The Problem with Loop

Tom Szaky, founder of Terracycle, is about to launch a new enterprise called Loop that aims to tackle the problem of packaging waste by delivering products in reusable containers.

A cartoon showing the process of ordering items from Loop online, receiving them in a reusable tote package, then returning the package to Loop for cleaning and refilling to be shipped to another customer.
Overview of Loop. Product containers are designed to be reused several times and are shipped in a reusable box.

How important is packaging in ethics?

Packaging is usually one of the factors to consider when deciding on an ethical (Green Stars) rating for a product. However, it’s not the only factor, and sometimes it’s not even close to being the most important one. We sometimes tend to think that it’s the main issue because it’s the most tangible and immediate thing to us as consumers. We see, touch, and ultimately dispose of the packaging, while other ethical aspects of a product such as child labor, animal cruelty, or deforestation are not as immediately obvious.

The problem with Loop

The bottom line here is that Loop has potential, but right now it has one big problem: many of the brands that they are working with don’t rate highly for social and environmental impact. The founder of Loop has made an important contribution to waste reduction with Terracycle, but needs to tread carefully with this enterprise. There’s an absolute need to include ethical brands and I think Loop will not succeed unless they do, for these reasons:

  1. Many people who may want to join Loop, in order to reduce packaging, would only do so if ethical brands were available. I’d much rather use a laundry detergent like Biokleen, which generates one small plastic bag and a recyclable cardboard box per year, than Tide in a reusable container. (Links are to posts that look at ethics of both).

 

  1. Many of the people who already buy brands from Unilever, P&G, and Nestlé will not be that interested in reducing packaging waste. By choosing these brands they have demonstrated a level of  indifference to (or unawareness of) ethical issues.

 

  1. The idea gives the impression that the Loop-featured mainstream brands will become ethically acceptable. It might* make them a little better but they will still lag far behind the most ethical brands. It will be perceived by some as greenwashing. If instead they focus on ethical brands, Loop will be perceived as intended: closing the packaging loop on already-sustainable brands.

*The benefit of actually reducing the packaging footprint is yet to be proven.

There is another issue here: if the introduction of a paradigm-shift idea fails badly then it can stall future progress due to a fear of touching the idea again. For example, PepsiCo introduced compostable bags for their SunChips brand over a decade ago but the idea was poorly executed (they were famously noisy and didn’t compost well).  There was also the issue that they were still a PepsiCo product and therefore not that appealing to ethically-minded consumers. Since then, there seems to be a stigma attached to the idea and compostable snack bags have never taken off, even though improvements were made to reduce noise and increase compostability.

Brands featured by Loop

The majority of the brands featured on the Loop site are owned by P&G (Tide, Febreze, Gillette, Pantene, Crest), Unilever (Axe, Dove, Seventh Generation, Love Beauty and Planet), or Nestlé (Häagen-Dazs).

Logos for 25 brands that are featured by Loop. They include several brands owned by by P&G (Tide, Febreze, Gillette, Pantene, Crest), Unilever (Axe, Dove, Seventh Generation, Love Beauty and Planet), and Nestlé (Häagen-Dazs).
Brands featured by Loop

It’s not my place to tell you what to think. The idea of the Green Stars Project is to introduce a democratic ethical rating system. I’ve written about P&G’s Tide Pods and Unilever’s Dove soap before and, in my opinion, they are both terrible choices from an ethical perspective.  I haven’t covered Häagen-Dazs, but Nestlé is one of the companies that I always avoid, when possible.

Dove or Love Beauty and Planet = Unilever palm oil.

