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Packaging for a Sustainability-Conscious Age

Can’t stand the thought of more plastic bobbing in the ocean? These forward-thinking brands aim to usher in a new era of sustainable beauty, from the outside in. BY KATIE BECKER JULY 18, 2022 This may sound like a familiar scene: You’ve reached the final pump of a beloved serum or the last inky swipe from a mascara tube, and before you go to chuck the vessel, you take a look and wonder, “Can I recycle this?” For many beauty products, the answer is often an unhelpfully murky “sort of.” Aside from the dismaying realities about recycling that have come to light in recent years, there are conundrums of which plastics are commonly recyclable in a curbside bin, how the various components should be disassembled, and whether hidden pumps are a disqualifier. It also leaves you questioning whether all this packaging was necessary to begin with. Brands know you are thinking this, of course. Some are even run by individuals hand-wringing about the same. Today, you’ll see marketing for post-consumer recycled (PCR) materials, compostable bioplastics, “forever bottles” designed for easy refill, and “infinitely recyclable” aluminum tubes. There is even an international circular packaging system called Loop, with refill options from participating mass brands like Pantene and Crest (navigable through the accompanying app). The intent is to be the 21st-century milkman for beauty and beyond. “The proliferation of single-use products has increased exponentially over the last several decades and resulted in a global waste crisis that threatens our oceans, our ecosystems, and human health,” says Loop and TerraCycle founder Tom Szaky. “Today less than 10% of all single-use packaging is recycled, leaving the remaining 90% in landfills, incinerated, or discarded and ending up in our oceans.” While there is no definitive solution in terms of sustainable packaging, the latest innovations are proving creative and ambitious, without compromising the quality and efficacy of the beauty products themselves. Here, 16 brands that are moving the needle with the planet in mind. All products featured on Vanity Fair are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission. • Everist This collection of hair and body-care products strikes upon two major initiatives in sustainable beauty: aluminum packaging and concentrated formulas (such as this Waterless Shampoo) that aren’t as bulky to ship. “Aluminum can be recycled over and over again and keeps its integrity, unlike plastic, which can only be downcycled once,” says Everist cofounder Jayme Jenkins. Aluminum is also lightweight, won’t break like glass, and does not rust. One caveat to aluminum, however, is that the energy cost to mine the metal is quite high. That’s why Everist tubes will be made from 100% recycled aluminum starting this fall, which will cut the tubes’ carbon footprint by 70%. $24 at Everist • Flamingo Estate This design-minded California brand works with more than 75 farms to create its body care, home fragrance, pantry items, and fresh products. This week, a new collection called Garden Essentials (including this Body Wash), arrives with all-aluminum packaging and recyclable pumps. “We considered non-petroleum plastic and post-consumer plastic, but even in its various disguises, it’s still plastic,” says Flamingo Estate founder Richard Christiansen. “Ultimately we grew passionate about aluminum packaging for bath and body products.” He acknowledges new challenges, including the fact that aluminum dents easily, “so we had to put extra protocols in place at each touchpoint.” Flamingo Estate has also turned attention to its shipper boxes, which are reused as compost in the garden for weed control. $48 at Flamingo Estate • Izzy Currently offering brow gel, lip gloss, and mascara (shown here), Izzy is the first makeup brand that is committed to circular packaging. Products arrive in a sturdy cloth envelope that you later use to send back the empties. “Our medical-grade stainless steel tubes are designed to be cleaned and refilled over 10,000 times,” says founder Shannon Goldberg. “What little plastic we do use is reground and recycled at our facility to make new wipers and brushes.” All operations also happen within a 400-mile radius. “Compared to the industry standard, our cosmetics have a 78% smaller carbon footprint after 25 refills,” she says. “The more our products are reused, the smaller our relative carbon footprint becomes over time.” Next up, Izzy is exploring technology that could eliminate the need for packaging components altogether, adds Goldberg. $39 at Izzy • Common Heir This plastic-free brand delivers its two skin-care serums—a retinol formula, shown here, as well as vitamin C—in biodegradable vegan capsules housed in recyclable paper containers. “The oft-cited figure (provided by Euromonitor) is that in the US alone, the [beauty] industry generates almost 8 billion units of rigid plastic packaging a year,” says cofounder and CEO Cary Lin, pointing out that the statistic predates a recent surge in the market. “We recently partnered with Bluebird Climate, [and] we found that we generate 35% less carbon emissions compared to the typical serum [format].” Each formula has taken at least a year of development, says cofounder and chief product officer Angela Ubias. Of the hundreds of formulas she’s worked on in her career, the Common Heir vitamin C serum was by far the most challenging, she notes. $88 at Common Heir • R+Co Bleu A sibling brand to the cult-loved original R+Co, this line delivers sophisticated, professional-level formulas with a minimized impact on the environment. The packaging draws on an array of well-meaning formats, including bottles made entirely from post-consumer recycled material (which requires a reported 88% less energy to produce) and cans using 100% recycled aluminum. The squeezable tube for the Essential Conditioner features sugarcane bioresins, a technology that is still uncommon in the industry. (Bybi is another brand that uses bioresin.) “Not only is sugarcane a renewable resource, but these sleeves have a 50% lower carbon footprint,” says R+Co president Dan Langer. “The costs and timing are inherently increased with this approach—however, we wanted to set a new standard for the beauty industry and establish new norms.” The bioresins used for beauty products can typically be recycled curbside with other plastics. $59 at R+Co Uni Launched earlier this year, Uni is a closed-loop system for body and hair care, featuring 100% recycled aluminum bottles and a sleek exterior “forever dispenser” designed by Marc Atlan. (Beauty-industry observers might know his prior work for Comme des Garçons and Kjaer Weis.) When you hit empty, you simply ship the aluminum bottle back to Uni for a replacement. “Our goal has always been zero waste, so it is important that the bottles that don’t get returned are recycled,” says founder Alexandra Keating. “Aluminum is infinitely recyclable. Nearly 75% of all aluminum ever produced is still in use today. Only 9% of plastics ever produced have been recycled.” The formulas are quite appealing (including the lightweight but moisturizing Body Serum), and the household-friendly universality increases the likelihood of exhausting a bottle. $40 at Uni • Captain Blankenship “When I started the company in 2009, our packaging was primarily glass, and then we transitioned some of our products, like our shampoo and conditioner, to ocean-bound plastic,” says founder Jana Blankenship of her search for functional, responsible materials. Most recently—as seen in retooled launches like this Hair & Scalp Serum—“we switched to aluminum after conducting a packaging study with the Rochester Institute of Technology, via the New York State Pollution Prevention Initiative.” The decision factored in the arc from manufacture to