A year ago, a coalition of some of the world’s biggest brands embarked on an experiment: If they started selling everyday products like shampoo in reusable, returnable packaging instead of single-use plastic, would customers buy it? Could a modern version of the milkman model—where customers shop online, and then return empty containers via UPS to be cleaned and refilled for a new customer—make business sense?
For brands, the new platform, called Loop, was a radical step to test fundamental changes to how they package and deliver products, driven by consumer pressure to deal with the problem of plastic pollution. The first pilots started in May 2019. The tests have been successful enough that the system is now rapidly expanding and will soon launch in retail stores.
“Companies are looking for new ways to address packaging and reduce waste, and consumers are demanding it,” says Steve Yeh, a project manager at Häagen-Dazs, the Nestlé-owned ice cream brand. The brand committed major resources to developing new packaging for the pilot: a novel stainless steel ice cream canister that’s designed to keep ice cream cold longer. It then can be sent back, sterilized in a state-of-the-art cleaning system, and reused. (It also looks a lot nicer on your counter.)
The system is designed to be simple for consumers—in theory, nearly as easy as buying something in a disposable package and throwing that package in the trash. Online orders are delivered in a reusable tote, and when a customer has an empty container, it goes back in the tote, the customer schedules a pickup, the packages are returned for reuse, and the customer gets back a deposit that they paid for the package (or, if they’ve reordered the product, the deposit stays in an account and they don’t pay it again). Despite using heavier packages, more transportation, and cleaning, it has a lower carbon footprint than single-use packaging. And it keeps packages out of landfills and the ocean. “We all know that recycling alone will not be enough,” says Sara Wingstrand, who leads the innovation team at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an organization focused on the circular economy. “This is a whole new way to actually think about how you can bring products to people.”
In Nestlé’s case, an internal team went through 15 iterations to reach the final design of the ice cream container, which has benefits beyond reducing waste. The package has a double metal lining, so it’s comfortable to hold, but keeps the ice cream inside from melting; it’s also designed to melt a little more quickly at the top, so it’s easier to scoop than it otherwise would be. Rounded edges mean that ice cream doesn’t get stuck in the bottom corners. And it looks better than a disposable package.
The aesthetics, surprisingly, have been a bigger driver in the pilot’s success than the environmental benefits. “People actually are attracted to Loop first for design, second for reuse,” says Tom Szaky, CEO of Terracycle, the recycling company that first helped create the coalition of brands to test the platform, who is now also CEO of Loop. “The design is so important to consumers—more than I ever thought it would be.”
It’s proof, he says, of what’s possible when the economics of packaging change. “If you go back 100 years and look at what your cookies came in or what your beer came in, it was a significantly greater investment in the package. As we make packaging lighter and cheaper, it becomes less recyclable, essentially growing the garbage crisis. And as we spend less money, [packages] clearly become less exciting and less desirable. The response to Loop is a simple one: Let’s shift ownership of the package in the end back to the manufacturer. And as such, they treat it as an asset and they can start investing in the pack again.”
The investment in the packages means that for the system to work, consumers have to put down a deposit for each container. In the pilot, Loop says that customers haven’t been sensitive to the price. “It’s not money out of your pocket,” says Donna Liu, a customer in New Jersey who has been using the system for several months. After the initial deposit, customers don’t have to pay again as they continue reordering the same products, and they can ultimately get the money back. But the deposits are steep, and would likely deter lower-income customers. In one review, a Huffington Post writer noted that she paid $32 in deposits for only six items (in addition to $20 in shipping, and the cost of the products themselves).
Loop says it plans to have the costs come down as the system scales up. “Today, in small scale, it makes no economic sense because everything is inefficient in small scale,” says Szaky. “But a lot of our retail partners and our brand partners have modeled this in large scale. And it’s come out very exciting—it’s going to be able to be executed at scale and not cost the consumer more.” Wingstrand, who is not involved with Loop, notes that some other reusable models are already economically viable at scale, such as reusable water jugs delivered to offices.
