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Loop, a new zero-waste platform that may change how we shop (fastcompany.com)
128 points by markgavalda on Jan 29, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 74 comments

re-using instead of recycling the containers is obviously a good idea, but it's not really an invention, it's how things used to be in the past. I applaud the concept, but really it is governments who should be applying a differential tax rate for products in re-use containers compared to those in "disposable" containers.

I'm afraid their business model is really just making a walled garden re-use system, which will really only serve to entrench brand loyalty, for those brands they allow in their re-use cartel. I can easily imagine them having received or intending to receive government subsidies for this "green" brand loyalty project. If this is the case the governments would have been better off directly organizing this in a level playing field. It won't be green if the bulk of the population can not afford these brand products, and if the off-brand products are individually too small to each organize their own re-use systems -which will also take up shop space etc for shops that co-operate- so really it should be a brand-agnostic system, and instead of subsidizing a couple of top brands for their green intentions, we should make sure that we return to re-use containers we had in the past, but with a level playing field so that it becomes easy for any brand to partake and select containers from the government catalogue, or an easy process to negotiate new containers that better meet their demands...

i.e. "Bottle deposits. You've invented bottle deposits."

A quick Google shows that the US is one of the few developed countries where this is not widespread and has been lobbied against. Here there's automated collection machines in most supermarkets, and drinks are sold in reusable plastic crates holding glass bottles.

Yes, I totally agree there is no innovation, it's always just stalling to come up with a standard against standardization. Like the limited vendor ID space in USB, etc

Here in Belgium the bottles get washed for a few cycles, and then remolten for a few cycles. And we also have the automated bottle collectors etc... Still I think there can be improvement with other containers for other product types as well, but it should really be standardized sizes, otherwise it's just sabotaging smaller shops who don't have the space to store 100 different kinds of crates for the containers, and smaller suppliers who could be blocked or taxed by the reuse container cartel.

This is why it should be a government role to coordinate the standardization so that it is open for any producers to join in a symmetric way. Then even smaller shops or neighborhood collection sites can cooperate with only limited types of crates.

I'm thinking it would need some kind of sizing standard similar to A2,A3,A4,A5 paper sizes, but instead of areas, volumetric dimensional standardization. Give each container a unique QR style code, so you can look up the product description and so on...

It's like no one in legislative bodies have ever heard of the concept of taxing negative externalities. Want plastic bags to go away? Levy a tax on them, and raise it every other year to correct business/end-user behavior. Doesn't the UK do this to an extent?

Totally right about govt tax incentives and punishments but we need some kind of marketplace to allow innovation too. It should be easy entry for new producers to join the container ecosystem.

When I grew up in 1980s Britain, we used to have milk delivered in re-usable glass bottles. Deliveries and collections occurred daily, and were done using an electric vehicle[1]. It's interesting to look at why this approach (popular until fairly recently) has declined.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milk_float

If you went back further even more things were delivered to your front door. Coal holes[0] can still be seen in many streets, and there even used to be a 'pop' man who'd bring soft drinks around. There also used to be deposits on glass bottles that were washed and reused.

Talking to people who actually used to get milk delivered, the usual complaints seemed to be unpredictability of arrival, it freezing in winter and getting too warm in summer. Birds & squirrels would occasionally get to it too. I've also heard stories of milk men continuing to deliver when people were away coming back to bottles of off milk.

I think the model also works much better when there is someone at home for most of the day.

I didn't find any good information on historical milk consumption in the UK, but it wouldn't surprise me if it had decreased over time as well.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal_hole

Where we lived in the late 60s and early 70s we had the Corona pop man, coal man, milk man, and greengrocer delivering. There was even a rag and bone man (with horse!) every now and then.

The explanation in the first paragraph of that wikipedia article seems like a perfectly fine explanation, more stores started stocking fresh milk so the milkman wasn't needed as much any more because milk could just be picked up with the rest of the groceries.

That explanation leaves out the main reason the delivery by milkman declined.