end-of-lifecycle, as well as the effects on human health and the potential to leach microplastics into waterways. An added complication for many brands is the recyclability of pumps. Usually made with multiple materials, they aren’t always realistic for a consumer to disassemble. As a result, Captain Blankenship is planning to move to mono-material pumps and sprayers, using curbside recyclable material, by next year. $43 at Captain Blankenship • Dove When mass brands with millions of customers worldwide engage in movements like refillable bottles, the positive impact can be great. “In 2019, we announced our commitment to make all our plastic packaging 100% recyclable and made from 100% recycled plastic—or plastic-free or refillable or renewable,” says Firdaous El Honsali, global vice president of external communications and sustainability for Dove, describing a multi-pronged approach. “Making all our bottles from 100% PCR reduced the use of virgin plastics by 20,500 tons per year.” The new Daily Moisture Body Wash is a case in point. The two-piece starter set includes a concentrated formula (to be diluted with water) along with a reusable aluminum bottle. “After two refills of the aluminum bottle, [a consumer uses] 50% less plastic than if they were to buy our standard single-use, 22-ounce body wash,” says El Honsali. $15 at Target Plus Some brands have become extremely imaginative about ways to reduce packaging—including the body-wash brand Plus, which makes dehydrated sheets of its formula, to be used one square at a time. After all, conventional body washes are mostly water anyway, so if you’re using it in the shower, what’s the difference? To up the ante, Plus also designed its individual sachets to be dissolvable as well: You literally toss the wrapper on your shower floor and watch it disappear. According to the brand, about one third of all landfill waste is personal care and beauty products. $7 at Target Codex Beauty Labs “We would define our approach as ‘plant-based recyclable,’” says Codex founder Barb Paldus, PhD, whose skin-care line uses recyclable, sugarcane-derived plastics for its squeezable tubes. This includes several cleansers, moisturizers, and eye creams, such as the Bia Hydrating Eye Gel. “Most companies who really get into being [carbon-]neutral realize it is a lot of work,” says Paldus. “It’s taken us three years to create two product lines that are home-compostable (and microbiome-friendly): soaps and bath soaks. And it took us one year of scouring the industry to find a home-compostable, standup, resealable pouch.” In the future, she pictures an industry where waterless products delivered in compostable packages become more common. $45 at Codex
Kate McLeod Usually, the materials considered for beauty packaging are glass, aluminum, and plastic. Kate McLeod chose to look at bamboo instead when creating a case for her solid face balm. “Bamboo is a wonderful sustainable material that repels water,” says the founder, a former pastry chef. “You purchase [the canister] once and refill over time. This means we are 100% plastic-free.” McLeod’s signature “stones,” offered in versions for body and face, arrive wrapped in a small piece of linen, inspired by cheesecloth; they are designed to gently melt when applied to the skin. As a result, the waterless product “saves 52% of emissions during transportation,” says McLeod. “And buying a refill four times generates 55% less carbon emissions than buying five conventional water-filled moisturizers.” $76 at Kate McLeod Blueland Tackling personal care, home cleaning, laundry, and hand soap (shown here), Blueland’s waste-minded system pairs sturdy, understated plastic containers with dehydrated tablets or powders that you mix with tap water. The dry refills arrive in compostable paper packaging. “If we were to reuse just 10% of the global plastic packaging waste, we could prevent almost half of the annual plastic ocean waste,” says cofounder and CEO Sarah Paiji Yoo, explaining that Blueland has already helped divert 1 billion single-use plastic bottles from landfills and oceans. “Blueland tablets are ten times smaller and lighter than conventional water-based cleaning products. This allows us to drastically reduce emissions.” Storing the refills is that much easier too. $18 at Blueland Colgate The vast majority of toothpaste tubes have not been recyclable up until very recently. Colgate spent more than seven years experimenting with recyclable HDPE (aka #2) plastics until they hit upon the same texture and squeezability as the tubes we’re all used to (a non-recyclable plastic-aluminum combination). “Billions of people use toothpaste every day, so we also had to design something that looked, felt, and acted like the tube,” says Greg Corra, Colgate’s worldwide director of global packaging and sustainability. One of the trickiest parts, says Corra, was creating a material that wouldn’t require the company to alter its formula flavors—something millions of customers feel extremely strongly about. Colgate aims for all its tubes to be recyclable moving forward, including the iconic Total. “We’ve openly shared the technology to help accelerate the broader transition,” says Corra. “Having others join us is critical.” $13 at Amazon L’Occitane The Provençal beauty brand began accepting empty bottles soon after it launched in 1976, and it later became the first company in the world to use 95% recycled aluminum in their packaging. “We sometimes make choices that don’t fit with trends—for example, we chose not to invest in compostable or biodegradable packaging that, in reality, is not compostable at home and requires very specific industrial processing to actually degrade,” says Shimon Kalichman, a L’Occitane spokesperson and consulting director. “We also chose not to invest in bioplastics, as these can compete with food production.” An internal Packaging Charter requires that any newly developed packaging have less of an environmental impact than its previous version and alternatives, and the refill system, which launched in 2017, is a great example: The pouches save 85% of plastic compared to normal product and in-store refill fountains save 94%. $84 at L’Occitane UpCircle As of this February, UpCircle is a certified “plastic-negative” brand, meaning that it invests in salvaging ocean-bound plastic in a quantity larger than the amount of plastic it creates. This amounts to approximately 4,300 pounds of plastic removed every year. “There is no ‘right’ option, there are just pros and cons,” says cofounder Anna Brightman, noting that the brand’s primary packaging is glass and aluminum. “So if customers choose not to return their packaging to us, they can simply recycle it at home, without the need for specialist recycling services or drop-off points.” Nearly all UpCircle products are refillable, including the Cleansing Face Balm. To fulfill a refill, empty packaging is sent back, sterilized, and then shipped back out. UpCircle is available in Europe and the US. $24 at UpCircle REN Clean Skincare Single-use beauty samples and minis have an outsize environmental impact, but they are growing in popularity, especially with the move toward online shopping. “In 2018, we stopped using sachets for sampling after recognizing their negative impact on the environment,” says REN CEO Michelle Brett. Instead, the brand developed a novel aluminum sample tube, which is reclosable and “made using 100% recycled aluminum, which has a lower carbon footprint compared to the same tube made of virgin aluminum.” After breaking off the tip, use it to plug the tube for a handful of uses before disposing the empty in curbside recycling. Samples can be added to digital shopping carts on the REN site (buying this mineral sunscreen gets you two free tubes). “By upgrading to this sample pack, we saved nearly 2,000 pounds of plastic potentially entering landfill in 2021 alone,” says Brecht. $40 at Ren

