Circular economy

First Came the Milkman. Then Came Loop.

TerraCycle's new refillables program the Loop puts circular packaging models to the test.

The "Milkman" is back.

First Came the Milkman. Then Came Loop.

Where most of us see trash, Tom Szaky sees potential. In 2001 Szaky set out to recycle the hard-to-recycle products we use, from coffee capsules to cigarette butts. Today, his company TerraCycle offers a suite of waste sorting services that includes free recycling, industrial waste management, and subscription waste stream processing programs.

“But we can’t recycle our way out of the waste crisis,” Eric Rosen, publicist for TerraCycle said. “And [Tom] is the first to say if TerraCycle didn’t exist — or couldn’t exist — he’d be thrilled.”

In other words, he would love to see a world where we produced zero waste to begin with. That’s where TerraCycle’s latest venture, Loop, comes in.

“The next thing to do was to attack waste at the root cause,” Eric said. “If the economics are good, we can recycle virtually anything. But that’s not going to solve the problem.”

“The next step was to create a circular economy where there’s virtually no waste.”

Loop was announced at the World Economic Forum in January 2019, proposing a new model of consumption whereby people can get their favorite home goods, cosmetics, and food products through a sustainable, circular system of pick-up and drop-off using reusable containers. It took off from there. “We immediately had thousands upon thousands of people who went to the website and were waitlisted,” Eric said. “So we knew right away that there was a clamoring for this. And we’ve continued to see that as we grow.”

The company launched its pilot program that summer, beginning in Paris on May 14 and New York the following week. “We launched in a handful of states as a pilot,” Eric said. “We could not keep up with the number of requests coming in, like ‘When are you coming to our state?’ Certainly, the waste crisis, sustainability, and climate change are in the news, so people are well aware. There’s a sense now that they want to do something about it.”

Loop already has a cleaning facility in Pennsylvania and a warehouse in New Jersey, which made New York a logical place to start. As the company scales, it selects cities within a 24-hour delivery range of both a cleaning facility and a warehouse, particularly for the frozen goods it provides. “We’ll add warehouses and cleaning facilities as we go, but that’s how the places were chosen,” Eric added.

Loop will launch in the UK at the end of March, Toronto in June, and Japan towards the end of the year. Next will be Australia in 2021.

The price of a Loop good is comparable to a regular one, plus a deposit for the packaging. Since it’s reusable, it becomes valuable. Take shampoo, for example. Before, you bought shampoo for its contents; once the bottle was empty, you would toss it.

“In this instance, now the company owns the package and the package is an asset,” Eric said. “Customers put a deposit down on each pack. When that pack comes back, the deposit is returned to the consumer.”

This deposit essentially sits in an account. You can opt to let it remain there as you continue to buy products through Loop; or, once you’re done, you can request the deposit back.

The brand owns the package, so they want that package back. This inherently makes the process a circular one, removing waste from the equation.

While Loop is currently e-commerce only, “we will be in-store at some point in 2020 in the United States,” Eric explained. With retail partners like Kroger and Walgreens stateside, Carrefour in Paris and Loblaws in Canada, you might find a Loop aisle at a grocer near you.

“The process will work virtually the same,” Eric said. “You’ll be able to bring your shipping tote into the store, where there will be an aisle with all the Loop products and packaging.” You shop, pay for the product, and bring it home, as you would any other pet food or ice cream pint. Then, as soon as you finish the pack, you bring it back. That store would then send it back to Loop to be cleaned, sanitized, refilled, and shipped back out to another consumer.

In many ways, Loop seems like the future. But it draws on our current thinking and behavior — and a model that dates back to the 1950s.

“When you finish your normal plastic shampoo, consumers are pretty accustomed at this point to dropping it in the blue bin. Now, as opposed to dropping that in that bin, you just drop it back into shipping tote.”

“We don’t want to change behavior. That becomes a much harder proposition.”

Photo: Flickr

Loop isn’t the first to discover the effectiveness of the pick-up/drop-off model. Remember the milkman?

“We were seeing that model up until the 1950s when all of a sudden we turned to all of this disposable packaging for convenience. Obviously we’ve created so much waste that it’s no longer effective.

“The idea behind Loop is exactly that: it’s the milkman model where the brand owns the pack and we come collect it, sanitize it, and fill it again.”

But instead of homogenous glass bottles, companies are investing in containers you want to show off.

“One of the things we’re finding is that people appreciate and want these packs because they’re so pretty. Like the Pantene bottles: people want to leave them on a counter.”

Loop has very specific specs companies need to adhere to when creating packaging. Aesthetics is “not a requirement, but it certainly is playing a role in how these are being designed.” Most importantly, they need to be durable, cleanable, and circular (by having an end-of-life solution).

“It’s not necessarily material,” Eric said. “Plastic is not necessarily the demon, it’s the single-use that’s the problem. So these packs have to be durable.”

Photo: Loop

“Häagen-Dazs, which has made an absolutely beautiful pack, had a whole R&D team develop it. We have designers at Loop who can help develop the packaging, but, depending on the size of the company, some are big enough to do it on their own.”

Just how durable these containers are varies from company to company. “Obviously these containers are going to get banged up,” Eric said. “And it’s up to the company to determine when they want to take them out of circulation. When that time comes, the containers themselves are recyclable. They’ll be turned back into themselves by TerraCycle.”

Eric said the company is working on a public-facing Life-Cycle Assessment, which will highlight the environmental benefits of these containers—transportation costs included—as opposed to single-use packaging that most often ends up in landfills.

Ultimately, the dream would be to have a whole store filled with reusable product containers. “We would create an entirely circular economy,” he said. “There would be absolutely no waste. That is the ultimate goal.”

TerraCycle’s next project with this goal in mind? ReDyper, a partnership in which parents send in soiled Dyper diapers to TerraCycle’s facility for composting. It was announced this week.

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