The milkman was usually more convenient, as the milk would be on the doorstep before you woke. Many delivered eggs, cream, orange juice, and cheese as well. The supermarkets started stocking milk - initially in the same crates and glass one pint bottles as the milk man would supply, and sold it for an uneconomic huge loss.

It wasn't uncommon for the same milk, from the same dairy and bottler to be half the price in the supermarket. Even while the guaranteed minimum wholesale price of the milk marketing board remained.

You were even expected to rinse and return the bottles to the supermarkets. Cartons came later, but not too long after. Larger sizes like 4 pint plastic later still. Customer loyalty couldn't last, though it took a surprisingly long time under such pressure for them to die out.

In UK supermarkets the price of milk is still held artificially low by all of them as dairy farmers go bankrupt. It might be the only item where Tesco and Sainsbury match price with Aldi and Lidl.

Maybe in a few years we will go full circle and there will be 30-minutes delivery of fresh milk by drone.

I find interesting how Germany deals with empty bottles: https://german-dude.de/blog/guide-recycling-bottles-germany_...

Works like that in Norway too. Almost every supermarket has a machine for returning bottles.

swings and roundabouts right ?

I did not see a mention in this article regarding the average expected price premium for a Loop-version of a product versus a non-recycle/upcycle version of the same product.

I went looking for additional details to see if I could track down an answer, but I haven’t clear indication. Granted it’s a new(ish) model and the consortium is likely in the middle of market research and pricing experimentation.

A packaging industry news source, Packing Digest, has additional information about the offering and an interview with TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky[0]. In it I get a glimpse of the subscription-based, mid-sized ordering model they seem be leaning to:

“Q:: If consumers return the package for refilling/reuse once it’s empty, won’t they run out of product? Or is the concept to create a pool of packages that are reused for/by different consumers? For that matter, is the concept to create a pool of packages that are used/reused for/by different brands?

TerraCycle: Loop brings to market a new subscription model: subscription based on consumption. Since the empty packages are returned to Loop, we are aware of consumers’ consumption rates and replenish only when they have finished the product. The target for turnaround is two days.”

Reusable glass bottle milk delivery (direct from a local dairy) and retail sales (Whole Foods, your local boutique health food store, etc.) have worked because it’s a commodity product, available in reasonable quantities on demand, and bottles can be stockpiled for a time before being returned if needed. The deposit costs aren’t (at least where I am located) a make-or-break situation, but ultimately I buy them less for the ecological benefits, though I recognize them, and more for the quality differences when compared to the waxed cardboard, ultra-pasteurized regional alternatives.

Would I spend more for the same P&G or Unilever products? Especially if I had to pay an upfront premium for the product, worry about a deposit, AND handle my own return shipping? I’m not sure.


> If consumers return the package for refilling/reuse once it’s empty, won’t they run out of product?

This happens for any product you buy anyway, and the solution is to always have one extra. I assume (hope) that such buffering scheme will be available.

> Would I spend more for the same P&G or Unilever products? Especially if I had to pay an upfront premium for the product, worry about a deposit, AND handle my own return shipping? I’m not sure.

Personally, if it was shown to be environmentally better - or even equivalent - solution, I would in a heartbeat. I absolutely hate that we use so much disposable packaging.

I also hope they eventually centralize it a bit via stores, because extra shipping ain't good for environment either.

"Apart from the refundable deposit on the package, the cost of the products will be similar to what customers pay now. Customers may also pay for shipping the totes back and forth, though a certain number of products can be shipped free, depending on the weight."

I hate all the shipping, but this is a pretty cool idea. If they could setup container return and shipping centers at the grocery store, for example, then it might be cost-effective.

Everything is shipped.

The difference here is that the last mile is also done efficiently by package deliverers, rather than in a car that is empty on the way to the store, and has 1-4 bags in it on the way back.

I would also like this to reach retail, for a variety of reasons; the ecological cost of shipping is last on that list.

"...a car that is empty on the way to the store, and has 1-4 bags in it on the way back."