One of the featured brands, Love Beauty and Planet, was new to me, so I did a small amount of research. The brand was invented by Unilever to sell cosmetics to Millennials, and although the brand is pitched as cruelty-free, the parent company is not. On their site, Love Beauty and Planet provide a rosy guide to ingredients. Curiously, they don’t mention the main ingredient in their bar soap: palm oil. So, whether you go to Loop to buy Dove soap or Love Beauty and Planet soap, you are buying Unilever palm oil. To buy from multinationals like Unilever means to buy commodity market palm oil and all the issues that go with it:

If more immediate action is not taken to enforce ‘no deforestation’ policies, these brands will be remembered as the corporate giants responsible for the destruction of the last place on earth where Sumatran elephants, orangutans, rhinos and tigers roamed side by side,” says the study by Rainforest Action Network (RAN).” – The Guardian, 2017, referring to brands owned by Pepsico, Nestlé, and Unilever.

Amnesty International traced a range of well-known products back to the palm oil company Wilmar, which it alleged employs children to do back-breaking physical labour on refineries in Indonesia.” – The Guardian, 2016, referring to products manufactured by Nestlé, Unilever, and other companies.

So, you can pick up some packaging-free soap from an ethical company that actively contributes to make the world a better place, on your way home from work, or have Unilever palm oil soap shipped to you by UPS. It doesn’t sound great when you look at it like that. And even besides the ethics of the product itself, there’s the need to take a close look at the carbon footprints of these two supply routes and there are also questions, raised here, about how often these heavy-duty packages will actually be reused after customers get their hands on them.

Is there hope for Loop?

Besides the giant multinationals, Loop is working with a few ethical brands. For example, Nature’s Path (see my review of their organic rice puffs here; 5/5 Green Stars) and Preserve (see these posts on toothbrushes and razors, also 5/5 Green Stars).

The good news here is that Loop hasn’t launched yet (their soft launch is planned for May 2019) and I presume there are plans to expand the number of available brands. I strongly believe that, in order both to succeed and to be socially responsible, Loop needs to focus more on ethical brands.

20 thoughts on “The Problem with Loop

  1. You make a very interesting point that I hadn’t really considered. I wonder if returnable containers for mainstream brand will only be a positive if it’s the only option for consumers, who wouldn’t individually choose it, or if the support of this move by mainstream brands make it accessible for more ethical brands. Sometimes we need fat cat business to support an initiative so that smaller less profitable brands can piggy back on it at a reduced cost.

    1. Hi Elaine,
      I was thinking the same thing, and imagine that the CEO may be thinking along the same lines.
      At the moment, there’s a charge for retailers to buy-in to Loop (a six-figure sum – source here) and there’s also the cost of developing a package that can be reused. Some smaller companies may be sitting on the sidelines for now, waiting to see if it looks like it will take off before investing in it.

    2. This is a great article and as a small ethical/sustainability focused small business we know the struggle of trying to do the right thing, especially when it comes to packaging, because as you said it’s one of the most tangible things your customers engage with and it’s usually their first impression of your brand.. In the beginning we really struggled with packaging. For example it’s very difficult to find compostable packaging that is also shelf stable and at a price we and our customers can afford to buy it. When we finally found and settled on some compostable stand up pouches we tested them in our home compost pile and it didn’t perform to the level that the company said it would (after a year in the compost pile the plastic inner lining of the packaging was still completely waterproof). We called the company about it and they told us that it all varies depending on moisture, heat, etc. Which makes sense, but you can’t tell people that packaging is compostable in a home compost pile and then they still have plastic bags in their compost a year later.

      Honestly we’ve given up (FOR NOW!) and now use the same packaging that a lot of other companies use (stand up pouches made from aluminum foil covered in kraft paper). Sometimes people will advertise this type of packaging as recyclable, but that’s bullshit because to recycle it you have to mail the packaging to the one facility in the US that actually recycles it, which seems ridiculous when you consider the energy required to get the packaging to the facility to be recycled. So, for now, we focus on the fact that our tea comes from the US, we harvest it all ourselves in areas where removing it actually has positive (not just sustainable) impact on the forest and it’s all processed (dried, roasted, bagged) within 30 miles of where it’s been harvested. Our packaging may not be compostable/recyclable but the carbon footprint of our product is much mush lower than that of tea imported from across the world, grown in plantations where they’re removed forest, instead of restoring it. Also, once we have the power of economy of scale, we can use that to afford/encourage large package producing companies to make things more sustainable.