Sustainability Takes Center Stage

It’s a bit of an understatement to say that health concerns are currently driving consumer behaviors and purchases in today’s marketplace. Research conducted by Paris-based Ipsos in July showed that 85% of consumers are concerned about the COVID-19 outbreak. According to the Washington, D.C.-based International Food Information Council, that same percentage of consumers (85%) reported that they’ve changed the way they eat or prepare food in the wake of the pandemic. While the novel coronavirus is a major, and arguably overriding, worry, that doesn’t mean that people aren’t making decisions based on other timely situations, from social issues to environmental concerns.

Loop's quest for reuse dominance has only gotten more ambitious during the pandemic

"When COVID hit ... what scared me honestly was the deluge of reporters calling saying, 'Should we write off the idea of reuse in an age of contagion?'" he recalled during a panel at the Circularity 20 conference in May. Journalists were referring to the slashing of reuse-refill and "zero waste" initiatives taking place across the corporate world. This, combined with cautionary messaging from the plastics industry, contributed to a narrative that reusable systems — a fledgling industry born out of the desire to avoid disposable products and packaging — may be a risky business. Szaky argues, however, that rather than being a threat to the new reuse economy, the pandemic has ushered in an opportunity to professionalize its services. Launched over a year ago to much hype, the Loop concept — still in its trial phase, but partnering with some of the world's largest CPG companies — has been leading the way in terms of reusable, refillable packaging as a niche business opportunity for the grocery and retail sectors. The last several months have seen not less, but more usage of the Loop service and, as a result, Szaky has pointed to it as a hopeful example for what the post-pandemic future of reuse could look like. Loop's strict cleaning protocols, he says, should quell any fears about contamination and its online portal allows consumers to shop from the safety of home. These features may offer a solution to some of the risks associated with reusable circularity that brands and retailers worry about moving forward. As the world rebuilds in the wake of the pandemic, Szaky and others in the reuse sector are hoping to shift from a movement centered around DIY, consumer-led programs to one more suitable to industrial applications. This may even come in the form of tighter regulations around reusable systems overall. But some say while raising the profile of these systems is a good thing the industry should be careful about narrowing down to market-driven solutions too quickly. Loop, after all, is still an experiment.

What it would take for a big box chain like Walmart to go package-free

It's hard to picture now, but one day, something other than coronavirus might change your trip to the grocery store. Imagine entering your nearest chain grocery store to find nuts, pasta, flour, and fresh produce sold exclusively in bulk, with high-tech measuring and distribution methods specific to each product. In the cleaning and houseware aisles, there's laundry detergent, shampoo, and lotion getting dispensed into reusable bottles, which the store will clean upon return. It's not totally impossible. But for now, David Pinsky, a plastics campaigner at Greenpeace, notes that if consumers want package-free options, very few, if any, major retailers provide them. No one wants to get stuck with tons of excess packaging after buying some soap or pasta. Sometimes, though, it just...happens. That's not your fault: Grocery store experts note that most consumers focus on cost and convenience when they set foot in a store, and it's unlikely they look for the items with the least packaging. For consumers focused on cost and convenience, it would certainly be a lot easier to avoid generating packaging waste if that waste just wasn't there in the first place. That's where package-free efforts come in. Getting major grocery stores to go entirely package-free is likely a pipe dream, according to grocery store experts, plastics and waste experts, and small, package-free store owners. In all likelihood, big chains probably won't ever get there. But a radical overhaul to the way packaging is made, used, and dealt with in big chain stores? That's more possible — and likely a better goal.

