus a paper pint, I mean, there’s no comparison.”