La spesa va in loop

Shopping goes in loop

It’s got a name already – the milkman model. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? It’s how Americans used to get milk delivered to their houses.

by Davide Perillo
05 February 2020
7 min read
by Davide Perillo
05 February 2020
7 min read

They’d leave the bottles on their doorsteps and then take the empty ones away, in every garden or porch of every house on every street, just like you see in countless films set in and around the 1950s.
But now, it’s not just milk being delivered. It’s whole shopping orders. Washing-up liquid, fruit juice, pistachio ice cream, mayonnaise, nappies, drinks, deodorant… More than 300 brand products brought together under one brand programme, called Loop.
The project was first presented at the World Economic Forum in Davos last January, and is soon to be launched throughout the world. It promises to cut global plastic consumption, because the containers are made specially to be used and reused in an (almost) endless cycle.
The system is quite simple. You register through an online platform, place your order and wait. A courier will knock on your door with an insulated bag like the ones used by pizza delivery riders. Inside the bag you’ve got jars and bottles made of glass, aluminium and stainless steel, all of them branded: Pantene, Coca-Cola, Häagen-Dazs, The Body Shop, and so on. They’re all designed to look cool, but also to be reusable ‘up to 100 times,’ as an alternative to single-use plastic.
When you’ve finished the products, you call the courier, who’ll come by to pick up the empty packaging and take them back to the shop, where they’re cleaned and refilled. Then they bring them back to you, completing the cycle.
So how much does it cost? Aside from the products, all you pay is a deposit for the containers, ranging from 25 cents for a Coke bottle to 47 dollars for a nappy bin (an unusual patented product that recycles its contents completely). It’s just like milkmen in the old days, or the shop owners who’d give you the deposit off your fizzy water if you brought the empty bottle back.
Back to the future, in other words.

A simple idea

‘It’s innovative, sure, but it’s not revolutionary. It’s basically something that’s already existed’, observes Laure Cucuron, General Manager for the Europe division of TerraCycle, the Trenton (New Jersey) company that invented Loop. It’s a small- to medium-sized company, with a turnover of 30 million dollars, but with a pretty visionary CEO.
Tom Szaky, 37, left Princeton before graduating to throw himself into the sustainability market and landed at TerraCycle a few years later with a clear idea in his head. ‘Recycling is obviously crucial, and it’s something that should be taken very seriously, but it doesn’t get to the root of the problem,’ he says. The key thing is to produce less packaging. And the only way to do that is through ultra-durability, which means lengthening the life of bottles and containers and reusing them.
TerraCycle launched the Loop project five years ago, when they worked with Head & Shoulders to produce a line of shampoo in bottles made of recycled plastic found on beaches. That’s when they got the key idea, which is so simple – what if, instead of being sold with products, containers remained the property of producers?
Initial contacts resulted in Szaky taking to the stage in Davos, back in 2017, to present his idea to managers of leading multinationals. ‘Loop is about the future of consumption, about the fact that rubbish should not exist’, says TerraCycle’s CEO. And his argument is convincing companies, one by one, to get involved and take a chance on this idea.
There are currently 25 of them, including giants such as Unilever, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Tesco. They may be fighting each other in the market, but they are united when it comes to the planet. The mountains of plastic polluting the earth (150 million tonnes of it in our oceans alone, rising by 10 million every year according to EU estimates) often contain their products. At the current low rate of recycling (just 9% of the plastic produced in the world) and huge consumption, plastic will outweigh fish in our oceans by 2050, so it’s understandable that companies like Coca-Cola – which uses 3 million tonnes a year for packaging – are on a constant hunt for alternatives. Now, presented with Loop, they’ve taken the plunge. ‘The aim is to make all our packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030,’ says Virginie Helias, Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer at Procter & Gamble.
Loop is set to launch in May, in a number of districts in New York and Paris. It will come to London in September, then Tokyo, San Francisco and Toronto next year. Nestlé has already produced 20,000 containers for the tests, with double walls and insulating air chambers to keep ice cream cold for up to 36 hours. PepsiCo has 5,000 high-tech jugs for orange juice ready to go, while Dove has designed some super stylish jars for its creams and Lesieur has come up with oil bottles worthy of display at MoMA.
Everything’s geared towards reaching a turning point where reuse becomes attractive, fashionable, almost a status symbol.

A different point of view

‘Sustainability could become part of a new luxury experience’, says Jon Tipple, global market analyst at FutureBrand. ‘Something that makes you look at these objects and say, “I want that”. The turning point will be when it all becomes mainstream’. Or rather, when people are not only aware that small actions every day add up to make a real difference to the environment, without us realising it, but also come to see consuming less as glamorous. Of course, the companies also gain more loyal customers and the ability to mine data on their habits.
Of course, the system has its problems and there are naysayers. It’s by no means certain that Loop will reach the critical threshold, especially if it gets into competition with online sales platforms, starting with Amazon. But Szaky sees it differently: ‘Integrating with them, providing them with a kind of plug-in, another option’.
And to those who are already saying that increasing home deliveries will create more pollution, and doubting the environmental benefit of the whole operation, Loop replies that although there will be more lorries carrying products, there will be many fewer carrying rubbish.
Furthermore, in terms of CO2 emissions, eliminating a million tonnes of plastic is roughly equivalent to taking half a million cars off the roads (according to European Parliament data), and the reuse system will begin to deliver benefits after around just 20 uses.
Because of all this, Loop prefers to talk about a model rather than a brand or product. They are convinced that the model can be exported to other sectors as well, provided that people really want to change their mindsets. ‘The impact depends on multinationals’ readiness to change the way they do business,’ says Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace, who’s clearly seen something in Loop, having agreed to join a panel overseeing the project.
Will it be enough? Time will tell. Either way, though, the milkman is back!