What package-free efforts mean for our plastic addiction 

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that containers and packaging alone, which includes food-related containers, comprise over 23 percent of the materials going into landfills in the U.S. That's a problem because the plastic packaging waste from retailers, particularly single-use plastics that are sometimes used for just seconds by a consumer, can last for lifetimes in the environment, says Pinsky. Plastic pollution is already known to devastatingly harm our oceans and wildlife. A 2019 study from the Center for International Environmental Law also found that greenhouse gas emissions currently produced when making and managing plastic threaten the global community's ability to keep temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, and that the threat will become worse if plastic production grows as planned until 2050.  Grocery retailers could be part of the solution by moving away from single-use plastics, though. Part of the trouble right now is that supermarkets typically don't release data about their plastic footprint, Pinsky notes. Because of this, it's difficult to estimate the impact of going package-free at a given chain. Instead, by focusing on recycling to address plastic pollution, Pinsky notes that retailers "often feed into the industry narrative that individual responsibility will solve the problem; that the customer is to blame for the pollution crisis." A 2019 Greenpeace report, which Pinsky co-authored, evaluated the overall plastic footprints of big U.S. retailers, including Costco, Walmart, and Trader Joe's. Greenpeace did so based on each company's policies around mitigating their plastic footprint, actual reduction, and transparency concerning single-use plastic. With their metrics, no store scored better than 35 out of a possible 100, a failure in his book. While we don't know every store's plastic footprint since complete plastic footprints are not available publicly, we've seen glimpses. While Kroger, Trader Joe's, Costco, and Whole Foods didn't provide Mashable with their plastic footprints when asked, Trader Joe'sCostco, and Whole Foods sent Mashable information about their plastic reduction efforts. Walmart, for its part, says it will release data on its plastic footprint in a forthcoming Environmental, Social & Governance Report for 2020, marking its first year doing so, according to Walmart's press team. When Kroger began phasing out plastic bags in 2019, National Geographic wrote "The company calculated that they handed out about 6 billion plastic bags a year, about six percent of the total number of bags distributed annually across the country. That’s the equivalent of about 32,000 tons of plastic, or enough to fill over 3,000 moving trucks jam packed with bags." It wasn't always this way. Before the advent of the grocery behemoths we see today, how people typically accessed food involved a lot less packaging, says Marc Levinson, an economist and historian who chronicled the changes to retail juggernauts in his book, the Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America. Think of, say, a milkman reusing glass bottles, or a general store selling portions from bulk items. The evolution of how Americans access and eat food is nuanced, long, and, ultimately, fascinating. Grocery aisles packed with ready-made food in disposable packaging marks the current chapter of this saga. It's a story centered on convenience and cost, say Levinson and Jon Steinman, the author of Grocery Story: The Promise of Food Co-ops in the Age of Grocery Giants. In plenty of cases, packaging is necessary to preserve, transport, and sell products, says Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) focusing on the food system. On the other hand, for lots of products, the packaging just serves marketing purpose, Levinson points out. A cashew in a giant tub is just a cashew, but a cashew in a package with a company's label on it becomes a marketable entity. "A package is a billboard," Levinson says. "From the point of view of sellers, they don't want to go back to the days when products were sold in bulk." In the 19th century, if you were trying to buy, say, molasses, your local grocer would simply pour molasses for you. There was no such thing as "name-brand" molasses.

What small stores are doing, and what big chains can learn 

If you actively seek out items with less packaging, you're probably not going to big chains anyway. You're turning to alternative options that have popped up to meet this desire: package-free stores and delivery services; co-ops offering food in bulk; refillable stations for basics like shampoo and lotion. It's not like a big chain trying to cut down on packaging operates the same way as these stores and services (more on that later) but understanding what has — and hasn't — worked can help illuminate what could. Take the Czech company MIWA, which Pinsky says has features that could be appealing to a big grocer otherwise hesitant to adopt reuse models. MIWA's "smart containers" help automate the weighing of bulk purchases, as well as payment, and provide usage data, which he notes is valuable for retailers since they care about consumer behavior and restocking needs. There are other innovations out there, too. In the realm of grocery deliveries, there's Loop, which offers customers major label products like Häagen-Dazs, Crest, and Tide that arrive in a "Loop Tote." (Customers pay a refundable deposit for each package.) When the reusable containers are empty or in need of a refill, people send them back to Loop in the tote, where they're cleaned and reused. CEO Tom Szaky says Loop solves the negative consequences of throw-away packaging, while "maintaining the virtues of disposability — affordability and convenience." Typically, Szaky says, manufacturers aren't incentivized to care about their packages after they're with the consumer, which leads to a plethora of inexpensive, disposable packaging. Under Loop's system, though, the package for a product becomes an asset to the manufacturer: Szaky says manufacturers want to make packages durable and long-lasting so they can withstand as many reuses as possible. As is, Loop can fill a major need with respect to eliminating packaging in grocery deliveries. (Steinman notes that in June, online grocery sales hit a record of $7.2 billion, with 45.6 million households using online grocery services.) Down the road, Loop also intends to expand its in-grocery store presence worldwide, Szaky says. (A spokesperson says Loop is first scheduled to be in stores in 2021.) Big chains can also innovate after examining the challenges that smaller, package-free stores might encounter. First, not everything can be sold through bulk or refillable methods, even at smaller stores. At Sustain LA, a zero waste company that sells refillable home and beauty products, Leslie VanKeuren Campbell, the company's founder, and her team sell things like dish liquid, body lotion, and mouthwash at refillable stations at farmer's markets, in its store, and through deliveries. She notes that it might be harder for a large chain to have a proprietary, spill-proof dispensing system than it was for her when Sustain LA opened its own brick-and-mortar shop. Even on her own store's scale, finding the right pumps for particular items proved difficult. Sometimes, depending on the consistency of what was being dispensed, pumps could get jammed or take a while to dispense. (To this end, there are particular pumps that work better for, say, shampoo, than other items.) At a small store, this is mainly a minor inconvenience, but for a big chain it could be a major deterrent, VenKeuren Campbell points out. At Sustain LA, if a customer gets frustrated, the staff can quickly help, but at a bigger chain, a dysfunctional pump could lead to a big loss in sales. Then there's the way in which bulk items get converted into refillable or reusable formats. Steinman notes that when his local co-op tried to go package-free, they found that disposing of the containers for bulk laundry liquid being purchased actually carried a bigger environmental impact than what they would have saved by not using individual containers. (VanKeuren Campbell says Sustain LA typically refills bulk containers with vendors, or they donate big drums to animal shelters, or send them back to vendors.) "Beans still get to the store in something," Hoover of the NRDC says. "There's never zero packaging."

What's stopping the package-free revolution?

