Looping you in on Loop: An evolution in waste management, or a work in progress?

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Written by Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D, Co-Investigator: “The Waste Wiki” – Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University

Terracycle’s Loop program has turned the world of packaging waste on its head, largely seen as the first major initiative to encourage the reuse of consumer packaging in lieu of recycling. The initiative has been warmly received by both CPG companies and consumers alike, with initial reviews touting it as being an evolution in how packaging is designed and used by households.

For those who may not be familiar with Loop (although that would genuinely surprising given the press it has received), it is premised on developing reusable packaging solutions for common consumer items such as detergent, hand soap, cereal, condiments etc. The program, which is backed by industry giants such as Unilever, Proctor and Gamble, Coca-Cola and more, promises to help move consumers away from a consumption-disposal model, to one in which we strive for zero waste.

Participating households are able to place an order online, and receive various durable products (ranging from groceries, general household items and personal care) which is shipped in Loop’s exclusively designed shipping tote. After use, consumers can place the empty containers into their Loop totes, and go online to schedule an in home pickup. These items are then returned to a Loop partner facility where the package is then sanitized, cleaned and refilled, and finally shipped back to the consumer to be reused again.

Why was Loop created?

For much of the past 30 years, the waste management system has tended to fixate on the “recyclability” of packaging. In spite of the waste management hierarchy which prioritizes waste reduction and reuse over recycling, recycling has largely been promoted as the preferred end of life scenario for consumer packaging goods. While this approach has been reasonably successful, the proliferation of difficult to recycle light weight and composite materials, coupled with deteriorating end markets for recycled goods, has forced the waste management industry think of new and innovative ways to promote diversion.

Loop offers a convenient solution to this problem, in that it is premised on a closed loop system where products can be reused again and again, to assist in both minimizing packaging waste and reducing the need to generate new packaging.

Conceptually, this seems like a great idea – encouraging both brand owners and consumers to embrace a reuse model has the potential to radically transform our waste management system. However, is the program successful (and feasible) in practice? Let’s find out.

An issue of efficiency, economics and equity

I want to preface this next section by saying that I am actually supportive of what Loop could represent and achieve in the future. There is certainly a need to pursue new avenues with respect to diversion, and reuse seems like a logical choice with respect to packaging waste.

However, if we begin to examine both the economic and environmental impacts of Loop’s logistics and collection network, the benefits of the program become a lot more murky.

Simply put, it is extremely inefficient to have an individual product shipped to a consumer, and have that product subsequently shipped back at the discretion of the household. This issue is exacerbated in instances where take back facilities are not located in close proximity to markets in which the product is being consumed.

A distance too far: Environmental and economic impacts of transportation

As an intellectual exercise, consider the following scenario. A household that subscribes to Loop’s program decides to purchase reusable cereal and oatmeal containers. Every other week, this household will return these containers back to Loop, where the containers are then cleaned and refilled, and subsequently shipped back to the household. That is 52 unique trips in a calendar year (to both send and receive the reusable package), in which containers are traveling potentially hundreds of kilometers per trip before arriving at its destination.

Now imagine if this same household decides to tell 10 of their family and friends to join the Loop program. Unless all households coordinate when to send and return their packaging, we now have 520 unique trips in which reusable packaging is being transported.

While I do not have any specific data with respect to where Loop take back facilities are located, let’s consider a scenario wherein the take back facility is located 100, 250 and 500km away.

Every year, the reusable containers being used by each household are being transported between 5200km, 13000km and 26000km respectively (depending on the transport scenario). This is for a single household, using a single product that weighs between 150 and 400 grams (weight is contingent on the material being used for the reusable containers).

The carbon footprint of transportation is potentially enormous, sufficiently so that it offsets the environmental savings of using a reusable package. In our above scenario (assuming that the average reusable cereal container weighs approximately 400g), it would take roughly 2500 packages to make up just one tonne of material. That one tonne of material represents more than 13 MILLION kilometers traveled to collect and resend reusable packaging, assuming each package is shipped back individually (using an assumption of every other week, and a default transportation distance of 100km). This translates into roughly 1950 TCO2e of transport emissions per tonne managed. This figure only becomes more astronomical the further away the take back facility is away from the point of generation.

I wish I could say the above represented a worst case scenario, but the reality is that take back programs must find ways to economically consolidate and transport their material, and ensure that receiving facilities are located in close proximity to the market in which the reusable package is being sold.

For curbside recyclable and waste collection, a specially configured truck will go from house to house, and when full, return to the transfer station/depot to empty its material before redeploying to the road. The efficiency of this approach is in having a “critical mass” of material (within a specified geographical boundary), that only requires collection when sufficient waste has been generated.

