Over several years, TerraCycle has become a global leader in sustainability, helping brands worldwide to collect and recycle hard-to-recycle waste. However, it was in January that the company dropped its biggest bombshell yet with Loop; a first-of-its-kind re-use and recycling scheme which hopes to combines consumers’ predilection for sustainability and convenience into a winning formula.

Announced this January at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, Loop is designed to reduce reliance on single-use packaging by offering a convenient and circular solution to consumers. Major partners to sign up include Procter & Gamble, Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever and Mondelez International, who will feed the circular system with their own ranges of durable, reusable packaging.

At the time of writing, a number of pilot schemes are about to commence in France and the US. Customers will purchase products online through the Loop Store or the websites of partnering retailers, paying a deposit for reusable containers. Goods are then shipped to consumers in a reusable tote bag, which they refill with empty packaging after use. The totes are then collected by a courier, which returns the packaging so it can be refilled and the cycle can begin anew.

Loop ties in with a global trend towards sustainability in packaging. In 2018, more than 250 companies pledged to meet Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy goal, which promotes the use of recycling, recyclable and compostable plastic. TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky says that in addition to phasing out single-use plastic for recyclable packaging made from materials like alloys, glass and engineered plastics, the scheme will mark a shift from packaging being disposable and owned by the consumer, to being durable and borrowed by them.

Stephen Clarke, Head of Communications at TerraCycle, speaks more about the Loop concept and explains what it could mean for packaging in the future.

Joe Baker: Why do you think the Loop reusable packaging scheme is necessary now more than ever?

Stephen Clarke: The global waste crisis is escalating as single-use consumer products and packaging are being purchased at an ever-growing rate due to their convenience and affordability. This is driving an environmental crisis which includes growing volumes of ocean plastic in the marine system.

Loop was created by TerraCycle and a coalition of the world’s largest brands with the intention of addressing the global reliance on single-use packaging. Via the Loop system, consumers have the ability to responsibly consume products in customised, brand-specific durable packaging that is collected, cleaned, refilled and reused or recycled.

JB: Will Loop help companies meet their packaging sustainability targets (e.g. reducing the use of single-use plastics)?

SC: The participating brands are already working towards the targets and looking at how to change their single-use plastic product formats. But yes, Loop certainly has the potential to help work towards the targets, particularly if consumer response to the launches mirror what our consumer insight testing to date have shown and we can significantly scale the solution.

JB: Companies have tried a number of schemes that enable consumers to use refillable/reusable packaging in the past – how is Loop different?

SC: Existing zero waste options are not always convenient or easy to access, and consumers might not be able to find all their favourite products package free. People are used to linear models with disposable items. Disposability is cheap and convenient, and we have lived with it for the past decades. It is difficult to change habits in general.

Regarding recycling, the system can sometimes be confusing as consumers are unsure about what they can recycle or not. Furthermore, even if recycling is critically important, it is not going to solve waste at the root cause. The idea with Loop is to address these challenges by offering a convenient and affordable alternative for people who want to live a zero-waste life while still accessing their favourite products.

Loop will change the way consumers shop and consume goods. All the packaging is durable, not disposable, thus eliminating the waste associated with purchasing packaged foods and personal care and homecare products. Consumers will also experience improved convenience, as they can opt to receive auto-replenishments based on their rate of consumption.

Loop’s core idea is not new, instead it is an age-old concept (the milkman of the 1930s) that is being rebooted, modernised, and applied to hundreds of products that were never in reuse models before. [It] doesn’t just eliminate the idea of packaging waste, but greatly improve the product experience and the convenience in how we shop.

JB: TerraCycle has years of experience in ‘recycling the non-recyclable’ – what lessons have you learned from this that you are taking into the Loop project?

SC: Whilst recycling is still critically important, it’s not going to solve waste at the root cause.  The key shift which Loop addresses is switching the ownership of the packaging from the consumer to the manufacturer. By not owning the package, you don’t have to put the full cost of the package into the product, only the use of the package in the form of a returnable deposit.