In large part, Levinson sees the lack of package-free options as a logistics problem: For big chains with massive amounts of traffic each day, even seemingly minuscule decisions can have a rippling impact. "For modern food retailers, logistics is extremely important, and packaging is important to decide those logistics," Levinson says. "There's a concern in shaving every hundredth of a cent possible." For the Walmarts and Whole Foods of the world, it's not quite as simple as scaling up the same practices as smaller companies. They operate on a much bigger scale than mom-and-pop package-free options, Pinsky says similarly. Take bulk items: Bread, coffee, and other dry goods could be sold in bulk in more places, Steinmain notes, in the sense that they can be sold without packaging. Logistical concerns get in the way, though: Levinson points out that cashiers need to weigh bulk items at checkout which slows down the line. It seems minor, he says, but for a big chain that would lead to a loss of sales that few seem willing to give up. "The key stress test is to test these things for scale," Szaky, of Loop, says. "Any extra work; they're not going to be able to do it. It's just not going to be possible." Ultimately, though, Hoover maintains that big chains need to address the root of the waste to really get packaging (and specifically plastic packaging) out of their stores: suppliers. In 2019, the Break Free from Plastic initiative conducted 484 cleanups in 50 countries (and six continents) and identified the brands whose products showed up as litter most often. The audit revealed the same brands had the most plastic waste for a second year in a row: Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and PepsiCo. The Walmarts, Krogers, and Costcos of the world have sway with suppliers. If a grocery chain actually wants to go package-free, Hoover notes it would have to communicate that desire to the suppliers covering their products with (potentially unnecessary) packaging. This is one place in which big chains actually have potential for package-free options in a way that smaller mom-and-pop stores don't: The Walmarts, Krogers, and Costcos of the world have sway with suppliers, Hoover notes. Mashable asked Whole Foods, Walmart, Trader Joe's, Kroger, and Costco about the roadblocks towards package-free options. Kroger, Costco, and Whole Foods declined to comment. Commenting on bulk methods overall, a Trader Joe's spokesperson told Mashable via email that Trader Joe's has evaluated the use of bulk bins in its efforts "to minimize waste and shift to sustainable packaging," but "with the expansion in the number of stores and focus on reducing waste, the use of bulk bins is not a sustainable option for us at this time." That said, the spokesperson maintains "[Trader Joe's is] constantly evaluating options and are committed to making improvements." Trader Joe's didn't comment on other roadblocks. When asked about the potential financial deterrent of slow lines from weighing more bulk items, Walmart had no comment. When asked about mechanical troubles associated with refill stations that might deter a larger chain from implementing them, Ashley Hall, director of strategic initiatives at Walmart, told Mashable via email: "We believe the issues can be addressed and it is a technology to watch." When asked about reducing packaging by communicating a desire for less packaging with suppliers, Hall writes: "Since 2006, Walmart has been encouraging suppliers to reduce packaging in the products we sell," adding that the company distributes a voluntary survey to suppliers about their product packaging. Levinson agrees that these giants can impact what suppliers make, including items with less packaging, but the likelihood of chains doing that out of the goodness of their hearts is slim, in his opinion. "They know what's moving, and what's not moving," Levinson says. "If they decide the 32-ounce [container] isn't moving, they'll tell the supplier. The consumer is calling the shots here." Still, how can you call the shots when you're not able to decide what shots are available in the first place? Without more package-free options, you're stuck picking between a 16-ounce plastic container, or a 32-ounce one.

Where do we go from here?

Grocery store experts say that for some customers and grocers, forgoing certain forms of packaging, or using reusable containers when handling food and hygiene items, sounds perilous amid the spread of coronavirus, leading to resistance to package-free efforts. That concern isn't founded, necessarily — a cohort of 125 virologists, epidemiologists, and health experts recently said consumers can safely use reusable containers during the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides specific advice for preventing the spread of the virus while grocery shopping, adding: "There is no evidence that food or food packaging play a significant role in spreading the virus in the United States." Still, some states, counties, and cities, have rolled back plastic bag bans which went into effect before the pandemic. (Additionally, in the early days of the coronavirus' spread in the U.S., the Plastics Industry Association lobbied the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to declare that bans on single-use plastics presented a public safety risk.) "In a way, we've gone back many decades," Steinman says, in reference to the increased use of single-use plastics in stores during the pandemic. "I'd like to think we'd be able to move past this, and get back on track with package-free shopping." Pinsky sees a decrease in momentum as "largely temporary." If there's one thing the pandemic quickly revealed for people, it's that our sense of "normal" is hardly static. There have been massive overhauls to the ways in which we get basic goods in the past, but where the current moment will take package-free options down the road remains to be seen. It could go many ways: Maybe the plastics industry, reinvigorated by single-use plastic ban reversals amid the pandemic, will continue its stronghold; maybe consumers, now more aware of the systems in which they live, will push back on their limited options for accessible, package-free food. Maybe packaging will be the next lobbying effort in statehouses and city halls across the country, after plastic bags and styrofoam clamshells. "It's really a turning point for the world that we need," Pinsky says, referencing both the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic. "We need to rethink the way the world has been operating."

3 Reusable Packaging Perspectives from Popular Brands

Executives from The Clorox Co., Nestlé and entrepreneur Soapply share insights into the sustainability and cleanliness of reusable packages for products sold through Loop’s shopping platform, especially in a post-pandemic world. Last year, recycling/upcycling firm TerraCycle launched Loop, a shopping platform for zero-waste-packaging products, with the support of some of the world’s biggest brands (see “Loop and big brands boldly reinvent waste-free packaging.”) Together, the eco-commerce provider and the brands have learned that there is indeed a market of consumers who will by Crest mouthwash, Tide laundry detergent, and myriad other products from Loop’s online store — then return their empty packages to be cleaned, refilled, and reused. Since its early 2019 introduction, Loop’s business has grown from a direct-to-your-doorstep model with regional service to testing of mass-market retail partnerships to imminent national coverage. Retail partners include Kroger and Walgreens in the US market, Canada’s Loblaws, and the U.K.-based Tesco chain. Germany and Japan are on the horizon, too.

What's New With Loop? How the 21st-Century Milkman is Coping With COVID-19

The plastics industry has seized the opportunity to pressure lawmakers to permanently undo bag bans and similar legislation. But others, including executives at the reusable packaging platform Loop, aren't buying it. "Single-use is not sterile either," Heather Crawford, Loop’s global VP of marketing and e-commerce, told TriplePundit. "When you buy a disposable package off the shelf, it's been exposed to all kinds of different elements across the supply chain, including packing, transport, or even the customer who picked it up before you and put it back. Reuse in and of itself isn't the problem. It's the method by which it's done."

