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Closing the Loop: TerraCycle’s circular economy and its impact on packaging

With the announcement of waste-free shopping platform Loop from TerraCycle and some of the world’s largest consumer product companies, single-use plastic could be reduced significantly in the future. Joe Baker speaks to TerraCycle and some of the partners involved to find out more.

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, Nestlé, 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 the 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.

However, sceptics of Loop have said that other refillable schemes have failed in the past, and asked whether consumers are in the right place to pay extra to join the reusable revolution. In this article, we ask TerraCycle to elaborate on these issues, and find out from partnering companies how Loop fits into their sustainability strategies.

TerraCycle: Stephen Clarke, head of communications

Joe Baker:

Why do you think the Loop initiative 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.

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

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.

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

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 toreceive 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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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

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.

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

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).

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

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.

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

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.


Joe Baker:

How will Nestlé support the Loop initiative?


Nestlé is working to reduce its environmental impact in all its business operations, while also finding innovative new ways to connect with and provide great products to consumers. As part of these efforts, Nestlé is proud to join TerraCycle as a founding partner of Loop.

To participate in Loop, Nestlé committed major resources to develop durable product supply chains and design original packaging, allowing ice cream to be enjoyed in new ways. With the launch of Loop, Nestlé is debuting a reusable ice cream container that elevates the consumer experience and keeps the ice cream at optimal condition. Consumers will find Nestlé’s Häagen-Dazs brand on the Loop platform in the US.

The reusable canister, etched with the familiar Häagen-Dazs brand tapestry and design, is made of stainless steel, features a twist-off top and will be filled with delicious Häagen-Dazs flavours. The canister is designed in a way that it will keep ice cream fresh and cold from the moment the canisters are filled until they are delivered to consumers’ homes. This is aided by the state of the art transportation that ensures a continuous ‘cold chain’.

The canister not only keeps the ice cream fresh and cold for longer, but also ensures that when opened, it melts more quickly at the top than at the bottom of the container. This allows people to enjoy it perfectly without the ice cream melting at the bottom. The outside of the canister is also not freezing cold, making it more pleasant to handle.

How does Loop fit into Nestlé’s broader sustainability/waste reduction strategies?  

Nestlé is accelerating its global efforts to achieve a waste-free future and announced a series of specific actions towards meeting its commitment to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025. We also know that 100% recyclability is not enough to successfully tackle the plastics waste crisis.

We need to push the boundaries and do more. We are determined to look at every option to solve this complex challenge and embrace multiple solutions that can have an impact now. We believe in the value of recyclable and compostable paper-based materials and biodegradable polymers, in particular where recycling infrastructure does not exist.

Nestlé has also announced a new Nestlé Institute of Packaging Sciences, dedicated to the discovery and development of functional, safe and environmentally friendly packaging solutions. This will be operational from the middle of 2019. Loop fits into those efforts by taking an innovative and disruptive approach to changing how products are packaged - and delivered - and how consumers enjoy them.

How might ‘closed-loop’ initiatives change the packaging industry in the future?  

Companies are looking for new ways to address packaging and reduce waste – and consumers are demanding it. Loop is an example of how the industry is responding to that and we believe consumers will be very interested in trying it out for themselves. Nestlé continues to invest in research and development projects designed at reducing waste, and continues to play an active role in the development of recycling schemes in countries where it operates.

We are determined to help improve plastic recycling rates and increase the amount of recycled plastic that we use and to take a responsible and active role in the transformation to a circular economy. That is why we have signed up to the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. It is also why we are partnering with initiatives like Project STOP in Indonesia and the Closed Loop Fund in the US.

PepsiCo: Roberta Barbieri, vice-president of global sustainability

Joe Baker:

How will PepsiCo support the Loop initiative? Will this involve changing your operations or introducing new packaging formats?

Roberta Barbieri

PepsiCo will participate in the Paris market trial of Loop, offering consumers the chance to enjoy two of their favorite breakfast products, Tropicana orange juice and Quaker Cruesli chocolate, in a new reusable packaging format.

We have created brand packaging specifically for our participation in Loop. This has been developed with reuse in mind and so is designed for durability, but through the use of premium quality materials we have created sleek vessels that can be out on display and blend into any environment, whether in the kitchen or on the breakfast table.

The Quaker Cruesli containers are stainless steel and finished with a brushed effect and a friction fit push-on closure to retain product freshness. Our Tropicana orange juice will be packaged in an attractive glass bottle with side ridging to ensure an enhanced pouring experience.

How does Loop fit into PepsiCo’s broader sustainability and waste reduction strategies?