This may be true in general, but is not the average means of grocery transportation in their initial target markets of central New York and Paris. Dense urban centers are well-suited for efficient or zero-emission (bike courier, for instance) shipping schemes though. What retail placement of the same offers in an urban environment is actually convenience because it's easier to walk into the shop below your apartment than to schedule and wait for a delivery.

The problem to be solved here is extractive raw material waste from single-use packaging. Ecological shipping cost is non-zero, but there are zero-emission alternatives already available. Convenient zero-waste consumables, however, do not yet exist at scale.

I'm not holding my breath, but it would be huge if one or more of these large brands bet big on a zero-packaging distribution mechanism and actually pulled their packaged products from the shelves. At a certain scale that would probably increase profit margins because it reduces raw material input costs.

Do you have environmental concerns or is it just because of the cost?

Hopefully once this or similar systems are adopted the optimisations will flow freely :)

Cool idea! It also seems like these brands understand some kind of reckoning is coming and are trying to get out ahead of it. I'm not opposed to the idea of reusable containers, but this model seems to come with a lot of brand lock-in.

Precycle (precyclenyc.com), a bulk grocery store in Brooklyn, is my ideal model. Customers bring in their own containers, weight them on entry, and then pay the difference in weight on their way out. Not do you save the packaging, you can purchase exact amounts of each item.

I’m totally up for paying a bit more and supporting these brands if it means less landfill and perfect recycling. This model works for a lot of things and packaging will always have advertising on it as unfortunate as that is. I’ve thought for a long time about government mandating containers but companies willing to do this is a great thing; I look forward to the day when I take all of the packaging with me back to the supermarket for it to be reused!

I'd like to know what the breakeven point is. How many times does the package have to be used before it becomes less resource intensive than single-use packaging, and how long will it take. I use honey (an example on the terracycle website) but I probably go through a bottle a year. If the breakeven is 10 uses, that would be 10 years worth of honey consumption. Even for shampoo, toothpaste, and laundry detergent I don't go through very many containers a year (but I buy big containers).

It seems like it will take years of re-use to make it less resource intensive, what's the chance a bottle will get lost, broken, or forgotten about during that time (or loop will go out of business).

The idea (I'm sure) is to avoid waste as much as conserve energy use. In fact I from an energy perspective it's probably awful. But they have to establish themselves; they have to get an inventory of products and a customer base. Then they can make deals to put recycling points in every supermarket and have their recyclable packaging available along side conventional packaging. In other words, don't think about today, think about where this can go tomorrow.

Also, if your packaging consumption consists of a jar of honey and a few personal items, you are far from typical (but good! Whole food diets are great). Many people consume lots of packaged foods and goods. In any event, you have to think of this spread across billions of people consuming goods.

Finally, reusable packaging is not new. You charge a deposit large enough to incentivize the consumer to return the packaging. This has been done with glass bottles.

I bet their angle is that they can handle a wide variety of package types and quickly calculate customer refund amounts. I.e., each container will have a unique id (QR code, rfid). I would say this is why the model hasn't worked until now...it was too difficult to manage the menagerie of containers and quickly processing refunds. So it might work for water or milk, but it wouldn't work for 300 different container types in a supermarket.

Side note: if each container has a UUID, you could track how fast people are consuming products. How much butter DID you consume last week? There are real privacy implications, as I'm sure that data would have monetary value to advertisers and health insurers.

I'm not sure that you should separate the "avoid waste" and "conserve energy", they seem intertwined to me. Recycling in the supermarket is part of their plan, but I don't know how much it matters (there are UPS trucks going through my neighborhood every day, the amount of extra energy required to stop at my house versus me driving to the supermarket seems like a wash).

My packaging consumption consists of a lot more than what I stated, I based my comments on the partners they listed and the examples they gave (on the terracycle website), they are going to have to move in to products that get used up every week or two, not ones that get used up a few times a year to actually have an impact.

Side note: the parent company, Terracycle seems like it is more about giving you the feeling of saving the environment instead of actually having a positive impact. Current promotion: recycle little-bites (a brand of muffins) packages by packaging them up and mailing them in, the cost (resources and energy) of doing that is far above any value the get from recycling a few ounces of packaging.