      Oh, we make tea from the US native yaupon holly. It’s the only caffeinated plant native to the US, grows without the need of pesticides, fertilizers, irrigation, etc. We produce a light roast, which tastes similar to green tea or a less earthy yerba mate (it’s s. american cousin) and a dark roast, which is closer to a traditional black tea in flavor.

      1. Good luck on your journey! I know that it’s a really tough issue at the moment. Several companies are working on better renewable and biodegradable polymers so I hope to be able to post an optimistic update on this issue someday!

  2. Very thoughtful article! Sustainable& Ethical products remind me this community in India, named Sadhana Forest (https://www.facebook.com/sadhanaforest/), they have ethical products for every need in daily life.

    I used to volunteer in Sadhana Forest, their practice makes me see that, a sustainable life style is possible after all. BTW, they make fabulously delightful vegan foods & desserts.

    1. Thank you! Sadhana looks wonderful. And I guess it’s a good reminder that there are so many tiers to making sustainable changes. From the extreme of living in a sustainable community in a forest to the mainstream consumer who buys a lot of conventional products but would like to reduce their waste. In between, there are many who have found a simple solution of not tending to buy much except for packaging-free fresh veggies and fruit and some bulk items. Any change is welcome!

  3. Hear, hear to all your sentiments re ethics. However, I’m curious about the whole refill scheme idea. I’m old enough to remember the Body Shop’s pioneering refill scheme, back in the Anita Roddick heyday of the company. Sadly, it fell foul of hygiene legislation and many of the containers were returned in too poor a condition to be useful. However, that was in the 80s, so maybe Loop have that all sorted 😉

    1. Thanks Hilary – I had almost forgotten that!
      Well, the Body Shop are one of the partners, so I guess we will find out!
      As far as I know, the companies developed their own packaging solutions.
      Here’s the story of the stainless steel canister developed for Häagen-Dazs ice cream.
      For decades, there has also been the option of getting items in bulk from a store using your own container (anything from nuts to shampoo).
      And here in the Bay Area you can buy Strauss organic milk and cream in returnable bottles (with a $2.50 deposit to make sure you don’t forget!). I think Loop plans to eventually introduce their reusable packages to stores, so it’ll complement the existing low-waste options.

  4. Mhm this sounds very familiar, i e seems similar to the Green Dot in Germany. Such a closed loop recycling scheme sounds great but is complicated to implement for consumers who need to study each packaged item and decide which bin to put it in. Ultimately Green Dot waste gets contaminated by similar but non participating manufacturer waste. Seems like a lot of greenwashing rather than real effort to reduce waste or harmful practices/ chemicals in the first place, no?

    1. In this case Loop is actually re-using the container by cleaning it, refilling it, and sending out to a new customer. The Green Dot program, as far as I know (correct me if I’m wrong), involved recycling the containers (i.e., melting down the plastic, etc.).

  5. I’m not in a marketing department, but I know the package is important to attract customers. That’s why even a very cheap merchandise tends to have a outstanding package (sometimes the cost of the package is more than the item itself).
    Unfortunately, the makers won’t stop it as long as the consumers keep choosing the products with “decorations.”
    That’s why the articles like this, trying to educate people and keep questioning, is very important.
    Please keep your great work. 🙂

    1. Thanks Kay! Yes, packaging that’s designed to be reused many times (as is the case with Loop) or to be repurposed in some way after use can be more elaborate, but packaging that will be disposed of after use should be lightweight and minimal.

  6. While I agree with many of your points, I think we need to be mindful not to have an “all or nothing” approach to new ideas. No, this certainly isn’t even close to “all” but it’s an experimental step towards a potentially high impact movement. In my opinion it deserves a chance to try & make a difference.

    Yes the brands involved are problematic but at least somebody in their HQ is thinking about ethical topics & hopefully their investment can drive industry-wide change. Without the “big guys” on board no new idea will ever have the investment or visibility to get off the ground. And ultimately, to achieve widespread change, we need to target & convince consumers who are buying from these brands, not the people already making ethical choices every day.