Looking for opportunities to make our packaging reusable is one important element of our sustainable packaging vision. PepsiCo’s vision is for a world where plastics need never become waste. We aim to achieve that vision by reducing the amount of plastic we use, recycling and reusing packaging material as part of our ambition to support a shift to a circular economy and reinventing our plastic packaging by finding materials and models that work better.

Loop is one of the initiatives we are exploring around reinventing our packaging and builds on the work we have already done through our ‘Beyond the Bottle’ strategy, which includes initiatives such as our recent acquisition of SodaStream and our breakthrough innovations like Drinkfinity.

How might ‘closed-loop’ initiatives change packaging/the packaging industry in the future?

Loop aims to ‘close the loop’ through making reusable packaging more accessible. Traditionally, one of the challenges of reusable packaging has been ensuring it is convenient for consumers – both from an availability point of view but also in managing the packaging once the product has been consumed.

This is one of the exciting elements that PepsiCo sees in Loop, as the addition of the e-commerce model means consumers will be able to have Tropicana and Quaker delivered direct to their door and then the packaging will be collected and professionally cleaned after each use. This makes reusable packaging more conducive to modern living and so it will be really interesting to see if this does positively impact consumer engagement and uptake when Loop launches in Paris in May.

Beiersdorf: Michael Becker, head of packaging

Joe Baker:

How will Beiersdorf support the Loop initiative?

Michael Becker

During the pilot phase we are participating with our global iconic brand NIVEA. There will be a product from the NIVEA MEN´s range available for the actual launch of the loop platform.

We slightly adapt an existing packaging. With the learnings from the pilot phase, we generate insights for the development of a possible next generation of packaging for the Loop concept.

How does Loop fit into Beiersdorf’s broader sustainability and waste reduction strategies?

We search constantly for environmental and resource friendly optimisation potentials.

Avoid, reduce, reuse, and recycle – are the fundamental sustainability principles for the continuous development of our packaging. Loop, with its zero waste concept by a reuse approach matches perfectly with our sustainability principles. Thus, Loop contributes ultimately into our overarching goal of establishing a circular economy.

How might ‘closed-loop’ initiatives change packaging/the packaging industry in the future? 

From a technical point of view, such a reuse concept will bring along new requirements for the packaging execution. At the same time it offers completely new opportunities for the user experience as well as potential new interpretations of packaging.

Coca-Cola European Partners: Joe Franses, vice-president of sustainability

Joe Baker:

How will Coca-Cola support the Loop initiative?

Joe Franses

We’re supporting the initiative through our partnership with Carrefour, which will enable us to provide consumers in France with another way in which they can purchase and enjoy our products.

As part of the initiative, we’ll offer consumers some of our best loved drinks - Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola Light and Coca-Cola Zero Sugar – in refillable 33cl glass bottles, so there’ll be no need to introduce new packaging formats.

In May, we’re going to trial Loop with 5,000 consumers in the Paris area, with a dedicated team to manage logistics and operations. The service will then be made available on a wider scale as part of the Carrefour home delivery platform for the Paris region.

It’s a new, revolutionary circular shopping format which will ensure that our iconic glass bottles can be collected, cleaned, refilled and reused alongside other durable packaging, and our involvement in it marks an important milestone in our journey towards achieving a vision of a world without beverage packaging waste.

How does Loop fit into Coca-Cola’s broader sustainability and waste reduction strategies?

Managing the sustainability of our packaging is one of the most critical issues facing our business. Most of the packaging we use is fully recyclable – and in many of our countries a high percentage of our plastic bottles and cans are already collected and recycled back into new bottles and cans. However, far too much of our packaging ends up in the wrong place, including as litter at the roadside or in our rivers and oceans.

As part of our sustainability action plan with The Coca-Cola Company – This is Forward – we have set ambitious targets to collect 100% of our packaging and to ensure that 100% of the packaging is recyclable and that 50% of the plastic we use in our bottles comes from recycled plastic.

Reducing packaging waste is a complex problem, and we recognise that to really make a difference, collaboration with local and national partners across our markets and supply chain is key. Being part of Loop is just one of the many ways we’re working with partners to deliver on these commitments and achieve a vision for a world where packaging waste is no longer such a prevalent issue.

How might ‘closed-loop’ initiatives change packaging/the packaging industry in the future? 

We’ll never realise a world without beverage packaging waste if companies across the packaging value chain – retailers, wholesalers and bottlers – are working in siloes to reduce their own packaging waste. The issue is so large and complex that it needs an industry-wide effort to tackle it, with companies working collaboratively to share solutions.

Closed-loop initiatives, such as Loop, are a great example of how this can be done effectively, bringing players across the entire value chain together to achieve a shared goal.

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