Also, the more simple and convenient it is to recycle something, the bigger the consumer buy-in.  Ease of use/order, convenience and choice are therefore fundamental pillars of the Loop system.

JB: A number of companies have been working in partnership with TerraCycle – can you give a few examples of how they are changing their packaging to be more durable?

SC: Brands are responsible for designing their own packaging. TerraCycle acts as a consultant for the packaging development process and tests all packaging for cleanability and durability prior to approval in the platform. We encourage each Loop brand to design the most premium, durable, innovative packages to give the consumer the best experience possible.

For example:

Pantene has developed a new bottle made with lightweight durable aluminium for its shampoo and conditioner.

New Crest platinum mouthwash is being packaged in a sustainable, refillable glass bottle.

Signal unveiled a new product format with new toothpaste tablets called Tooth Tabs which will be packaged in refillable glass containers.

Nestlé partnered with TerraCycle to create brand-new packaging for its Haagen-Dazs brand that will keep ice cream frozen without the use of conventional refrigeration for an extended period of time which is essential for doorstep delivery. The Loop tote is also scientifically designed and it, coupled with the Haagen-Dazs package, enables the ice cream to stay frozen longer.

JB: Loop trials are ongoing this year – what are you hoping to see from these trials?

SC: We hope that consumers will like the Loop system and find it easy to use and convenient and this will then encourage more partners, brands and retailers to join Loop which in turn makes the system even easier to participate in.

We envisage learning a lot from the initial markets which we will factor into the plans for wider scale up and future launch markets.

JB: What will be the differences in introducing this scheme to brick-and-mortar retailers as opposed to online?

SC: Over time, Loop will come in three models. The first (which is what will launch in New York and Paris in May 2019) is where consumers shop through the Loop website for products and Loop arranges the delivery and pick-up. The second integrated model is that products are ordered through a partner retailer’s website, delivered in the usual way and the same driver picks up the empty container. And, the third model is integrated in store, where the consumer buys the products in store and drops off empty containers.

Loop’s retail partners are initially integrating the Loop engine into their e-commerce and later physical retail environments, effectively creating true packaging-free aisles or sections. In these models the retailer purchases the Loop products from the manufacturers and sells them to the consumers. Partners also support recollecting the used packaging through a variety of methods (from direct pick-up from consumers to store drop-off).

JB: One concern has been over whether consumers will buy into reusable packaging – do you think they are ready for this change? Why?

SC: We’ve had a very positive response from the public. I think the world is ready for Loop because consumers and manufacturers have come to realize that recycling is critically important to help a symptom, but it is not going to solve waste at the root cause.

JB: How do you respond to the concerns that carbon emissions (e.g. from delivery) could outweigh the environmental benefits of Loop?

SC: Loop’s courier partner for the UK will be UPS so the collections are scheduled geographically on routes where other local pick-ups are already happening. For that reason, there would not be any ‘extra’ vans on the road. These trucks are making the rounds to do pick-ups anyway, and when you divide the overall emissions of that truck by the number of packages the truck is carrying – the emissions per package or the emissions per unit is rather negligible.

In addition, when a filled Loop tote bag is delivered to the consumer, the carrier will leave with a Loop tote containing empty reusable/refillable Loop containers (to be cleaned and refilled) at the same time.

It’s also worth noting that:

  • Creating a durable (or ‘reusable‘) container uses more energy and resources than creating a disposable (or ‘single-use‘) container. However, over time, the reusable container has a lower environmental and economic cost as it does not need to be remanufactured on every use. Instead, it is transported and cleaned (a much lower environmental and economic cost).
  • A reusable bottle in the Loop model has the same impact as the same product sold in traditional disposable packaging at a physical retail location at two cycles (i.e. a reusable bottle being refilled versus disposable bottles being purchased). And at five cycles, Loop model saves 50% of environmental impact (the environmental impact is assessed using global warming potential (100 years) in terms of kg of CO2-equivalent units).
  • The efficiency of a reusable package in Loop is even more evident as consumers participate repeatedly. It will never reach zero due to the cleaning and transportation costs.