A Potential Solution to Throwaway Plastic Culture
“Nearly 91% of all the plastic waste ever created has never been recycled.” This was named the 2018 international statistic of the year by the Royal Statistical Society showcasing concern behind the topic of recycling. Top consumer goods companies are all starting to agree that their customers want more environmentally-friendly packaging and some of the big names (including Nestléand Procter & Gamble) say they aim to have their packaging made out of recycled materials by 2025. But is recycling the solution companies should be focused on, especially after learning about this troubling statistic?
It has been said that nearly 30% of US recyclables are exported overseas. However, in 2017, China stopped accepting unsorted paper and certain forms of plastic, which was a huge setback for the United States as China is the world’s largest importer of waste and scrap. China’s ban has caused some municipalities in the US to stop their curbside recycling pickup. And for some companies that have continued to collect, in hopes of eventually finding a new buyer, plenty of the recyclable waste has ended up in landfills instead.
As to be expected with any type of service or business, matters always come down to money. And for recycling, it is often much cheaper for a company to make the plastic again from scratch versus lose money through recycling. CEO of The Recycling Partnership, Keefe Harrison stated, “Preventing in the first place is always better than cleaning up after.” He along with many others in the field believe recycling is not the best way to cut down on waste. This is where the concept of Loop comes into play.
Loop is a potential solution to limit future waste for some of the largest consumer goods companies in the world including Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Nestlé, PepsiCo, and Mars Petcare. The idea of Loop was announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this January by Tom Szaky, the CEO of TerraCycle, a waste management company with the mission to eliminate waste first and make a profit second. TerraCycle has worked with companies such as Procter & Gamble where they helped to create a bottle for Head & Shoulders made from plastics collected on beaches. Through attending the World Economic Forum, Szaky was able to secure short meetings with leaders in consumer-packaged goods to pitch his idea of Loop.
In these short meetings with major companies, Szaky asked businesses to rethink the ownership of their packaging. He highlighted how the customer determines the outcome of the package; whether it gets recycled, littered, or ends up in a landfill is out of the manufacturer’s hands. But what if the manufacturer retained ownership of the packaging by collecting and reusing it? This makes the packaging now a long-term asset that depreciates over time which in turn allows the company to invest more resources in having a durable package design.
Szaky was clever with his approach in that he specifically targeted companies that were listed by Greenpeace as the worst plastic polluters. These companies are well aware of the potential of looking bad to the public by not caring about the environment, so the likelihood of them getting on board with the concept of Loop should be higher. And as it worked out, eight of the ten companies listed ended up partnering with Loop to give the trial runs a shot. In the United States, Loop is currently in experimental stages with plans to run trials with thousands of consumers in New York this coming May.
So how exactly does Loop work? Loop offers consumers a new way to shop, especially for customers wishing to reduce their plastic use to help the planet. Currently offering around 300 items, Loop includes popular name brand products in a wide array of categories from laundry detergent to deodorant to ice cream. To use Loop, a customer has to first make an account online where they fill up their “basket” to their liking on the website. The cost of these products is said to be comparable to buying the products at the store. What is considered an “extra” cost for using Loop involves having to pay a fully refundable deposit for each package, which varies depending on the product. Even if the product’s packaging becomes damaged during use, the full deposit will be returned to the customer as long as it is still returned. Shipping becomes free once the customer buys five to seven items.
In the United States, the products arrive by UPS in a Loop tote bag. If items need to be cold or frozen, a cooler will be inside of the tote. As the customer goes through the products, he or she then places the empties back in the Loop tote without having to clean them. UPS then collects the containers where they get cleaned and refilled and shipped out to consumers again. A customer can choose to repeat the cycle or decide to stop, when they would then get their deposit returned.
But what happens when a package can’t be used anymore? TerraCycle at this point recycles the material. Loop is aiming to get at least 100 uses out of a package and to help accomplish this, they plan on having packages made out of durable materials such as stainless steel, aluminum, and even glass. Szaky hopes that Loop will eventually become integrated into existing online shops. He stated, “We’re not trying to harm or cannibalize retailers. We’re trying to offer a plug-in that could make them better.”
Recalling IFCNR’s article on microplastics (posted 12/20/18), there is no doubt that cutting down on single-use plastic items is a good thing for the planet and for humans, as plastic has been found in water, soil, food, and people. But are the benefits of using less plastic through a service like Loop still good for the environment after factoring in all the transportation for the products? Carbon emissions from trucking and other factors are crucial aspects to look at for Loop to not be contradictory in their mission. Loop is making sure to conduct life-cycle analyses to try and estimate the environmental impact in a variety of situations.
Aside from carbon emissions, what other factors could be potential downsides to a seemingly perfect system? Asking customers to change the way they usually shop could present some difficulties in allowing Loop to take off fully. Customers have to be able to afford to put a deposit down, which for some could pose financial hinderances in being able to use this service. One of Loop’s partners, Unilever, has said they’re not yet worried about the financial side of things. They’re more interested in evaluating whether Loop can cause a behavioral change in the consumers. There are signs of hope that Loop will work. Looking at current consumer behavior with products such as SodaStream bottles and refillable beer growlers, more and more people are starting to embrace the reusable lifestyle.