However, the nature of Loop’s take back program is that households are asked to return their used packaging back to specific facilities to be cleaned and reused. There is no clear guidance regarding how much or how often material should be shipped back, as that is largely left to the discretion of the consumer.

From a convenience perspective, this has been a significant boon for well-intentioned citizens who want to participate in reuse initiatives without disrupting consumption and disposal habits.

The obvious drawback is that such a system is neither environmentally or economically tenable.

In June of 2019, York University published a white paper that specifically examined the merits of decentralized logistics networks, and used coffee pods as a case study to calculate the environmental and economic impacts of take back programs (https://drive.google.com/file/d/1rfERnYLOIhPsHcPA7JHf-BxPvErSiezB/view)

This study goes into greater detail surrounding how to quantify environmental and economic impacts, but the key take away is that the cost (both environmental and economic) is prohibitive unless households are able to transport large volumes of material at once. In the absence of achieving that “critical mass” of material, the take back model does not work in the vast majority of instances (a potential exception is when a receiving facility is located in the same market in which the product is being sold).

An issue of equity: Environmentalism for those that can afford it

Setting aside concerns surrounding the practical economic and environmental impacts of Loop, what is of greater interest to me on a personal level is that a subscription service excludes some households from participating on the basis of cost.

Products offered by loop require a mandatory deposit, ranging in value from $0.47 for a Coca Cola bottle to $47 for a Pampers Diaper Bin (https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2019/01/business/loop-reusable-packaging-mission-ahead/index.html).

Households are also required to pay a shipping fee of $15 unless a minimum of $100 worth of product is purchased.

While these sums may not seem like much, by its very nature, it will exclude households who are unable to absorb an increase in costs for their groceries and other household necessities. Waste management suddenly becomes a tiered model – pay to participate in reuse initiatives, or rely on municipal waste collections services who may not offer reuse as an option.

Most recent academic research shows that stated levels of environmental concern is consistent across all income groups. The vast majority of people, irrespective of income, want the opportunity to be good environmental citizens and participate in activities that lead to more sustainable outcomes. However, poor and marginalized groups often have impeded access to waste management services (i.e. lack of clean waste rooms, lack of recycling and green bin programs in multi residential buildings etc.).

Programs such as Loop further reinforce the notion that environmentalism is a luxury for those that can afford it, and it’s not entirely clear to me how such a program can be scaled out without addressing how to be inclusive and ensure participation of vulnerable and low income groups.

In waste management, we often forget that sustainability is made up of more than just environmental and economic considerations. The social dimension of sustainability is equally critical, and in my opinion, it would be in the best interests of both brand owners and service providers to address issues of inclusion.

The road to the landfill is paved with good intentions

Despite the aforementioned criticism, Loop should be applauded for pioneering the field of reuse for consumer packaging. Historically, printed paper and packaging has never been seen as a durable good, and has almost exclusively been characterized as single use. Loop offers the opportunity to think “Beyond the Blue Box”, and get both households and brand owners to think about the importance of reuse as a diversion strategy.

If we are to have any hopes of achieving a zero waste future, reuse will inevitably play a critical role, however, we have to be extremely careful about what systems we have in place to encourage it.

As noted in this piece, there are serious concerns surrounding the economic and environmental tenability of Loop’s current approach. Perhaps more alarmingly, nobody seems to be questioning whether this is a good idea or not (and whether it needs to be re-examined). The uptake by major CPG companies in both supporting and promoting Loop has been unprecedented – companies recognize the utility of attaching themselves to an initiative that seemingly provides a solution to the single use problem. However, in the rush to be seen as an innovator in the reuse space, we may be losing sight of what we are ultimately trying to achieve.

The goal of a waste management system should ideally be to promote optimal environmental, economic and social outcomes. Emphasizing either recycling, or reuse only matters when that particular approach helps us achieve our overarching goals of sustainability. If it doesn’t, we have to be prepared to “throw it away” and try something new. 

About the Author

Calvin LAKHAN, Ph.D, is currently co-investigator of the “Waste Wiki” project at York University (with Dr. Mark Winfield), a research project devoted to advancing understanding of waste management research and policy in Canada. He holds a Ph.D from the University of Waterloo/Wilfrid Laurier University joint Geography program, and degrees in economics (BA) and environmental economics (MEs) from York University. His research interests and expertise center around evaluating the efficacy of municipal recycling initiatives and identifying determinants of consumer recycling behavior.