Problems with Recycling and the Promise of Reusable Packaging
The food packaging we use today is often seen as a necessary evil. Almost every consumer appreciates that packaging is designed to make food safe, reliable, and clean. The brands that make and market perishable food items certainly value the fact that packaging can increase the shelf stability of the food product while allowing a unique opportunity for marketing. However, the vast majority of food packaging today is designed for single use. Worldwide, around 380 million tons of plastic are produced every year, and around half of that plastic is for single-use purposes with packaging being the most common use for single-use plastics. Though most plastics can theoretically be recycled, the vast majority of packaging ends up in landfills around the world. For example, in 2014, of the 258 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) generated in the United States, around 63 percent of that waste was packaging materials. Only 35 percent (89 million tons) was recycled or composted. As we will explore below, recent upheavals in the global recycling industry have made it even more difficult for plastic packaging to be effectively recycled.
Besides taking up valuable space in our already overburdened landfills, an enormous amount of plastic packaging materials end up in our world´s oceans. Recent statistics find that plastics make up anywhere between 60 to 90 percent of all marine debris studied, and at least 9 percent of that plastic debris comes specifically from food packaging. Plastics that don’t end up in the ocean often end up contaminating the soil and other freshwater sources. One recent study estimated that one-third of all plastic trash ends up in the soil or in freshwater, and microplastics in our soils might be negatively affecting the soil ecosystem and even carrying potentially dangerous diseases.
Furthermore, the production of plastic packaging also has its own sizeable environmental footprint.
The most prominent feedstocks for plastics production is natural gas, derived either from natural gas processing or from crude oil refining. This results in the plastics manufacturing industry as being a major source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, with some sources estimating that plastic manufacture accounts for 1 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, plastic production contributes to air pollution through the release of nitrous oxides, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride.
Given the solemn environmental impact of plastic packaging, there are inspiring efforts to move towards packaging-free retail grocery stores. In Europe, the number of retail food outlets that sell in bulk and without any sort of plastic packaging is consistently growing, with the Italian Effecorta and Catalan Granel being well-established packaging-free food outlets. In the United States, packaging-free, zero waste grocery stores are also on the rise. To name just one example, Precycle is a retail food store in Brooklyn that sells local organic produce, bulk food and sustainable, eco-friendly household products with no packaging and zero waste.
Despite these important advances in shifting towards less single-use food packaging waste in retail spaces, online shopping for food products is quickly growing. According to one market report, “the U.S. online grocery market was estimated to generate sales worth of about 95.8 billion U.S. dollars in 2020, with sales forecast to reach 187.7 billion U.S. dollars by 2024.”
This statistic, along with the fact that traditional grocery stores with their endless aisles of packaged food products are not exactly on the route to extinction, reveal that different approaches and solutions are needed to deal with the growing problem of food packaging waste. We recently sat down to talk with Tom Szaky, the CEO and founder of TerraCycle, a private, US-based business headquartered in New Jersey that turns non-recyclable pre-consumer and post-consumer waste into raw material to be used in new products. Szaky has also been the mastermind behind Loop, a global circular shopping platform that utilizes durable containers that can be reused and/or recycled.
A Few of the Challenges with the Current State of the Recycling Industry
One of the key elements of the circular economy is a focus on making robust and resilient products from natural materials sourced responsibly and in a regenerative fashion. Along the same lines, eliminating waste streams is another fundamental aspect of circularity. Szaky believes that “our challenge is to create circularity by recycling everything that is out there.”
To do this effectively, Szaky believes that we need to look at the economics of the recycling industry. In this year’s ChangeNow conference, Szaky stated that “what makes something recyclable is basically if a waste management company can make money off of it.” This economic calculation takes into consideration the costs of logistics and the processing of the waste material. If something is going to be recyclable, these two costs need to amount to less than the value of a resulting material.
