Get in the Loop!

blurred magnifying glass with "Unilever" logo in focus in the lens

At Clean Yield, we love hearing about new sustainability initiatives at companies in our client portfolios. But it’s even more exciting when we see companies collaborating for something bigger. In this case, Unilever, UPS, and Suez are all involved in a project called Loop that launched in early 2019.[i] Loop partners with major food companies to offer grocery delivery using reusable containers and packaging. We thought Clean Yield clients would be excited to learn about Loop.
Anyone who has ever been asked to take out the trash and recycling knows that grocery and personal care items require an alarming amount of single-use packaging. It is also obvious that the current recycling system is not working well. Over 91% of all plastic never gets recycled, and much of the U.S.’s recycling is sent overseas, where it faces a questionable future.[ii] Furthermore, China, once the largest importer of American waste, has set new restrictions on recycling imports, causing chaos in the U.S. waste markets.[iii] Loop aims to move the focus away from recycling single-use packaging and toward the other two R’s: reduce and reuse.
Loop is a partnership between TerraCycle and some of the world’s largest consumer goods companies, such as Unilever, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, and PepsiCo. Loop gives the old milkman model a modern spin. Customers can order products online (ranging from dry goods to ice cream to shampoo) that come packaged in durable and reusable containers. The Loop order will be delivered to their door in a special tote through a partnership with UPS. Once finished with the product, the customer can place the containers back in the tote to be picked up, or they can drop the empty containers off at participating locations.[iv] TerraCycle then closes the loop by handling the cleaning, repacking, and shipment of the containers to the next shopper.
While Loop product prices are intended to be competitive, the catch is that each item requires a deposit fee. This fee will be refunded upon return of the packaging, but it may pose an upfront financial barrier for some. Right now, Loop offers a range of products from major brands, including Unilever’s Seventh Generation, Axe, and Hellmann’s. Loop began by approaching the heavy hitters on Greenpeace’s “Top 10 Plastic Polluters” list but is now working with smaller brands as well.[v] Loop was first introduced in New York and France but has since expanded to 10 Northeastern states. If you aren’t lucky enough to live in one of the current service areas, don’t fret; the company plans to further expand in the U.S., as well as in Canada, Germany, and Japan.[vi]
Loop containers vary in material, from sleek stainless steel to glass to durable plastics. No matter the material, each item is designed to be highly durable (containers should last up to 100 reuses) as well as aesthetically pleasing. We personally think their Häagen-Dazs double-walled stainless-steel pint containers would look great in our crowded freezers! But what about the embodied energy required to manufacture the containers, not to mention the shipping footprint? Loop states each container will need to be reused at least 10 times in order to outperform single-use plastic, but the goal is that reuses far outnumber 10.[vii]
One of the challenges with recycling and other reuse schemes is that the extra effort they often require can be hard to come by. Disposability is convenient, and even virtuous people sometimes cut corners. Because consumer behavior is hard to change, the goal with Loop is to make the system change, letting us buyers retain a seamless experience. Loop built on something consumers already enjoy (buying groceries online) and gets rid of the inconvenience factor of recycling: Dropping empty items in a Loop tote is as easy as tossing something in the trash, because no washing is required!
Another exciting aspect of Loop is that it is working with major brands like Tide and Crest, not just niche companies marketing to hippie environmentalists. This gives Loop the power to reach a diverse consumer base and potentially create widespread change. Furthermore, Loop is encouraging innovation. For example, Unilever discovered that toothpaste tubes were difficult to reuse, so the company developed toothpaste tablets that work like traditional toothpaste and come in a zero-waste container.[viii]
What does the future hold for Loop? Because Loop’s a relatively new offering, nobody is quite sure what overall consumer response will be. However, the company has plans to continue expanding its online services as well as open brick-and-mortar locations through its U.S. partners, Kroger and Walgreens.[ix] While Loop is currently a stand-alone website, it hopes to eventually be integrated into existing online shops such as Amazon.[x]
Will Loop solve all the problems related to packaging waste? Probably not. Is it a compelling idea and a step in the right direction? We think so.