I don't think you would need to track each container individually (as another commenter said, consumers will probably keep an extra of each item for buffer). The subscription/ordering system knows when you get a new instance of each item, so it already has all the data without tracking containers.

I'm all for solutions to this, but I just can't see this taking off. Loop seem to be trying to be too much of the process (I don't want to buy from them), and trying to piggy back on widescale infrastructure such as UPS (whereas I want my council to collect these as part of my regular waste collection).

I think a combination of more standardised packaging, more recyclable packaging, and more local support for things like re-usable glass containers with deposits (as are common in Germany) are the way forward.

Of course brands won't like this, because when every bottle of shampoo comes in the same shaped container it's much more difficult to differentiate between brands.

Standardising glass containers for the EU has been talked about, and has even happened to some extent: bottled water in Germany, for example. Apart from spirits (Baileys, Cointreau, ...) and some beers, not that many brands use a seriously distinctive glass container in the UK, though there are notable exceptions, like Marmite and its imitators. I don't think many brands would want to be seen as opposed to protecting the environment.

Plastic containers are recycled in the UK, rather than reused. Shampoo would presumably not be affected. A glass container for shampoo would be problematic as thousands of people get shampoo in their eyes in the shower, drop the bottle, stand on the broken glass, slip on the blood, and so on.

Now, if they could require different types of bottle for shampoo, conditioner and bubble bath that might prevent certain incompetent persons from constantly picking up the wrong one in the shop.

> re-usable glass containers with deposits (as are common in Germany)

These containers are for recycling glass, not for reusing bottles. Reusable bottles need to be brought back to the store, which Loop appears to be planning for too.

As a fellow German, I can see why this is confusing, but GP's "glass containers with deposits" refers to Pfandflaschen, not to Altglascontainer. "Deposit" is English for "Pfand".

It's good to see this. I hope they offer the same products with the same reusable packaging in supermarkets. I go grocery shopping multiple times a week anyway and can pick up and return these items at the same time.

This is the business model improvement I’m anticipating will make all the difference. Localized supply chains (conceptually) should reduce end-consumer cost, but it will be an uphill battle until wider adoption makes it feasible.

Sounds like virtue signaling. I doubt the environmental impact is lower when considering the additional shipping and more durable product packaging. “But there’s so much plastic in the ocean, we need to do something about it”, it’s called a landfill.

Per Peter Drucker, blockbuster products are lifestyle products, aka aspirational, virtue signaling.

The examples from his books that I remember are Marlboro cigerettes, Ford Mustang, VW Bug...

Yeah, just by mass, my pile of tote bags that I never remember to use is likely more than a lifetime of disposable plastic bags.

The UPS truck probably emits significantly less CO2 per delivery than the average American trip to the grocery store.

At least someone is trying to fight Amazon. And this could well become a worthy competitor.

So what's really happening here?

1. FMCGs will design new packaging meant to last 100 or more uses. So FMCGs will basically get to sit longer on home shelves & aesthetics of packaging will play a greater role in buying decisions - expect to see the iPhones of FMCG market. The longer life of packaging would soon make it a marketing horse race.

2. Consumers will drop used products in a Loop tote, picked up by UPS for reuse. This will trigger repeat buys (and Loop is obviously providing a subscription service). That tote is nothing but Amazon Dash in new skin.

3. Loop is a joint venture by top FMCGs so Loop will have exclusive distribution for the new-skinned products - and there you get the competitor for Whole Foods buyer Amazon.

4. Green consumers could be scooped easily and others could just opt-in because of iPhone-like packaging that not only lifts home aesthetics but also eliminates ownership of secondary storage ware like soap dispensers, grocery containers, etc.

Shipping these back and forth seems to add much more waste (and cost) to the equation.

I'd rather see grocery stores expand their "bulk sections" (where you self-serve just the amount you need and pay per weight) more. In its current iteration it's generally limited to nuts, oats, and grains and it uses a lot of plastic bags, but I know some stores that offer glass containers to purchase or you can bring your own.

