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A new partnership between the nation’s largest grocery chain and a reusable packaging company could be a sign that waste-reduction efforts are finally moving past the pandemic-induced plastics boom.
Two years ago, efforts to kick the country’s plastic addiction were on fire. Municipalities around the country were implementing plastic bag taxes, while mainstream shoppers embraced reusable grocery bags and flocked to the bulk aisles for foods like beans and nuts.
However, all that came to a halt when stopping the spread of COVID-19 became the country’s top priority. Almost overnight, grocery stores closed their bulk-shopping sections, coffee shops stopped filling reusable coffee mugs, and individually wrapped everything took center stage. Now, signs are emerging that the fight against plastic is getting back on track. One of the most notable of those signs came from Kroger last month, when the nation’s largest grocery chain announced it was expanding an online trial with Loop, an online platform for refillable packaging, to 25 Fred Meyer store locations in Portland, Oregon. While consumer reuse models “got punched in the face” by the pandemic, Loop’s Tom Szaky said the demand is still there, and mainstream grocery stores are going to need to find a way to meet it. Kroger plans to offer a separate Loop aisle in these stores. The products, which will include a mix of items in food and other categories, can be bought in glass containers or aluminum boxes. When they’re empty, customers return the containers to the store to be cleaned and used again. Originally scheduled for this fall, the launch has been postponed to early 2022 because of supply chain challenges, but a spokesperson said they will continue to work with their brand partners to consider items that can be added to expand the program over time. The partnership is a heartening sign after a tough year, said Tom Szaky, CEO and founder of TerraCycle, the company behind the Loop initiative. “Overall, I was very worried that the pandemic would shift the conversation away from waste,” Szaky told Civil Eats. “It didn’t slow down. In fact, the environmental movement’s only gotten stronger.” While consumer reuse models—reusable grocery bags, refillable coffee mugs—“got punched in the face,” he said, it was mainly because retailers stopped allowing them for safety reasons. And while Loop’s growth was slowed by the pandemic, it was for the same factors that upended many companies’ plans—not because interest was drying out, said Szaky. The demand is still there, he adds, and he’s bullish on the idea that mainstream grocery stores are going to need to find a way to meet it. The Kroger–Loop partnership could be the first true test of this theory. It’s the latest in a steady string of new partnerships for Loop, but until now all of the company’s U.S. packaging partners have been in other categories, such as cosmetics and cleaning products. Loop does work with a number of food companies outside the country, including Woolworths in New Zealand, Tesco in the U.K., Aeon in Japan, and Carrefour in France. Szaky says they’re also working with a grocery store in France to bring reusable packaging to fish and meat. Loop, which also works with Walgreens in the U.S. and fast food chains McDonald’s, Burger King, and Canada-based Tim Hortons, expects nearly 200 stores and restaurants worldwide to be selling products in reusable packages by the first quarter of 2022, according to the Associated Press, up from a dozen stores in Paris at the end of last year. Some experts in the space are convinced that more will follow. “It’s just a matter of time before other companies come on board,” says Colleen Henn, founder of All Good Goods, a plastic-free pantry subscription business based in San Clemente, California that sells food in reusable glass jars and paper bags. “Once somebody does it, people start to see, ‘Oh, avoiding single-use plastic is] not that complicated.’ Because it’s really not.” She would know. Henn didn’t spend the last year adapting her business; she first launched her seemingly improbable business model during—and really because of—the pandemic. She had grown frustrated that the country’s waste-reduction initiatives were falling by the wayside. “I went online and tried to find a store that shipped food to your door without plastic, and I couldn’t find it. So I created it,” said Henn. All Good Goods specializes in pantry goods like beans and pasta, nuts and dried fruit, and growth has been strong and steady since the launch. She increasingly fields phone calls from other stores looking for advice on how to avoid plastic in their operations, and as she engages with more companies, she’s optimistic that she will have a trickle-up effect within the industry. “I reach out to brands [we’re considering carrying] and see what their wholesale options are; if they’re not paper-based, if they’re not backyard-biodegradable, we move on,” said Henn. “My theory is that I’m doing my job in telling big companies that this is what consumers want. We’re just a drop in the bucket, I fully acknowledge that, but we’re doing our part to communicate this need and this want from consumers,” she said. “We’re constantly urging bigger food brands to offer a bulk wholesale option.” The growth in concern from customers—driven largely by the increase in public awareness of the world’s waste crisis and plastic’s long-term impacts like microplastic pollution in the oceans, in addition to mounting evidence about health impacts from substances like phthalates and bisphenols
that can leach from plastic into food—is clear. In 2019, Trader Joe’s announced that it would reduce plastic in its stores. Now, according to the sustainability page on the national chain’s website, the packaging for more than 150 products in store now uses more recycled or “sustainably sourced materials,” or have fewer excess components. A spokesperson for the store also told Civil Eats that “customers can expect an update sometime in early 2022.”