The recent Chinese ban on receiving the world´s recyclables has made it increasingly difficult for recycling industries to turn a profit. According to a recent article by Yale Environment 360:
“China’s “National Sword” policy, enacted in January 2018, banned the import of most plastics and other materials headed for that nation’s recycling processors, which had handled nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste for the past quarter-century. The move was an effort to halt a deluge of soiled and contaminated materials that was overwhelming Chinese processing facilities and leaving the country with yet another environmental problem — and this one not of its own making. In the year since, China’s plastics imports have plummeted by 99 percent, leading to a major global shift in where and how materials tossed in the recycling bin are being processed.”
Besides the Chinese refusal to continue to accept America´s recyclables, Szaky also mentions other challenges to the economic case for recyclables. Many companies, in an effort to reduce costs and answer consumer demand for reduced packaging waste, are now switching to packaging with thinner plastics that have less value and which are harder to recycle. Along the same lines, many manufacturers wanting to incorporate recycled content into their product packaging are all competing to purchase the same types of plastics. “The problem is that everybody wants the same type of recyclable materials such as plastic bottles,” Szaky states. “But what about the lower quality outputs? How can we design products to embrace the waste that is out there and that reflects the price that has to be spent?”
Szaky says that “the recycling industry is on the decline and it has been for years. This reality might be surprising to some people who are perhaps hearing more about the importance of recycling now than ever before. After China, the big buyer for recyclables, stopped accepting the waste, many American cities shut down their recycling programs. These programs were no longer financially viable because the prime market for waste-management companies to sell recyclables to was lost. At the same time, the accumulation of waste has not slowed down. Globally, plastic waste alone is set to be as high as 53 billion pounds a year by 2030.”
“If the garbage company that covers a particular geographic area is unable to recycle certain items and materials at a profit, it doesn’t matter if the technically recyclable item ends up in someone’s blue bin versus in a garbage can. If it’s not being locally recycled, it will still ultimately end up in landfills,” he continues.
How Does the Circular Economic Model Respond to these Challenges?
If recycling food packaging is no longer economically viable, what other alternatives can food companies, retailers, and consumers embrace to reduce the negative environmental effects of single-use packaging?
“At the end of the day, recycling is a band aid, really, to the issue, and I say this as a recycling company,” Szaky believes. “We have to go deeper. The circular economy model moves away from the one-way take-make waste economy we are used to and instead focuses on how we can make the system regenerative by getting things to be recycled, to be made from recycled materials, and even better, to be reusable.”
One relatively recent development that is cause for hope is the increased interest in retailers wanting to be part of the recycling process. The chain store Target, for example, now permits customers to bring in their used child car seats and other large and hard-to-recycle products that they had previously purchased at the store for recycling, repair, or reuse.
Szaky believes that moving beyond recycling towards “reuse” is one of the essential characteristics of the coming circular economy. Szaky is the driving force behind Loop, a company that is helping significant brands shift to reusable packages.
“We know that the biggest obstacle to shifting toward a circular economy is human nature itself. As individual consumers, we’re trained to value convenience and affordability,” he says. “This is why we created Loop – to tackle the issue of disposability and single-use in a way that is still accessible and convenient for the consumer. With Loop, consumers pay a refundable deposit for each package, use the products, and then throw the empty containers into a Loop tote. The reusable packaging is then sent back to the manufacturer to be cleaned and refilled.”
With Loop, the packaging is not the consumer’s property but rather the property of the company. “It feels like disposability but is reusable,” he says. Szaky believes that convenience is one of the most critical elements to consumers. If there is a way to return the reusable packaging in a simple and straightforward way, most consumers would be on board with this process.
How Loop Works
Loop is the first-ever circular shopping system that enables consumers to shop for their favorite products in reusable, not disposable packaging. The platform shifts to a durable supply chain where manufacturers own their packaging over the long term. With this sustainable approach to shopping, Loop customers shop for food, beauty and personal care products, household goods and other supplies, all in durable packaging, which will ultimately be returned, refilled and reused.
“Most products and packaging sold today are designed for single-use, and because most are not recyclable, they end up in landfills and our oceans,” Szaky says. “99% of the products consumers buy become waste within the first 12 months of purchase due to the affordability and convenience of single-use packaging. Loop enables consumers to opt for products that are regenerative and circular rather than destructive and linear.”