The e-commerce pilot has faced some challenges. Some customers complained about the small selection of products. Those who live in small apartments don’t like the bulky size of the reusable tote, which has enough padding inside to accommodate 16 wine bottles; one reviewer said that she was forced to use it as an ottoman until she was ready to send packages back. But moving to retail stores could help alleviate these issues.
Today, the online store has more than 150 products, including Tide detergent and Pantene shampoo in stainless steel containers, Nature’s Path granola in glass jars, and products from smaller brands like Reinberger Nut Butter. But that’s a tiny fraction of the hundreds of products online at, say, Walgreens, and one of the biggest questions from customers in the pilot has been when more products will be available. Szaky says that Loop is adding a new brand roughly every two days—but there’s a long development process for new packaging after a company joins. “This is not an overnight thing,” he says. “It takes maybe a year to get a product up and running.”
In retail stores, though, customers can pick and choose which Loop products to use. “By the retailer listing in-store, the benefit to the consumer is they can go shop the Loop section, which will grow every day and get bigger and bigger, but whatever they don’t find in the Loop section they can still buy traditionally,” says Szaky.
Customers can also avoid the hassle of shipping empty containers back and the size of the reusable tote; for retail returns, customers will toss containers in a reusable garbage bag and then bring them back to the store. It’s still designed to be simpler than traditional refill systems in stores—rather than cleaning and refilling your own container, you bring back dirty containers, drop them off, and buy already-packaged products on the shelf. As with online orders, you’ll pay a deposit on the container and then get it back when the container is returned.
The online pilot launched last May in and around Paris, New York City, and a few nearby areas; the startup has since added Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, Vermont, and Rhode Island. It will soon expand to California as well as the U.K., Canada, Germany, and Japan, and will launch in Australia next year. Retail sales will begin later this year with Walgreens and Kroger in the U.S., Carrefour in France, Tesco in the U.K., and Loblow’s in Canada.
Loop won’t share specific numbers, but says that it’s seeing high numbers of repeat orders from its initial customers. The size of the pilot was limited, but more than 100,000 people applied. The startup envisions the model growing like organic food. “Every store started having a small section dedicated to organic products, but not all products had an organic alternative,” Szaky says. “That’s how it began, then it got bigger and bigger. And some stores like Costco have moved everything over to organic.” He notes that organic food still represents only about 5% of the market, and that has taken decades, but it’s a reasonable comparison.
The number of options will continue to grow. In a recent report, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimated that converting just 20% of plastic packaging to reusable models is now a $10 billion business opportunity. But Szazky sees it not as an opportunity, but an imperative. As he told Harvard Business Review in a recent interview: “I think that we’re going to see some organizations die because of this. Others will pivot. . . . Some organizations, like Nestlé, Unilever, and P&G, are taking these issues seriously and making the difficult decisions that may negatively impact the short term but lay the foundation to be relevant in the long term. Inversely, organizations—like many big food companies in the U.S.—are blind to what’s coming and will likely be overtaken by startups that are building their business models around the new reality that is emerging.”
For the brands that are pivoting, Loop is helping push them to experiment with reusable packaging. Häagen-Dazs is already using the container it designed for the system in stores in New York City, where customers bring it back an average of 62% of the time. (At the ice cream shops, customers don’t pay a deposit, but buy the container outright and then get discounts on ice cream each time they bring it back.) It now plans to roll out the container in 200 of its other stores. Unilever—which has products from brands like Love Beauty and Planet on the platform and is preparing to launch more products from Seventh Generation, Hellman’s, Dove deodorant, and others this year—is also experimenting with in-store refill systems and partnering with startups like Algramo, a Chile-based company that offers a mobile refill system on electric tricycles.
“I think Loop provides a really good platform to start testing reusable packaging without setting everything up yourself,” says Wingstrand. “But I do think it’s very important to go very broad and make sure that not only are you putting and testing new packaging formats on the Loop platform, but you’re also trying to understand how the user might interact with a refill system, or how you might supply things in a compact format, or how you might even completely design out the packaging.”