Sustainable Packaging: The Reuse Revolution

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Sustainable Packaging: The Reuse Revolution

By Dan Ochwat - 10/01/2019

TerraCycle’s Loop leads the charge as brands, retailers and consumers all express a desire to reduce packaging waste

TerraCycle launched its Loop initiative in the spring, giving consumer packaged goods brands a platform to have their products delivered in reusable containers, as in the old days of the milkman bringing glass bottles to the doorstep. What followed was a small pilot in the Northeast that quickly garnered a waiting list of 90,000 consumers requesting the service.

“If we tried to launch [Loop] five years ago, I don’t know if it would’ve worked,” says Anthony Rossi, the program’s global vice president of business development. “But if there’s one thing we’ve seen so far, it’s that the consumer is now ready.”

A recent Nielsen survey found that 75% of consumers globally would “definitely” or “probably” change their consumption habits if doing so would have a positive effect on the environment; nearly half of U.S. consumers said likewise.

“And these consumers are putting their dollars where their values are, spending $128.5 billion on sustainable fast-moving consumer products this year,” says Kyle McKinley, vice president of design solutions at Nielsen. “Since 2014, these influential shoppers have grown sustainable product sales by nearly 20%, with a compound growth rate that’s four times larger than conventional products.” Nielsen expects sustainable-friendly shoppers in the U.S to spend upward of $150 billion on sustainable goods by 2021.

Good for Business

Reducing waste isn’t just good for the world, it’s good for business. With consumers showing signs of wanting to play their role in reducing waste, brands and retailers are motivated to develop more sustainable goods and packaging options. Just this summer, a coalition of industry companies including Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo and SAP founded the Brands for Good coalition; separately, a host of CPGs, retailers and packaging providers formed the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. (Neither group responded to requests for an interview.)

Participants in the Brands for Good coalition are making commitments to embed social purpose into their brand promises and products; to use brand influence to make sustainable living accessible for consumers; and to collaborate with other players to change behavior to create a positive impact on the planet. Each company will launch its own projects with that shared mission in mind.

P&G played an integral role in the launch of Loop and is one of more than 100 brands already working with the platform. Three years ago, the CPG giant stood side by side with TerraCycle at the World Economic Forum to discuss its use of ocean plastics in Head & Shoulders bottles, and at that time began discussing the idea of reusable services. It has since also launched Tide Purclean, a plant-based liquid detergent, and has an overall goal to make all product packaging recyclable or reusable by 2030.

Other major CPGs such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Mills, Unilever and Diageo, to name a few, have set similar public goals in an effort to reduce global waste by making packaging more recyclable.

Making a Commitment

Nestle, another founding Loop partner, has “committed to making 100% of our packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025,” says Elizabell Marquez, director of marketing for the company’s Haagen-Dazs brand. The Nestle Institute of Packaging Sciences was created last year to advance these efforts, she notes.

Clorox Co., also a Loop partner, is expected this month to announce an “ambitious product and packaging-related sustainability strategy as part of our broader environmental, social and governance strategy,” promises Andrea Rudert, associate director, corporate responsibility. Clorox previously set a goal to improve the sustainability of half of its product portfolio by 2020, with 2011 being the baseline year.

“We surpassed that goal two years early,” Rudert says. “In fact, as of the end of our 2019 fiscal year, we made sustainability improvements to 58% of our product portfolio.” The company has recyclable primary packaging for 92% of its lineup.

Other manufacturers making sustainable commitments include SC Johnson, which last spring launched Windex in special packaging at Target, Walmart and other retailers. The bottles are made from 100% recycled ocean plastic and are non-toxic and cruelty-free.

Windex is also planning this fall to launch a “Social Plastic” bottle that will include recycled ocean-bound social plastic sourced by Plastic Bank from Haiti, the Philippines and Indonesia. The effort is designed to help the environment but also provide social benefits to people living below the poverty line in those nations, according to a company release.

SC Johnson also expanded Windex’s concentrate cleaner offerings into products from such brands as Pledge, Scrubbing Bubbles, Shout and Fantastik. The concentrate refill bottles use 80% less plastic compared to a brand new, larger trigger bottle; consumers mix tap water with the concentrate into a reusable trigger bottle to significantly reduce plastic waste.

Elsewhere, Hasbro will phase out the use of plastics in its packaging beginning in 2020, doing away with the polybags, elastic bands, shrink wrap, window sheets and blister packs that have long been part of the toy buying experience. The company eliminated wire ties from packaging in 2010, and has been working with TerraCycle to recycle materials from old toys and games to make innovative social spaces and items like play areas, flowerpots and park benches.

Yet another TerraCycle partner, Colgate-Palmolive, has been recycling used toothpaste tubes and toothbrushes into playground materials. The company also recently unveiled a recyclable toothpaste tube that will launch in 2020 via the Tom’s of Maine brand but extend to all brands by 2025. The tube uses the “number 2” plastic commonly found in soda bottles.