Imagine being able to get almost anything in this way at the grocery store. Just want a pint of ice cream? Bring your glass jar and have the attendant scoop it for you (like at a real ice cream shop). Just want a few chips as a snack instead of the normal bags? Bring a reusable container and grab just a couple.

I feel like this offers a lot more flexibility and would truly reduce waste. A drawback though is that you have to remember to bring all your containers when shopping, but with enough practice it becomes second nature (like bringing reusable bags nowadays).

Looking forward to this but my Scottish granny has been doing this for years for a few certain things.

If you go into her kitchen you will see tins, empty coffee jars, grease proof paper recovered from loaves of bread etc.

Fond memories of going to school with a pack lunch in a small shortbread tin, with nice sandwiches wrapped in a reused Warburtons loaf wrapping.

I recently heard that the reusable grocery bags are actually more wasteful than the single use ones because you have to use them ~500 times to break even and most people get far less use than that.

I wonder how many times you have to use your Loop metal ice cream container for this to work?

"Break even"? Who cares about the cost of reusable grocery bags.. really. We have 4 of them in our cupboard. Bought from Whole Foods. We use it everywhere we go. $40, maybe? Years ago..? That's not a real burden (to me), especially against environmental degradation, pollution, waste, etc.

There's the suggestion that paper cups are more environmentally responsible than ceramic mugs, because of the carbon cost of making ceramics. You have to use hundreds of paper cups to achieve the same environmental impact of one ceramic mug. That's a consideration I'm personally curious about...

Sorry I meant the environmental break even point. The same as your ceramics question

Not only that, but people still throw them out anyway. That's what the City of Austin found out when they banned single use bags a couple years back, and HEB (largest grocer in the area) started selling reusable bags: people were still treating them as single use (presumably because they were under a dollar and readily available at checkout) and throwing them out, causing more waste than the single use ones.

I think the world needs a more efficient last mile delivery service. Like tubes or something. Guess it wouldn't be so bad if we were fully transitioned to electric vehicles, powered by renewable energy... But that's going to take 20 years at a minimum.

I thought about this for a while, and decided that spherical crates moving through tubes with rollers on the inside--occasionally a powered roller or switch--might work. But then I figured out that a spherical envelope big enough to deliver a decently-large pizza order is likely also capacious enough for a child to try to deliver himself to a friend's house.

And that means the system has to assume that every crate has a kid in it. Or a baby. Or a dog. Or a goldfish. Or a burglar. Or a bomb. Or solid concrete. Or sloshing water. Or a live sample of anthrax. You can't easily idiot-proof it, or guard against intentional acts of malice.

So you might as well go all in, and allow people to deliver themselves through it, by design, as a transit network. Make the spheres 1 m diameter, with a 525 kg gross weight capacity. People can fold themselves up inside one like a Mercury astronaut, if they like. The terminals would look like a cross between a giant bowling ball return and a roller coaster boarding platform. Unmanned crates would likely need some means of disgorging their contents, with the recipient's permission, and then returning to the sender, without direct human intervention.

But wait. That's not wheelchair accessible. So scale up the spheres again, to 2 m diameter, and 4200 kg gross weight capacity, with boarding ramps at every terminal.

It starts sounding really expensive, especially trying to retrofit a city with delivery tubes. Because now someone might want to replace an elevator shaft or two with tubes, and put one delivery terminal in every N floors. I've basically just replaced all the cars and delivery trucks with Wonkavators.

For anyone interested in this, check out http://reddit.com/r/zerowaste

A smart grocery chain would put kiosks for this in their stores where you can get the refills and return the bins to drive repeat traffic. That's where this makes sense. They could save on shipping and logistics vs sending a UPS or USPS driver to each person's house for pickups.

In many major metro areas there are already bulk stores that sell soaps and foods where you bring your own reusable container in.

Relevant article: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/14/t-magazine/food/precyclin...

Interestingly, it ends with the sentence "How long, then, until Brooklyn catches on?"

