It's now well-known that the packaging for our food and personal products is an unsustainable, garbage-producing mess. Even stuff that's recyclable mostly isn't — especially plastics. In all the years we've been diligently recycling, the truth is we haven't gotten very far. Just 9 percent of plastic was recycled, 16 percent of it was burned, and 75 percent was sent to landfills in 2015, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Looking at these numbers, it's easy to see why our oceans, and the animals that live there, are choked with plastics, and our beaches are strewn with the stuff. Clearly the "recycle more" mantra has failed and we need another solution to packaging. Even the experts agree: "While recycling is critically important, it's not going to solve the waste problem," according to Tom Szaky, the CEO of TerraCycle, a company that has worked on issues around packaging and recycling for over a decade.
Enter Loop, a program with a mission to "eliminate the idea of waste," says Szaky. Loop addresses the first part of the mantra "reduce, reuse, recycle" by creating returnable, reusable packaging for common consumer items.
The idea for Loop was founded at the World Economic Forum by TerraCycle and some big names in the consumer products business, including Procter & Gamble, Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever, Mars Petcare, The Clorox Company and many others. Since launch, many new brands have joined Loop and that list continues to grow.
How did TerraCycle come up with this large-scale reusable packaging concept? Szaky says he and his team have looked at some hard truths over several years: "If recyclability is not the foundational answer [to our waste problems], what's the root cause? The root cause of waste is disposability," says Szaky. And while it's easy to say "use fewer disposable items" — something many of us have dedicated serious time to, the truth is that all the rah-rah-reuse enthusiasm and personal changes it may have engendered hasn't been even close to enough. Our waste has increased over the past decade.
It's time to get real: "Disposability is easy to vilify, but we also need to look at why disposability won — because it's cheap and convenient. That speaks to why consumers want it — they're willing to sacrifice the environmental negatives for the cheapness and convenience," said Szaky. It's not pretty to hear, but it's true.
So, instead of trying to change the behavior of billions, TerraCycle looked at how to solve the root cause of waste, while still maintaining the virtues of disposables, like affordability and convenience.
The birth of a circular system
Loop takes some of its DNA from AirBnB and Uber, by understanding that consumers have no interest in owning a package, or having to deal with its disposal. Just like many people don't want to own a car, they just want to get from A to B, so Loop shifts the packaging responsibility back to the companies that make the products we want (the ice cream, olive oil or deodorant that's inside the packages).
Szaky says some of the cues for this came from the past: "In the milkman model, the package wasn't owned by the consumer, but owned by manufacturer — so they were motivated to make it long-lasting. When packaging was shifted to become the property of consumer, it was all about making it as cheap as possible, to drive price down," says Szaky.
How does Loop work exactly? You order from the Loop store, and your stuff will be shipped to you. On the first transaction, there's a deposit for the container — say 25 cents for a Coca-Cola. Once it's returned to the store, or sent back in the reusable shipping container, "no matter what state it's returned in (even if broken, because the container is the manufacturer's responsibility), you get your deposit back in full," says Szaky.
Durability becomes a goal again
If you sign up for auto-refills timed to your schedule for personal care stuff (or, let's face it, ice cream!) the deposit stays in your account and you simply get your deodorant, toothpaste or razors refilled automatically — with literally no waste. You get what you want — the product inside — and the package is the company's to deal with. (Yep, you can even return dirty packages.)
The huge boon to a new packaging model isn't just for the consumer or the planet we all share. It benefits the companies that make our stuff, too. When Pepsi owns the package, and the consumer owns the contents, the number of times the package can be reused becomes more important than its cheapness — and a durable package could even cost the company less in the long run if designed well — a win-win for the company and the environment.
Durable, reusable packaging also allows companies to make containers that are more functional (like the Haagen Daaz container that keeps ice cream colder, longer). It also allows for way more fun, interesting and marketable design possibilities.
Imagine: Instead of ugly, wasteful plastic bottles, what if we used high-design glass ones for our mouthwash? In the age of Instagram, it's actually a genius PR move for companies to make their product containers beautiful as well as functional.
In France, Carrefour grocery stores have partnered with Loop, and a pilot program in London will debut sometime in 2020. Also just around the corner, the program will add two new retail partners: Loblaws in Canada and Woolworth’s in Australia.
Currently about 120 products are available for U.S. consumers in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia via the Loop store. (There is also a small box in the bottom right corner of the Loop website if you want to reserve your spot in line for the program.) Outside of the U.S., Loop is available in the greater Paris region and according to a publicist for Loop, "We're coming soon to Canada and the U.K. in early 2020, and have plans to expand to Japan, Germany, West Coast of the U.S. and Australia in 2021."
Some of the biggest ocean-plastic polluters (see the Greenpeace list here) are the same companies that have invested in Loop. We've asked for a change, and they're giving it to us.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was published in January 2019.