The Loop model attempts to make reusable packaging as affordable and convenient as single-use plastic packaging. The essence of Loop is all about multi-stakeholder collaborations. “Today, we are partnered with 160 of the world’s biggest consumer product companies, from Nestle to P&G, as well as smaller brands such as Melanin Essentials and Meow Tweet,” Szaky tells us. “We also work with 15 of the world’s biggest retailers, including Kroger’s and Walgreens. Beyond that, there’s all these service providers we partner with, companies like UPS and FedEx on shipping and Ecolab to help with the cleaning of the refillable packaging. Loop’s goal, overall, is to be a platform for reuse where any brand can enter and create a reusable version of their product.”
Rising Consumer and Retail Interest in Recyclable Packaging
Another potential driver for the increase in the use of recyclable packaging is the rising retail interest to partner with food brands willing to invest in the recyclable packaging model. “Right now, we have the world’s biggest retailers in France, UK, Japan, Australia, Canada, and the US all going in-store with Loop’s reusable platform,” Szaky says. “Consumers are able to buy pre-filled products in the store and then, when they are done with the product, they can drop off the packaging at any participating store to get their refunds back. Then we at Loop act as the waste management function of reuse, but instead of shredding and melting materials like we’d do with recycling, we’re cleaning the packaging at a very high standard to be reused again and again.”
Besides the growing interest from major retailers in shifting towards recyclable packaging, Szaky also mentions that there is a growing consumer interest in using these products. Many health food brands tend to base of loyal customers who value companies that make an effort to support environmental concerns, and reducing single use plastic is certainly an example of environmentally-friendly business practices. However, the Loop model of reusable packaging has also appealed to consumers due to their interest in protecting their health.
“When we first launched Loop, we thought consumers would be mostly into the model of reusable packaging because it’s sustainable and it’s great for the environment,” Szaky tells us. “But it turns out, in addition to sustainability, there are other factors that score equally. Many Loop consumers prefer not having their products packaged in plastic and prefer glass or alloys for health purposes. They perceive better health there. I never thought health purposes would factor into a consumer’s adoption of Loop’s model, but it’s proven to be an equally important factor to reuse so we play into that. It’s very important to really understand what will make the stakeholder you’re trying to engage with feel valued.”
Challenges for Smaller Brands in Transitioning towards Reusable Packaging
Obviously, adopting a reusable packaging model comes with several logistical challenges for smaller health food brands. When reinventing packaging for the products your brand sells, it’s not just as simple as “throw that stuff into an aluminum vessel.” Rather, brands need to question how does the content of their food product react with the aluminum over time?
“Small brands, unlike some of the multi-national corporations we work with, don’t always have an R&D team or the capacity to invest in new packaging,” Szaky admits. “In that case, our in house design team works with a small brand joining Loop to help develop new, reusable, durable packaging. But it’s important to note that with that new packaging comes new supply chains and that change in supply chains can be quite disruptive to brands of any size.”
Despite these challenges, Szaky believes that reusable packaging is only going to continue to grow in the future, and brands that adopt these practices earlier rather than later will be best suited to respond to consumer demand for healthier and more environmentally friendly packaging practices. “While reductions in plastic packaging are admirable, it is important to remember that the use of no packaging or refillable models would be the most eco-friendly option. However, glass and aluminum are both 100% recyclable without any resulting loss in quality and should be the first options considered by a brand looking to reduce its environmental footprint,” he says.
How to Work with Loop?
Loop works with brands that seek to reduce waste and provide consumers with a sustainable packaging solution. All types of companies selling all types of products are welcome to join the platform. Loop will work with brand partners to determine what product would be the best fit for the platform and best suited to be sold in reusable, refillable packaging. Brands and retailers can reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch and to begin the process of determining how to best transition to a reusable packaging model.
“I truly believe we’re just scratching the surface of how we can innovate around the topic of waste,” Szaky says. “It gives me hope that more and more people are waking up to the issue of waste. I think there’s going to continue to be more appetite to change our perception and how we look at waste.”