Creating a Circular Economy with TerraCycle’s Loop: Modern Day Milkman

Wouldn’t it be great if all our products came in reusable packages so that once we were finished with them they could be returned and refilled? It would stop all our packaging waste from ending up in landfills or incinerators. Well this is exactly what TerraCycle has dreamed up with their reusable packaging program called Loop.

Photo by Mihail Macri on Unsplash

Incase you are not familiar with Terracycle, they were founded in 2001 by Tom Szaky. The company was founded upon a simple concept, “eliminating the idea of waste.” Szaky still runs the company today as the CEO and has found great success with diverting millions of lbs. of waste from ending up in landfills, all while earning millions of dollars in revenue annually.

The company has evolved greatly over the years. They started with composting organic waste from the Princeton University cafeteria, where Szaky attended school at the time, and turning that compost into fertilizer. This fertilizer was sold in reused plastic bottles, mainly because they did not have money for new bottles. Talk about challenges breeding creative and resourceful solutions.

Today they are mostly know for their recycling and upcycling efforts. They typically collect packaging and other household items that would otherwise end up being waste due to challenges with traditional recycling systems. Taking a look at some of the items they recycle on their website will show they are recycling unimaginable things ranging from paper/plastic laminations to simply collecting all the items from a specific room such as a bedroom or bathroom. They collect these items and upcycle what they can into things like bags and totes and plastic items are recycled into items like plastic lumber, pavers, benches, and bike racks.

Despite all of these recycling efforts, TerraCycle believes that recycling can solve all our problems, which is why they have launched the Loop program. The concept is pretty simple. You purchase the same products you love in a durable reusable container, which ships right to you in an insulated mailer tote. Each purchase requires a deposit on the robust package that is returned once you are finished, and that same loop tote is picked up at your door with all your empty packages. They collect your packages and take care of washing them so they can be reused and shipped out all over again.

Photo by Zachary Keimig on Unsplash

While I love the idea of reusable packaging that deters waste from ending up in the landfill, I think it’s important to understand the Life Cycle analysis of this process. I will say that they have been creative in the design of their packages. They specifically choose materials and designs that are easy to clean, will last for at least 10 cycles and have a recycling waste stream once they’ve finished their use. However, this doesn’t tell us if this is really more green when you look at the entire life cycle.

For example, does shipping heavier packaging back and forth cause greater green house gas emissions than our tried and true lightweight plastic packages that can be recycled? It’s hard to say. Would this comparison be between the Loop and typical recycling performance of standard plastic packaging or the potential recycling rates if consumers recycled correctly?

Despite all of this, I must give credit where it’s due. TerraCycle’s Loop program has found a way to address a lot of the shortcomings of our existing recycling system on many fronts. For starters, consumers love convenience (this is exactly what got us in this waste predicament in the first place) and this love for convenience means they often can’t be bothered to dispose of things correctly. This means plastic bags end up clogging up curbside recycling or in the landfill rather than being dropped off at the store. Or our recycling isn’t actually clean and dry before placing it in the bin leading to food waste contaminating large quantities of recyclables and turning them into trash.

The Loop program addressed this in a few critical ways. For starters, people are financially motivated so by including a deposit, consumers are more likely to make sure the packages get returned. Then by having the option to both have the items delivered and picked up right at your front door it is likely to speak to all our lazy sides. Speaking of being lazy, by allowing TerraCycle to do the cleaning, it’s one less responsibility to put on consumers. This removes the risk of food contamination from other consumers ruining your hard work separating and cleaning recyclables in your house.

What do you think? Has TerraCycle’s Loop program found a better solution to our problems or is this just another rabbit hole that won’t make our waste any more environmentally friendly? Let me know in the Comments!

Unpacking Our Environmental Dilemma

While I was in college I had a professor that told me I would make trash for the rest of my life. To most people that would be an insult. However, to me and the thousands of others that work in the packaging industry, it’s a reality (thanks for the insight Dr.Batt!). We make products that accomplish exactly what they are designed to do, but we often aren’t successful in the end of life for these packages.

Packaging is typically designed to accomplish a few things. Specifically, to contain, protect, promote, and transport a product. By this measurement we are effective, but I would argue there is a major over-site. We aren’t always designing with the packages end of life in mind. I want to change that.

Once our packaging is utilized, it’s tossed in the trash and that’s the end of it. My hope is to inspire both others in the industry and consumers using these products to think differently. But this isn’t just about packaging. This is about everything we use. Only through a holistic perspective can we improve the complex world we live in.

As environmental concern has grown over recent years, consumers have demanded more, and rightfully so. Like many others, the packaging industry has begun to answer that request in a variety of ways and is continuing to develop new materials and methods to do so. However, this request for brand owners and manufacturers to solve this dilemma alone is futile. It’s you and me. It’s the consumers of these products that also have a responsibility to use our products and dispose of them in an appropriate manor. We have the power to buy from brands that we believe in. Brands that keep the environment in mind when creating their products and packaging.

You see, this isn’t a blog just for my packaging industry colleagues. They likely already know much of this information. This is an opportunity for anyone to educate themselves in everything trash. Knowledge is power, even if it’s just on garbage. I will be exploring things ranging from some of the foundational information about what our products are made out of to some of the complex and creative ways different industries are solving this environmental dilemma we find ourselves in. So let’s unpack this box of environmentalism knowledge and see what we can learn together. Careful, this might get dirty.