They’re Fixing The World’s Plastic Problem Using ‘The Milkman’ Concept – With All Your Favorite Products

For several generations of young Americans, the idea of a ‘milkman’ is a completely foreign concept. But if you lived in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, and you were in the middle-class, you likely had a delivery truck dropping off fresh bottles of milk on your front porch—and you would leave the empties outside to be picked up. It was super convenient—and, better yet, there was no waste generated in the process. With tons of plastic containers overrunning landfills, and an innovative partnership of consumer brands emerging, the milkman idea of circulating containers is making a comeback. Loop launched in Paris and New York one year ago as a company that ships customers their favorite products packaged in reusable stainless steel or glass containers to be collected later for cleaning and refilling—just like your grandfather’s milk. They quickly expanding their operation to cover much of the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region, and this month Loop will be bringing their pioneering business model to the UK, a move they hope will make them the biggest eliminator of single-use plastics in the global grocery market. They also announced plans to expand soon into Canada, Germany, and Japan. Loop teamed up with some of the biggest consumer industry giants to create eco-versions of hundreds of popular products like Tropicana, Haagen-Dazs, or Hellmann’s mayonnaise; cleaning products like Tide and Clorox wipes; and skin and hair care essentials like deodorants, from companies like Dove, Pantene, L’Oreal, and Crest. Procter & Gamble, Loop’s biggest partner, which also owns a 2 percent stake in the enterprise, tapped into 10 of its most iconic brands as part of the Loop 2019 launch, including Ariel, Cascade, Crest, Febreze, Gillette, Pantene, Pampers, and Tide, according to GreenBiz. Image by Loop Stateside, the refillable products are available at Kroger and Walgreens, in addition to the online Loop store, and they cost nearly the same as their plastic counterparts, except for the cost of a deposit. Founded by the brilliant recycling company TerraCycle, Loop plans to expand across the U.S. this year where more consumers in specific zip codes can place empties inside their Loop insulated zipper tote on the doorstep—to be picked up, washed, and reused. In France, where Loop has already partnered with Carrefour—one of the largest grocery chains in Europe, consumers pay a small deposit on the items purchased, in case the packages aren’t returned later. This includes small bottles, where a deposit might only be a few cents, or large tubs that might contain laundry soap or paper towels. 1953 photo by Ben van Meerendonk / AHF, collectie IISG, Amsterdam When asked about the hefty carbon footprint of shipping the products all over the country and then shipping them back for washing and refilling, Loop’s founder, the mastermind of Terracycle, Tom Szaky, explained that if you add up all the energy and shipping it takes to create and distribute plastic, the carbon footprint is cut in half—plus you are digging up the actual root of the plastic problem, so it can be eliminated. Furthermore, as drone delivery technology becomes more and more feasible in major cities, delivery will become much cheaper and more energy efficient. Companies like DHL, UPS, Amazon, Google, Dominoes, Rakuten, and 7-11 all have drone-delivery technology. According to the Business Insider 2018-2020 report on online grocery shopping, 10% of consumers utilize online grocery store options, while the market value of these services doubled from $12 billion in 2016 to $26 billion in 2018 and shows no sign of slowing down. It’s possible that in the next ten years thanks to companies like Loop, all the benefits of the friendly neighborhood milkman will be resurrected to create a healthier planet for all.  

Loop Wants To Make Personal Care, Grocery And Cleaning Goods Shopping Waste-Free, But Will Consumers Buy Into It?

There’s never been a better time for beauty brands trying to save the planet. Retail interest is growing in sustainable packaging and eco-conscious ingredient sourcing, and brands that appear to be ignoring their environmental footprints are met with swift disapproval. But the movement to green goods hasn’t yet translated into many consumers going out of their ways to make purchases prioritizing the fight against climate change.

Loop, a retail platform with a closed-loop (get it?) distribution system, is a high-profile test of people’s willingness to factor sustainability into their shopping habits. It’s the brainchild of Tom Szaky, co-founder and CEO of recycling company TerraCycle, whose dream of zero-waste consumption caused him to look into the past to inform the future. Szaky compares Loop to mid-20th century milkmen regularly dropping off glass milk bottles and picking up finished ones. Its distribution system is based on refillable packaging and doorstep delivery. Can Loop alter practices in a consumer packaged goods space in which disposability has been paramount? Heather Crawford, VP of marketing and e-commerce for Loop Global, argues its convenience is transformative. “This platform is actually designed for consumers to be able to easily adhere to,” she says. “Loop takes into consideration the fact that changing behavior is difficult. So, in the Loop model, people simply put their empties in the tote and send it back. It is no different for a consumer than putting empties in a recyclable bin or garbage can.” About a third of waste generated in this country is recycled, and I’m judicious about doing my part to keep the virtuous cycle going. Loop’s promise to further cut down on the waste stream I generate is incredibly appealing. As a realist, however, I know there’s only so much I will sacrifice to protect the environment. With its shippable totes and simple e-commerce interface, Loop seemed like a sustainability endeavor I could get behind and, distinct from in-store refillable programs, perhaps stick with. So, I decided to trial the service to see just how practical it is for the average consumer. Loop’s pilot program launched last spring in Paris and New York City. At the time, it was limited to 5,000 households in each city. Since then, Crawford points out, it’s added six new states of coverage as well as struck retail partnerships with Walgreens and Kroger. Currently, Loop is offered through the retailers’ websites, but its goal is to establish a presence in their stores this year. I’m located in New York City, and opted to try Loop’s online store, and stick to beauty and personal care orders. Loop’s assortment contains 31 beauty and personal care products from nine brands: Pantene, Ren, Soapply, Love Beauty and Planet, The Body Shop, Gillette, Venus, Crest and Puretto, an in-house line. Some brands and categories such as bath and body have more robust selections than others. A lonely mouthwash constitutes the entire oral care category. The majority of products carried by Loop are in the grocery and household categories, but Crawford says beauty is a key growth category, and the number of brands within it are excepted to rise this year. She declined to name brands that are coming to Loop. Loop customers order products packaged in refillable containers on its website, and the products arrive at their doorsteps in eco-friendly totes. After consumers are finished with them, Loop picks up the empty products and cleans the packaging to be used again. While browsing the grocery category, I noticed several items were out of stock. Beauty didn’t have that problem. The items were ready for purchase, and I bought two. Specifically, I purchased a 300-ml. bottle of Ren’s Atlantic Kelp and Magnesium Anti-Fatigue Body Wash, and an 8-oz. bottle of Soapply’s Liquid Hand Wash. Loop’s customers pay deposit fees. The deposit fees I paid ranged from $1.25 for Soapply’s Liquid Hand Wash to $5 for Ren products. On top of the deposit fees, there’s a $15 fee for the tote that products are delivered in. The deposits are 100% refundable once products are returned to Loop. Still, for me, the fees tacked on $21 to a $48 order. The price for my order of hand soap and body wash totaled $88.56, with tax. Thankfully, Loop comped the amount for the purposes of this piece because sustainability sure doesn’t come cheap. Product pricing on Loop can vary from product pricing elsewhere. Soapply’s Liquid Hand Wash cost $22.50 on the brand’s website. On Loop, without the bottle deposit, it was $23.75. Surprisingly, Ren’s Atlantic Kelp and Magnesium Anti-Fatigue Body Wash was significantly less expensive on Loop. It rang in at $24.30 versus $28 on its own site. After I placed my order, it was delivered via UPS the following evening. My two small beauty products arrived in a large tote. Apparently, there are no small totes at the moment. The delivery is fully eco-friendly, from the materials the tote is made of to the packing materials keeping the products safe and secure. I live and work in a very small one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment with minimal closet space (read: none). Holding on to the bulky tote while I enjoyed my products wasn’t practical or appealing to me. To declutter, I promptly decanted the bottles into empties I already had, and returned them along with the tote to my local UPS store to be shipped back with the included free shipping label. Loop allowed me to retain the deposit amounts in my online account for future orders or have them refunded to my card. I chose the refund, and the money was credited back to me in seven days.