In the Loop

With TerraCycle’s two-decade-long history of working with brands to eliminate waste, it’s no surprise the company was able to partner up with manufacturers such as P&G, Unilever, Bic, Mars and Danone to launch a strategy around reusable packaging. TerraCycle began as a solution to help brands recycle products that aren’t recycled at traditional facilities, such as cigarette butts, chip bags and various personal care products. That remains the company’s largest operation.

Second to that effort is working with brands to integrate recycled content into its packaging, as it did through the aforementioned efforts with P&G’s Head & Shoulders on the ocean plastics and Colgate for playground materials.

TerraCycle’s newest business unit is Loop, which Rossi describes as “dusting off the idea of the milkman and bringing it to any product that’s single-use today.” Loop is, in fact, a way to completely eliminate packaging waste. “Recycling is a Band-Aid on a cut, and what we need to do is attack the problem at its core. And the problem is single use and disposability.”

Nestle became a founding partner of Loop because the concept presents an “innovative and disruptive approach to changing how products are packaged – and delivered – and how consumers enjoy them,” says Marquez.

The short of it: Shoppers buy a brand’s durable, reusable (and exclusive) Loop packaging, which gets delivered through Loop in a special tote bag. When the contents are up for a refill, the user puts the packaging back in the Loop bag for free pickup; Loop then sanitizes the packaging to be refilled by the brand and shipped back to the user.

Kroger and Walgreens in the U.S, as well as Carrefour and Tesco in Europe, are Loop’s current retail partners. They help sell and distribute the Loop platform, with consumers signing up for Loop through the retailers.

A key element to the model is the brand’s involvement with the packaging. While Loop helps brands develop containers that can be used hundreds of times, can be sanitized and are strong enough to withstand the frequent shipping, they remain the brand’s asset.

Nestle, for example, owns the sleek, steel Haagen-Dazs container it developed for Loop, which Marquez says is a way to show that sustainability can be delivered in upscale, premium wrapping. The stainless steel container is etched with the familiar Haagen-Dazs tapestry, carries double lining for extra cooling and has an easy twist-off top, she explains.

“Loop is encouraging participating brands to create durable and reusable packaging designs that are more visually appealing,” says Rudert at Clorox. “The hope is that consumers will keep products on their countertops because they are ‘show off’ worthy.”

Clorox teamed with Loop for its pilot launch, testing a container for Clorox disinfecting wipes and a bottle for Hidden Valley Original Ranch dressing. (Glad food protection products are in the works.) Other Loop packaging examples include a simple, white container for Mars pet food; a Nature’s Path granola jar; and P&G’s range of chic steel or glass bottles for Tide, Crest mouthwash and other products.

“A lot of times, innovation in sustainability is perceived to start with these smaller, grassroots brands, and we keep sustainability on the fringes and we target that eco-friendly person,” Loop’s Rossi says. “What’s exciting about Loop is we’re trying to make sustainability irresistible to everyone. We’re working with big national brands and big national retailers, because for us to have the positive environmental impact that we want to have, sustainability can’t be kept to the fringes of society. It needs to be in everyone’s house.”

Going Forward

Rossi’s somewhat Utopian vision is to see Loop operating nationwide, in every ZIP code, within five years. In the meantime, he encourages brands to think about incorporating more recycling into the design process. For example, if a detergent brand has decided to use “number 2” plastic (one of the most recyclable materials) but designs it in black, that’s a color that recycling machines often don’t pick up.

The Rochester Institute of Technology has been studying sustainability in packaging since the 1980s, says Dan Johnson, professor and chair of the school’s department of packaging science. Its efforts take a full supply chain view, examining issues such as transportation energy and product damage, not just material use and formats.

“Brands need to remember that not all successes in sustainability need to be customer-focused,” Johnson says, adding that consumer behavior around sustainability can be a bit of a wild card. “A good deal of the wins are only detectable by packaging geeks like our faculty, but [those actions] may be the largest contributor to meeting corporate sustainability goals around packaging.”

Johnson is inspired by some of the brand activity out there today, but warns that “economic and technical challenges in the recycling process are creating a shortage of both quality recycled raw material and credible outlets for collected recyclables. Thankfully, this gap in technology is beginning to be addressed by advances in areas like chemical recycling and advanced mechanical sortation technology.”

Back on the consumer-facing front lines, Nielsen’s McKinley says brands must stay true to who they are when considering their sustainable packaging designs. “As you act on collective sustainability needs in an authentic way for your brand, leverage the tools you already have: everyday analytics, innovation testing, consumer resonance and more.”

Clorox’s Rudert adds that brands and retailers should continue to raise greater consumer awareness on the urgent need for more sustainable commerce models. “When consumers are willing to pay for these products, companies will be incentivized to invest in the innovations needed to create sustainable change.”

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