Caught In The 'Loop' - But Are Sustainable Packaging Solutions A Silver Bullet?

By Steve Wynne-Jones
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Caught In The 'Loop' - But Are Sustainable Packaging Solutions A Silver Bullet?

As the ‘green wave’ washes across Europe, sustainability and environmentally friendly policies continue to be hot topics on our supermarket shelves.

But as an increasing number brands and retailers look at sustainable packaging solutions, switching to recyclable and compostable materials, there are concerns that some of these may not be feasible alternatives in the long run.

In the most recent issue of ESM, Manfred Tacker, who heads up the packaging and resource management department at the University of Applied Sciences Vienna, noted that companies are making commitments to stop using non-recyclable plastic packaging over the next five to 10 years, however, the technology to achieve this target is not yet available.

“With plastic packaging, for example, there are very few circular solutions on the market where you can close the loop, from cradle to grave, and to cradle again,” Tucker added.

Circular Solution

However, there is one major circular programme on the horizon that wants to focus more on reusing rather than recycling.


Trials of the new Loop packaging system began this month in France and the US, with the aim of offering 'a zero-waste option for the world’s most popular consumer products' by reusing durable, purpose-made packaging in a circular economy system.

Loop is not a niche programme – some major names in retail and FMCG have publicly backed the project, including P&G, Unilever, and Nestlé, as well as supermarket giants Carrefour, Tesco and Kroger.

But is this really something that will have a significant effect on the packaged goods that come in and out of our homes in the future? Will consumers embrace the products and the logistics of the new programme, or, will it actually be beneficial for the environment?

A Modern ‘Milkman’

Loop was created by US recycling company TerraCycle, which was launched in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The idea behind the system is relatively simple, with the company referring to it as a reimagining of the classic 'milkman' model.


Consumers can shop online for some of their regular branded and private label food and household products in new reusable packaging. The shopping is delivered to the customer’s home by courier, and, once used, the empty containers can then be picked up, cleaned and reused.

The entire process is managed by TerraCycle, from the sale and delivery of goods, to the return and cleaning steps.

Terra Cycle is also trying to develop a system where consumers can pick up products and return empty packages at participating stores. That’s where retailers such as Carrefour and Kroger come in.


Trials have already started in Paris and New York, but the company says that it is in the process of expanding the platform across the US and internationally. A partnership with Tesco is set to launch in the UK later this year, with programmes in Canada, Germany and Japan following next year.

Durable Packaging

Logistics are one thing, but it’s the packaging itself that is key to this system. Designs that have been rolled out so far all involve reusable materials such as metal and glass, and are made to be more durable than plastic or paper-based packaging.

The fact that these containers feels more premium and will look nicer on countertops and in cupboards is also something that brands are hoping will help entice customers.

For some products it’s a simple switch – packaging orange juice in a glass bottle rather than plastic – but for others it’s a bit more complex. With Haagen-Dazs, for example, Nestlé has designed a brand new double-walled aluminum jar that is meant to keep ice cream colder than in the standard waxed-cardboard single-use packaging.


This switch isn’t meant to come at a great cost to consumers. TerraCycle has said that products will cost roughly the same as those in single-use containers, but shoppers will have to pay a refundable deposit on the packaging.

In the French trial, for example, there is a deposit of €0.25 on a 200ml glass bottle of Coca-Cola.

Customer Concerns

Although it is only just getting off the ground, there is already a lot of weight behind the Loop packaging system.

TerraCycle has invested around $10 million in the project, and the fact that major global brands like Nivea and Unilever are getting involved is a significant sign.

Although there may be some added costs, there are obvious benefits for the brands involved. There’s the positive publicity from doing something new and innovative to help the environment, and having Loop customers selecting and maybe even subscribing to their products rather than their competitors.

At the same time, these brands don’t have to commit to giving up their traditional packaging and distribution models.

However, one concern that has been raised is whether the transport of reusable packaging back and forth will result in extra carbon emissions. After all, reducing environmental impact is the main reason behind this project.

In response, TerraCycle has said that partnering with UPS for deliveries means there won’t be any ‘extra’ vans on the road, while reusing packaging will still save more energy and materials than creating single-use or recyclable products.

According to estimates shared with Fast Company, the full process is predicted to be 50% to 75% better for the environment than conventional alternatives.

So all this sounds good for brands and good for the environment in theory, but in reality will this platform catch on with consumers and cut down waste?

Bulk Buying

A number of retailers have already started to introduce refillable stations for dried goods like nuts and cereals, or allowing customers to bring their own packaging for fresh produce.

But previous attempts to roll out reusable packaging systems have been unsuccessful. In 2011, UK retailer Asda put an end to a trial of refillable detergent bottles after shoppers failed to keep reusing the containers.

The majority of customers don’t want to be inconvenienced and a reusable packaging system will force people to change their shopping habits.

One of the key ideas behind Loop is setting up a subscription service that will make it easier for shoppers to keep reusing – finish your shampoo bottle and the company will automatically put another one on order for you.

But another issue for consumers may be that there is only a limited range of products available with Loop, and some goods will never be suitable for the reusable packaging system.

For example, toothpaste is very difficult to get into reusable tubes so Unilever has designed a chewable toothpaste tablet instead. As well as switching to new packaging and shopping systems, will consumers be willing to swap to entirely new product formats as well?

Taking Time

There will inevitably be pitfalls trying to get such an ambitious project off the ground.

“It will surprise me if it works on day one,” Carrefour secretary general Laurent Vallee recently told Reuters, adding that Loop will challenge both consumers and the industry “to act, to think and to buy differently”.

But if Loop takes off, this could be a game changer for the FMCG and retail industries, particularly if the system is embraced by brands, retailers and shoppers alike.

If the current packaging trials are successful, we could all become a lot more familiar with glass bottles of orange juice and metal tubs of ice cream in the future.

© 2019 European Supermarket Magazine – your source for the latest retail news. Article by Dayeeta Das. Click subscribe to sign up to ESM: The European Supermarket Magazine.

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