“Loop takes into consideration the fact that changing behavior is difficult.”


Loop’s process wasn’t onerous, and lived up to the promise of not forcing me to change my conduct in a manner that would stop me from shopping at it. The company plans to reduce consumers’ efforts even more by teaming up with retail partners to set up Loop at stores to enable consumers to shop dedicated Loop aisles and return refillable products to the stores they’re frequenting. Loop didn’t specify when it will arrive inside stores or which physical stores will take part in its program. Despite people meticulously separating out waste materials into recycling bins, 91% of plastics wind up in landfills. That statistic emphasizes to me the importance of Loop’s system, and makes the endeavor a definite plus in my estimation. I’m heartened knowing the Soapply and Ren bottles I received aren’t destined for the ocean. The benefit for the planet is evident, but I wondered what the brands, specifically Soapply, the sole indie beauty brand currently on Loop’s site, gain by joining its selection. Asked about Soapply’s involvement, founder Mera McGrew responds, “Being selected to launch with Loop alongside all the major players in the consumer goods space was an exciting recognition of the leadership role Soapply is playing in the market. The immediate success we had on the platform, the continued growth we’ve seen, and the positive consumer response to Soapply have not only helped our bottom line, but continued to solidify our role as an emerging leader within the consumer goods space.” Prior to Loop, Soapply had a refill system with bottles made from recycled glass that replenish its 8-oz. bottles three times at a discounted price of $31.50 for 25.4 ounces. For the brand, the value of Loop is to amplify education and impact. “Startups and indie brands have resource limitations that require a constant reassessment of costs and a clear understanding of potential benefits connected with any decision or investment,” says McGrew. “Soapply is a public benefit corporation, so working collaboratively with Loop gives Soapply an opportunity to reiterate some of our core values and be a part of a larger system that is looking to empower individual consumers to help tackle the world’s waste problem.” Soapply is the only indie personal care brand available in Loop’s selection. Other brands are Pantene, Ren, Love Beauty and Planet, The Body Shop, Gillette, Venus, Crest and Puretto, an in-house line. Brands can’t partake in Loop unless they have sustainable packaging. Loop’s requirements are exacting. All containers have to withstand sanitization and survive over 100 uses. “Any business, regardless of how big or small, knows that any changes to packaging can represent a lot of dollar signs—sourcing, designing, changing production lines, etc.,” says McGrew. “If a product’s packaging isn’t already reusable and refillable, updating packaging for Loop would certainly represent a cost to any brand.” Crawford says, “We want to partner with companies large and small that want to redesign packaging to be durable and reusable. We have indie beauty brands which are in the process of on-boarding, and we’ve had very strong response to those we’ve launched thus far, with initial penetration rates [or percentages of the target market they’ve reached] of 35%-plus on new beauty product launches.” My experience with Loop demonstrates it makes eco-oriented beauty and personal care consumption pretty painless, but not universally affordable. A huge feat will be a program that’s attainable for low- to middle-income families. As Loop expands and scales, it will be fascinating to watch how it overcomes that large hurdle. In its current iteration, though, it’s undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

