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Loop: Bringing Zero Waste Packaging to a Supermarket Near You

Of all the plastic that’s produced every year around the world, a paltry nine percent is recycled. The rest is incinerated or put straight into landfill, causing further pollution to the environment and resulting in eye-watering amounts of waste – especially when you consider that the raw materials used to make plastic are fossil fuels. 

Recycling company Terracycle has been on a mission to “recycle the unrecyclable'' since its founding in 2001. Over time, however, CEO Tom Szacky has come to realise that recycling alone is not enough to solve our interconnected environmental challenges. For a recent episode of our podcast series on the Circular Economy, we talked to Terracycle’s Head of Communications, Stephen Clarke, who explained that the worldwide waste crisis is an unintentional consequence of single-use plastic packaging, alongside a culture of consumerism. 

This realisation, explains Stephen, led to the creation of Loop – a refill, reuse and zero waste retail concept. Thanks to Terracycle’s existing client base, the company was able to pitch the innovative idea to big brands and retailers, convincing them to switch from a single-use supply chain to a reusable and refillable one. “It shifts the ownership of the product from the consumer [to the brand or retailer],” he explains. “So it's then in their interest to make that as reusable as possible, to make the economies of scale better. It costs more to make that packaging – but if you're going to use it multiple times, it's eminently better for the environment because you're then not having to create new plastic every time you create a product.”

Before pitching to brands, Loop set up its own ecommerce platform, to test the concept and gather learnings.  At their UK store, for example, people can go online and order food staples such as rice, pasta, oils, and herbs and spices, as well as cleaning products and other sundries. The delivery arrives in a tote bag with reusable protective packaging. For each piece of packaging, whether the tote bag, a glass jar or bottle, or metal tin, Loop holds a deposit. You simply send back your empties and get your deposit back, or order again and Loop keeps hold of your deposit until you return the reusable container. “That’s the beauty of the system,” says Stephen. “And that's how it's a massive upgrade for the environment.”

Loop’s first retail partner is Tesco. At selected stores across the UK, shoppers will be able to pick up their favourite products in reusable packaging and collect their deposits when returning the empties. Over time, Loop will also be embedded into Tesco’s online shopping platform. The wider goal is to get as many brands and retailers as possible on board. “The reason [single-use packaging] got so big and so popular across the world is because consumers like it,” says Stephen. “For reuse and refill to be successful over time, we need to make it as accessible for the consumer as possible. That's why we want multiple different routes, channels and retailers that are all part of it – so it's very easy for the consumer just to drop it back to a variety of different places.”

To be accepted onto the Loop platform, a piece of packaging must have the capacity to be reused at least 10 times. Ideally, however, they are used many more times – up to 800 in some cases. According to the company’s lifecycle analysis of the system, using a reusable bottle twice has the same environmental impact (measured in CO2 emissions) as a product sold in traditional disposable packaging. That means that at five cycles, the bottle reduces the impact by 50 percent – and the more times it’s reused, the greater the environmental benefits. 

Cleaning the reusable packaging to the high standards required for food safety is obviously costly, and does produce emissions – as does the transport required for collection and delivery. However, according to Stephen, “the biggest impact on the environment is creating new packaging each time, or melting down that packaging and creating more packaging from it. It's much better for the environment to clean, and to refill and reuse multiple times.”

Switching ownership and responsibility for packaging away from consumers means that companies are incentivised to make the process as efficient as possible, so that financial goals begin to align with positive environmental impact. As Loop continues its rollout, brands and retailers are becoming more willing to experiment with new models. Consumers, for their part, also have an important role to play. “The more people that [buy reusable and refillable products], the more brands will need to incorporate them, because those that don't offer the options consumers want are going to be left behind,” says Stephen. 

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About the author

Barry O'Kane

Barry is the founder of HappyPorch. With 20 years in the web development industry as a programmer and agency owner, he has a preternatural ability to decipher the systems and processes code that holds many teams back from achieving their goals. Partners say Barry gets to the root of issues quickly and makes it downright easy to deliver good work.    

While he's unbelievably grounded, it's not uncommon to find him sailing through the trees as he paraglides his way round the world.