Whole Foods Market, which some expect to lead the industry on waste reduction given its positioning on sustainability, declined an interview for this story. But a spokesperson said the retailer has launched a reusable container pilot in response to customer interest. In two stores in Boulder, Colorado, the spokesperson said customers can pay a deposit for a reusable glass container, fill it with prepared or bulk foods, and return the container after use for the store to inspect, clean and sanitize. (Whole Foods also piloted a reusable container program in San Rafael, California, in 2019, but that has since ended.)
When Whole Foods stopped using disposable plastic grocery bags in 2008, the company was a national leader among national grocery chains. However, it continues to use plastic bags and packaging within the store for foods like produce and meat. The company spokesperson said they have reduced the waste footprint of those items but declined to say whether those efforts have reduced the company’s total plastic footprint. The grocer may have also introduced plastic in new places throughout the store in recent years, such as the safety seal on some yogurt containers, which was transitioned from foil to plastic, but the spokesperson would not comment, nor would they say whether there are plans to scale the pilot or implement any other reusable systems in the future. Jerusha Klemperer, director of FoodPrint, a non-profit dedicated to research and education on food production practices, reflected on the shift from companies like Trader Joe’s, and the consumer pressure on companies like Whole Foods. “The only reason [companies like] Trader Joe’s would make that commitment is that they heard customers complaining. I do think there’s evidence that people want more of this—but they have to see it offered, and they can’t have to work extra hard to make it happen.” That is the philosophy that Szaky has applied to Loop, and what makes the Kroger announcement so significant. By designing refillable systems to resemble the traditional shopping experience as closely as possible, proponents say, they are more likely to attract more customers to sign on. “It’s exciting because it marks the first major step as retailers take the reins. It also is a really conducive way to do reuse. Customers can go to Kroger, buy a product, and on their next trip drop off the empties,” said Szaky. “For reuse to grow, it has to be as convenient as disposable; customers need to be able to buy it anywhere and return anywhere. The more robust and developed that network is, the stronger it becomes.” Plastic-free vs. Waste-free
Loop’s expansion, while noteworthy for waste reduction advocates, points to some underlying questions that companies, consumers, and regulators still need to grapple with. Loop itself does not design packaging options. It leaves that to the companies making the products, and steps in to approve specific packaging types for durability once they’ve been developed (and it does offer some hand-holding for that process). Loop’s lineup includes a lot of glass and aluminum, but it also includes plastic packaging at a time when many scientists and environmentalists have grown increasingly vocal about the need to shift away from plastic entirely.
“It’s not, to me, about plastic or no plastic. It’s about the role of recycling, degradability, reuse—and it’s the systems we need to look at, not necessarily what’s at play on top of the systems,” he said. “So many companies are interested in compostable packaging, but the thing that no one’s solving for is that most [municipal composters] don’t want them.”
Compostable packages aren’t a great solution on the production side either, if they’re made from plants grown in industrial monocrop systems like corn, said Klemperer. Many types of paper-based packaging have their own problems, such as being lined with PFAS or associated with deforestation. More fundamentally, all of these replacements perpetuate disposable culture and do little to encourage behavior change, which experts say is the only real solution. Fortunately, Klemperer thinks that where traction is gaining most is in refillable packaging. Where she would also like to see rapid action across the industry, she said, is in the reduction of excess packaging—produce pre-packaged on Styrofoam trays wrapped in plastic, for example. “It seems like there are certain products where eliminating packaging would be the easiest, lowest-hanging fruit,” she said. Why Is Food Behind the Refillable Curve?
It’s unclear why food has lagged behind products such as bath and cleaning products in the adoption of refillable and plastic-free packaging. But it’s likely in part due to heightened regulations, for food safety in general and COVID in particular.
“We had to spend time with the health department training them on how we can do this without plastic, because nobody else was doing it,” said All Good Goods’ Henn, whose background in water quality science may have proved to be an advantage. But it was ultimately achievable: “What I kept coming back to is that we were just returning to the old way of doing things. We’re big fans of the milkman, and we’re basically trying to recreate that online,” she said.
“A lot of very large food companies are talking about plastic, but they need to rethink how they’re doing business. I think we should be a little inconvenienced, at this point, for the greater good.”
She thinks that food safety, though, can’t be the only reason that food companies are lagging behind others on packaging. More intangible factors are the larger hurdles: Disposability is embedded into the modern supply chain, and adoption of reusable packaging requires a fundamental shift in mindset from corporate leadership and a major overhaul of logistics within the supply chain, said Henn. The fact that it is not easier to find bulk plastic-free pantry products is a perfect example, she said—her entire business essentially relies on ordering products at the same scale that restaurants do, which is nothing new for the supply chain. Yet many large food companies still can’t accommodate her plastic-free criteria. At the same time, she has found companies that make it possible—Lundberg, for example, delivers bulk rice in paper bags. And some wholesalers even collect and refill their own bulk packaging. “That’s the thing,” said Henn. “A lot of very large food companies are talking about plastic, but they need to rethink how they’re doing business.” She’s clear that will not always be an easy task, but she adds: “I think we should be a little inconvenienced, at this point, for the greater good.”