Consumer Demand for Better Packaging Might Just Save the Planet

  When he founded TerraCycle in 2001, Tom Szaky was in the business of keeping tough-to-recycle products out of landfills. In 2019, he expanded that mandate with a service called Loop, which focuses on reusing packaging instead of merely recycling it. In partnership with several well-known brands, Loop offers household goods from olive oil to laundry detergent in reusable containers that are either delivered direct to consumers or available through two major retail outlets, then collects, cleans and refills them—much like a modern-day milkman. When Szaky sought to better understand why people were purchasing items through Loop, he was surprised by the results. Survey data revealed that two-thirds of Loop customers were mainly drawn to the program because of its packaging design; only one-third prioritized the sustainability aspect. Since Loop is all about saving the planet by eliminating waste, Szaky had expected the inverse. “A better experience with packaging is the primary driver,” Szaky told Adweek. “The secondary driver is sustainability.” Earlier this week, during a presentation at the National Retail Federation’s annual conference in New York, Szaky stressed the importance of aesthetics in consumer decision-making. While people often buy shampoo twice as often as they buy conditioner, Loop shoppers purchase an equal amount of Pantene shampoo and conditioner, according to Szaky. Why? Although he didn’t disclose exact figures, internal polling revealed that people thought the bottles—which come in a matching gold-and-white color scheme, and feature images of sea life—looked good together. But it’s not just about beauty. Szaky argued that tubs of Häagen-Dazs ice cream sold on Loop are simply better than the typical cardboard cartons found at grocery stores because they’re dual-layered, providing thermal insulation so that consumers’ hands remain warm while the ice cream stays frozen. The inside of the container is also concave, making the ice cream easier to scoop out. Szaky added that even the product itself can benefit from better packaging. The team at Coca-Cola apparently told him Coke tastes best in a glass bottle, then aluminum, then plastic. One key change that allows for better packaging design through the Loop system, as opposed to a convenience store or vending machine, is the transfer of package ownership from consumer to manufacturer, Szaky said. When a company is responsible for a durable container meant for multiple uses, it’s treated like an asset as opposed to the cost of goods sold. Since Loop requires a security deposit with each purchase, companies are given extra leeway to invest even more money into their packaging design, generating better functions and features. “Can you imagine what you could do with a package budget of $30 per unit?” he said. He noted that customers have shown little to no sensitivity to the deposit price, either. A can of Clorox disinfecting wipes, for instance, costs $5.49 to purchase, plus an additional $10 deposit. Despite this, Szaky said Clorox wipes are one of the top five best selling products on the site. Last week, another Clorox brand, Glad, began selling sandwich bags on Loop for $4.99 with a $10 deposit. Once ordered, consumers receive 100 plastic bags in a square metal tin, along with a yellow zippered pouch to put the used bags in for recycling later. According to Nick Higgins, Glad’s marketing director, the package took six weeks to design, and consumer feedback throughout the process was positive. “If you think about our traditional manufacturing system, it’s been engineered to deliver products in a way that people use them and then it’s their responsibility for how they ultimately want to dispose of them,” Higgins said. While it’s still too early to tell how Glad’s metal tin is performing on Loop, Higgins said the brand is excited to gain insights into how people might reuse its products. “As a brand, we want to continue to make progress in this area,” he said. “Using something like Loop as a learning partner to understand consumer habits and practices, and the business models associated with that, is what makes this really attractive to us.” Loop, which debuted in May 2019 in select cities in the U.S. and France, is scheduled to roll out in the U.K., Canada, Germany and Japan later this year. Presently, the platform works with retailers Walgreens and Kroger, and about 100 major CPG conglomerates, including Pepsi, Nestle, Unilever and Procter & Gamble. While Loop has yet to make an official announcement, Szaky said the company will soon reveal new partnerships with a fast-food company and high-end cosmetics brand.         Szaky added that since Loop began, it has, on average, added a new brand every two days and a new retailer every three weeks. While the program remains in test mode, he’s optimistic that Loop will continue to grow. “Disposability is our competition,” he said. “It’s an easy enemy to hate, thank God.”

Win Hearts and Wallets Like Patagonia by Giving New Life to Old Products

There's more and more pressure -- both internally and externally -- for companies to help the environment. But it can help companies, too

    Recycling isn't just about protecting the planet; it's also about profit. With market rates for recycled plastics at all-time lows, companies can build new products out of used ones for a fraction of the cost of fresh materials. A McKinsey analysis found that plastics reuse and recycling could produce up to $60 billion in new profits by 2030, or almost two-thirds of the plastic industry's potential profit growth. For entrepreneurs, that's a win-win. Cheaper and more widely available recycled materials mean lower production costs. Building products from recycled materials is also a brand differentiator, particularly with the growing cohort of socially conscious consumers. Which companies are getting ahead by giving products a new life? Four firms stand out:

1. Patagonia

Long known for its environmental stewardship, Patagonia goes beyond donating money or even company time: The outdoor apparel brand's Worn Wear program buys back used Patagonia products and resells them online. What sets Worn Wear apart from other used clothing programs is its educational component. Patagonia brand ambassadors travel around the U.S., showing people how to repair their own gear. It also posts product care guides online that explain how to sew up seams and patch tears. Consumers see product education as an added value. Minimize your carbon footprint and build brand loyalists by helping customers trade in or extend the life of their purchases.

2. Pela

Pela, which makes ecofriendly smartphone accessories and sustainable products, skipped straight from packaging to product recycling. Founder Jeremy Lang was inspired to start the company after seeing piles of plastic waste floating in the pristine waters off Hawaii. To that end, Pela created the world's first fully compostable phone case. Customers who don't compost can send their old cases back to Pela, who recycles the cases for them. What about the millions of other plastic phone cases that get thrown away each year? Pela announced at CES an expansion to its Pela 360 program, which is to accommodate all phone cases, no matter the manufacturer. If you've got a plastic product, why not let customers do double duty as suppliers? Making people feel like part of your initiative is the single best way to scale it.

3. Procter & Gamble

Consumer packaged goods, by their nature, have a short life cycle. From toothpaste to dish detergent, products that make our home lives comfortable tend to be disposable. What can be done to keep them out of the trash? Procter & Gamble has partnered with TerraCycle's Loop e-commerce platform to tackle that very question. Loop is a sustainability program that cuts down on waste by using refillable and recyclable packaging. Hair care brand Pantene is introducing shampoo and conditioner bottles made from lightweight aluminum. Tide's Purclean plant-based laundry detergent will feature a stainless steel bottle instead of its conventional plastic one. Crest Platinum mouthwash will be sold in refillable glass bottles.

4. Coca-Cola

It's barely 2020, but Coca-Cola already has big plans for 2030. By the next decade, the beverage giant plans to make all its bottles and cans fully recyclable anywhere in the world. What's more, it expects to build those bottles out of at least 50 percent recycled material. For a company the size of Coca-Cola, that's a herculean task. To get there, it's investing around the world in recycling awareness. Although recycling programs exist in nearly every country, many consumers are still unsure which materials can and can't be recycled. Take your cue from Coke: Start with your product's packaging. Not only is the container the portion sure to be thrown away, but it's generally easier to build containers out of recycled materials than it is goods like computers or clothing. Doing the right thing doesn't have to be costly. Through recycling, reusable packaging, and consumer education, plenty of companies are protecting their profits by protecting the world. Keep production costs down and customer satisfaction up by giving new life to old products.