After years of quiet planning and rigorous testing, TerraCycle has unveiled what it believes will be a revolutionary change in packaging: Loop. Debuted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week, the new shopping system is the first of its kind to offer hundreds of name brand products in reusable and refillable packaging.
In addition, many products traditionally viewed as inefficient to process — pens, diapers, razor blades — will now be recycled for the first time in many areas. This builds on the New Jersey company's foundational business of finding value in what is considered unrecyclable — but on an entirely new level.
Designed to be more attractive and functional than common versions, these new goods will be available on a pilot basis in the U.S. and France, starting this spring. With the convenience of delivery and pick-up service via online ordering — and eventually at retail stores — Loop is being billed as a rare opportunity to wean consumers off single-use disposability.
"The thesis of Loop is we want to bring about the future of consumption, and the tenet of that would be the idea that waste doesn't exist," said TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky in an interview with sister publication Waste Dive.
A new consumer culture?
Procter & Gamble and Nestlé (both founding investors) — along with PepsiCo, Unilever, Mars Petcare, The Clorox Company, The Body Shop, Coca-Cola European Partners, Mondelēz International and Danone — are among the initial partners that have designed new packaging for Loop. Achieving this level of participation from the companies behind so many household brands was seen as essential for consumer buy-in.
According to Szaky, a key component is elevating the experience of reusable shopping (beyond its current niche version of bringing mason jars and cloth bags to a local bulk store) through added convenience and an element of "luxury." Prices are expected to be comparable to current options aside from a refundable deposit, and many containers are made from glass, stainless steel or durable plastic. Some, such as a new Häagen-Dazs container, will even keep products frozen or fresh for longer.
As envisioned, this system will start out as a delivery/pick-up service — something Szaky has previously described as akin to the old "milkman" model. UPS will deliver the products in reusable shipping bags, and once consumers are done, transport the bags to a regional cleaning facility, where containers will be sanitized and products recycled. This is said to be the first time feminine care products and diapers will be recycled in France, and the first time for razor blades in the U.S.
"There are some big firsts baked into Loop, and that's really using a lot of TerraCycle's original competency. If it's reasonable to recover and reasonable to reuse, then it must be reused, is the rule," said Szaky.
The pilot program is expected to launch this spring in the Paris metro area and the New York City area – including parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. French retailer Carrefour has signed on as a partner, and a U.S. retailer is in the works.
While the initial list of participating companies have had to make upfront investments in new packaging design (though on a limited scale to start), the ability to meet both consumer demands and sustainability targets is seen as worth the price of admission.
A spokesperson for the French unit of Coca-Cola European Partner (CCEP) told Waste Dive it sees a way to expand existing refillable glass bottle sales and "bring this unique experience directly to consumers at home in line with a no waste vision and our sustainability strategy." Loop is considered a clear fit for CCEP's "This Is Forward" plan — part of Coca-Cola's broader "World Without Waste" initiative to ensure all packaging is recyclable and fully recovered by 2025.
Other major partners — including Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever and Mondelēz International — have set their own future sustainability targets or made financial commitments to recycling initiatives in recent years.
While these pledges have often been met with skepticism from major environmental groups, it's possible this Loop announcement may be perceived differently. Szaky noted that eight of the 10 companies on a 2018 Greenpeace list of the most commonly found brands in ocean clean-ups are Loop partners — a potential signal of their willingness to take more ownership over plastic pollution. Greenpeace itself is also participating in the Davos launch event.
A world without "garbage"
Loop might be an easier fit for regulatory trends in European countries that encourage more recycling (though it will be exempt from extended producer responsibility rules), but it could prove a greater shock to the U.S. system if scaled successfully.
The most directly affected parties will be packaging manufacturers — glass, for instance, might see more demand, while single-use plastic demand could decline. The potential decrease in tonnage for both waste and recycling collections also raises questions of what Loop will mean for the U.S. waste and recycling industry itself.
"I'd say at the very beginning, if I was working over at Republic or Waste Management or even Waste Connections (Waste Connections owns a quarter of our Canadian company) I think they wouldn't even see this as a threat because it would seem super small compared to what is in the dumpster," said Szaky.
"The real question is 10, 20, 30 years from now, if durable, reusable, repairable, that type of movement really hits scale — and I think Loop could be one of the vehicles that accomplish that — then you may see an effect on the loads, and unless you get involved in that, then you would see it competitively."
Last year, Waste Connections CEO Ron Mittelstaedt told Waste Dive he believes "reuse is the pathway that will help diversion by non-generation" in future decades, although he didn't directly mention TerraCycle. No U.S. waste and recycling industry companies have invested in Loop to date.
Suez, the France multinational that has a stake in TerraCycle's European operations, invested 4% in Loop. The company also partnered with Procter & Gamble and TerraCycle to launch a shampoo bottle made of ocean plastic at Davos in 2017.
Jean-Marc Boursier, senior executive vice president of recycling and recovery at Suez's Northern Europe division, feels the concept fits into his company's view that increasing waste volumes can't be the primary corporate growth metric. According to Boursier, rising GDP, industrial activity and population growth should all be considered signs of a healthy economy — but that doesn't necessarily have to translate to more waste.
"The question is, can we optimize waste production, and do we need to still dump everything into a very large landfill?" said Boursier, referring to the U.S. market. "Or, shall we consider waste as not only a nuisance, but as a product that we could transform into something more valuable?"
Boursier declined to offer any direct advice on how U.S. service providers that still derive a significant portion of their revenue from landfills could adapt to such a model. Speaking about companies in general, he offered this outlook:
"Either you enter — if you have an industrial company — into this world of circular economy with a negative view, where you believe that it is a constraint and it might have some increased costs at first glance. In which case you will be very reluctant to change the world — and we need to change our way if we are going to protect the planet," he said. "Or you take the lead and you try to differentiate yourself positively."
Boursier sees Loop as a way for big brands to do that, adding that while it's too soon to know the full potential, "I believe it can change the world."
After the first two pilots launch this spring, Loop is expected to expand into the London area in late 2019 with retailer Tesco. Toronto, California and Tokyo — in conjunction with the 2020 Summer Olympics — are on tap for next year.
According to Bloomberg, the company has invested an estimated $10 million in this concept. Asked how he sees this growing as part of TerraCycle's business, Szaky noted that the timeframe might be long, but the change will be apparent when the company's market share in a given area shifts away recycling disposable products to durable ones.
Based on life-cycle assessments, consumers will need to reorder products upward of five times for the environmental effects to even out. Watching how many repeat participants Loop can attract, and at what scale, will be key to tracking its progress.
In the meantime, Szaky is also still looking for acquisition opportunities in specialized waste streams — such as the 2018 purchase of light bulb recycler Air Cycle — and remains open to a scenario in which TerraCycle's core business of recycling challenging materials shrinks as Loop grows.
When asked if the long-term plan was to still file for an IPO once the company approached $70 million in revenue, Szaky replied: "It absolutely is, and Loop just helps us get there faster."