    1. I agree with you that we need to support steps towards change, even when not perfect. I want Loop to succeed in bringing low-waste packaging solutions to the everyday consumer, but one of my concerns is that it has a lower chance of success if dominated by the “big guys” – I think it’s a misinterpretation of the market. And if it doesn’t take off then, like the compostable snack bag saga, others will be less likely to take risks to follow suit. But I do hope it works!

  7. Thank you for this many-sided look into the problem with packaging. I also wonder about the idea behind reusable packing shared among consumers. How does Loop insure that the products inside the recyclable packages are completely cleaned out? I’ve heard that even with plastic recycling, many are returned in such poor condition that a whole batch has to be sent to landfill.

  8. As a TerraCycle employee who works with Tom Szaky, I can tell you that Loop is just another greenwashing service for our clients. Our existing greenwashing and PR offerings were too obvious.

    This is the reason Tom flies so often, at least once a week, he makes sure there is no paper trail that could expose our clients that all they are buying is a greenwashing PR.

    The success of TerraCycle is measured in number of articles – that says it all.

    Oh and BTW we have calculated that the energy needed to ship much heavier products (reusable containers) to the customer, then to ship empty heavy containers back and pressure wash them with hot water releases around 2x the amount of Co2 into the atmosphere than just burning the single use container or letting it decompose over very very long time in the landfill.

    So it is literally better to burn your your waste and not to recycle at all, than using Loop.

    Always read beyond the headlines and never trust anything that comes out of TerraCycle.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, TC.
      I have to say that I’m pretty skeptical of Terracycle too, especially after my recent experience.
      I work in a lab and decided to purchase boxes (with prepaid return shipping) for recycling lab gloves.
      The boxes weren’t cheap and arrived packaged in a huge sheet of plastic.
      After filling one box I shipped it off to Terracycle in New Jersey and then emailed them to make sure that there was still a demand for these gloves. The person who responded to my email was quite candid and told me that Terracycle no longer does their own recycling of gloves into items like park benches. Instead they send it on to (unnamed) facilities for possible recycling.
      On top of that, the Terracycle rep told me that the items they receive are pooled together and then sorted. Why would you mix the already-sorted latex gloves with other items (toothpaste tubes, etc.) and then re-sort them?!
      I’m skeptical that they are really being recycled. Also skeptical that it’s worth having a plastic-wrapped box shipped to me and then shipping the full box across the country if they are not being repurposed into items like park benches any more.
      I’m now talking to Kimberly-Clark, which has their own glove recycling program.

      I agree that the benefit of reusable Loop containers looks marginal at best, once you factor in shipping and washing.
      Even one of their own Directors seems skeptical about how many times they will be reused:
      “Szaky said TerraCycle asked the Loop partners to design packages that can survive at least 100 reuses. Rick Zultner, TerraCycle’s director of product and process development, is more measured; he called that figure a “nice goal to meet.””
      From: https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2019/01/business/loop-reusable-packaging-mission-ahead/index.html

      For most of the items that Loop plans to sell, there are more ethical versions that come in minimal packaging.
      For example, instead of Tide Pods (https://greenstarsproject.org/2017/11/13/are-laundry-arial-tide-pods-sustainable/)
      there are concentrated eco-friendly powders that generate very little waste (https://greenstarsproject.org/2017/11/22/review-biokleen-laundry-detergent-sustainability-homemade-versus-commercial/) – a recycled cardboard box and a plastic bag that you can repurpose for something else after it’s empty.

      Thanks again for the info.

  9. Wow, this is a very thought-provoking post. Your points are totally genuine. Maybe you could consider writing to Loop. Thank you for crafting and sharing this post! 🙂

      1. Hmmm. After you mentioned, I read Trenton’s comment. What a complicated world. Companies (most of them) are all about whisking money from people’s wallet, with the least regard to their ‘customers’ and the planet.
        My pleasure! 😊

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