>>The order will show up in a reusable tote–designed by engineers at UPS to withstand repeated journeys–instead of a cardboard box.

I've always wondered why the scalable/reusable shipping box wasn't a thing. To me, this is would be an incremental improvement over current shipping.

Yes, this seems like the most logical place to start, especially with so much being shipped now.

Dumpsters are constantly overflowing with cardboard boxes. It has also basically been done before quite successfully with shipping containers.

> Loop will send you name-brand products

and then

> you ship the empty container back, where it gets cleaned and reused for the next customer.

and then

> zero-waste platform

So, all the packaging and shipping back and forth is zero waste? Honestly, recycling those containers seems to be much closer to zero-waste than whatever this is.

> recycling those containers seems to be much closer to zero-waste than whatever this is.

I'm skeptical that any community really recycles all the plastic that gets sent for recycling. Especially now that china isn't taking our trash. Personal care products like lotion and shampoo are always going to be heavily contaminated with the products, and probably need extra work.

I'm biased because I live in Sweden where recycling is everywhere. So here Loop's approach would actually increase waste :)

Delivery trucks might have to be less full now, because you need room to bring stuff on as you take stuff off.

Previously, you could fill the truck up 100%, as long as it's in the reverse order of delivery.

But someone still had to take away the empty containers.

If this could be combined with amazon, then that would be amazing.

Looks amazing! Can't wait for it to be in the UK!

More likely not.

[mis-post, replied to wrong thread.]

I think you replied to the wrong link, you are probably looking for this:


So, they are going to apply this to diapers too? You'll store up a box full of them and give that to the loop delivery man?

It's long since been done. My kids (now in their 30s) went through babyhood with cloth diapers and the weekly diaper service. Dirty diapers were simply dumped in a (airtight!) sealed bin which got left outside the door on pickup day to be replaced by a fresh bin full of clean (sterilised) diapers for the coming week.

> cloth diapers and the weekly diaper service

These days we have washing machines!

Diaper service was a massive industry at one time despite people having washing machines. Babies produce a lot of soiled diapers and having fresh sanitized diapers was a godsend. It was an early subscription model.

[Anecdote] I’ve had multiple friends who started out with a reusable diaper subscription for their first baby and none of them lasted even a year or tried again with their second child.

Maybe because of logistics. We had to switch from cloth to disposable once kid started preschool.

Oh, we had washing machines, despite it being the Dark Ages. Steam-powered, they were, as I recall... But: do you really want those shitty nappies in the washing machine? No! the diaper service was a godsend. (Actually a Mother-in-Law-send.)

Now get the hell off my lawn, you snarky youngster!


Garbage vans and garbage workers are designed to handle hazardous waste, delivery vans are workers are different. It looks like the Scottish service used regular garbage trucks?

If by "designed to handle hazardous waste" you mean "everyone expects every part of them to be covered in garbage scum so nobody is surprised when any part of them is covered in garbage scum" then sure. There's really nothing special about their construction. They're normal trucks with purpose built bodies for minimizing the amount of space and labor needed to haul trash. The only thing special about them is a reduced expectation of cleanliness.

Are you sure? Garbage trucks look very different to delivey vans, and so does the workwear of garbage men vs delivery drivers.

Also, many garbage trucks let you tip things in without handling them.

Yes I'm sure

The only extra PPE garbage drivers around here wear (compared to a FedEx driver) is a reflective vest (which some FedEx drivers wear), safety glasses and work gloves. Those have to do with preventing physical injury as a result of the material being handled and the nature of the work, not with cleanliness. It's not a clean job but as long as you don't go licking the bottom of the truck it's not particularly dirty.

Some trash removal companies use trucks that pick up the barrels themselves which is a labor saving measure, not a sanitation measure (they actually spill more stuff than human operators do).

A delivery van is an irrelevant comparison. In vehicles that handle loose material the driver never rides in the same area as the cargo. All the various kinds of equally heavy vehicles that bring things to and from a construction site is a better point of comparison.

Apparently a touchy subject...

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