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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
Tom Szaky started TerraCycle in 2002 with high ideals and a great idea. As a sophomore at Princeton, he devised a system that took food waste from the university’s cafeterias and fed it to red worms. These worms produce “castings” (aka poop) that make highly potent plant food. He packed his product in repurposed soda bottles equipped with spray tops to meet the young company’s mission: “eliminating the idea of waste.” By all measures, TerraCycle was a great success. Just three years after launch, the company was selling to Walmart and Home Depot across the U.S. and Canada with revenues of $1 million. But Szaky saw a problem: There was an upper limit to the organic fertilizer market. Sooner or later, his niche product would be bumping up against that ceiling. There are two kinds of scalability: vertical, in which you increase the input and output from the same process, and horizontal, in which you replicate a business model in multiple ways. All things being equal, horizontal scalability represents the biggest opportunity with the smallest investment. TerraCycle’s early business model relied on vertical scalability for growth. For one thing, it needed a steady source of packaging. So the company launched a “Bottle Brigade” that challenged consumers to collect the soda bottles for recognition and rewards. This modest beginning would become the model for TerraCycle’s global growth. Soon enough, TerraCycle began recruiting corporate and government sponsors for these initiatives and expanding into different types of packaging considered “non-recyclable,” otherwise destined for landfills. In 2007, it launched a partnership with Honest Tea to collect and recycle drink pouches. Partnerships with Stonyfield Farm and Clif Bar for yogurt cups and energy bar wrappers, respectively, soon followed.
“Every material is recyclable,” Szaky explains. “It’s just a matter of economics. If it costs more to recycle than it does to use virgin materials, companies will choose the latter.”
By contrast, TerraCycle had discovered a financial equation that made recycling traditionally non-recyclable materials not only economically viable, but actually profitable for is customers:
- Develop relationships with consumer packaged goods (CPG) makers, municipalities and retailers to create a recycling stream specifically for a specific product or package that would otherwise be non recyclable — even cigarettes and disposable diapers.
- Leverage these relationships to create a process at scale to reduce the cost of recycling
- Provide its partners with valuable PR and marketing opportunities that had a measurable impact on their brands
- Later, rinse (literally!) and repeat.
As you can see, TerraCycle’s vertical growth model is now horizontal: New partnerships. New materials and products. New geographies. New revenue opportunities. Brands that now include Procter & Gamble, Right Guard, L’Oreal, and Unilever can boast turning their packaging into playground equipment, tote bags, truck parts, park benches, and more in 20 countries around the world while TerraCycle generates an estimated $92 million in revenue. TerraCycle is unique in many ways, but it’s also a textbook example of a smart business. A smart business can start out as small as you please, without requiring huge outside investments. It grows the old fashioned way - organically, by consistently reinvesting profits.. It’s also rarely glamorous or exciting. That describes TerraCycle’s original business to a T. Is there anything less glamorous or exciting than a bin full of worms consuming garbage and pooping out fertilizer? To be really smart, however, a business should provide a service to larger companies that help these organizations solve three problems: Payroll costs. Every new hire at a large company means higher costs and reduced profits. If they can hire your business to do what a full time employee can do, but for less, you’ve got the job. And P.S., you can almost always do the job for less, since it’s your specialty and you don’t have their overhead. Technology. Similarly, new technology is a big investment that comes with big headaches for large organizations. They don’t like to risk money on anything that’s not tried and true, which is to say, already out of date. By taking on this risk for them, you gain an instant advantage. You know how to squeeze the most value possible out of your technology, and you make every investment count. Cash flow. It’s sad but true that small companies often end up bankrolling the operations of big companies. How? Just look at any typical invoice, with 30 or 45-day terms. You’re essentially a banker loaning your customer money. Big companies love that. When TerraCycle pivoted to its sponsored recycling model, it became very smart. It solved a big problem for its customers that these giant brands couldn’t do for themselves. It transformed packaging from a cost center to a profit-driver. TerraCycle could take this on more economically, efficiently and effectively than Colgate or Tide because its workforce and technology were designed to do exactly that. Despite — or perhaps because of — its success, TerraCycle remains committed to its original mission of “eliminating the idea of waste,” and Tom Szasky is still coming up with new ways to fulfill it. A couple of years ago, TerraCycle launched Loop, a division that helps corporate customers develop fully reusable packaging along with a circular process that parallels its recycling stream. Loop is TerraCycle’s Moonshot — a paradigm-shifting leap of faith fueled by the parent company’s money making operations. That’s a story for another time, but let me leave you with these questions: Is your company smart enough to become a moneymaker? Can that moneymaker then propel your moonshot? Food for thought.
Sure you recycle your glass, plastic and cardboard, and that’s great — but those brimming landfills say you can do a lot more! We’re thinking outside the blue bin and looking at some surprising things you can recycle – and exactly how to do it. Starting with – Taco Bell sauce packets Think twice before you toss that sauce – Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle Waste Management, says those little packets can be collected and recycled at many Taco Bell restaurants – and recycled into a surprising array of products including plastic benches. Alternatively, check TerraCycle.com — they’ll send you a shipping label so you can recycle the packets from anywhere in the country. Cigarette waste Cigarette residue is the blight of beaches, streets and sidewalks alike – little bits of trash that add up to a big, nasty eyesore. But now there’s a way to give what could be litter a new life, as TerraCycle will compost and recycle the paper, filters and ash. Shaving razors Here’s a way to shave down the volume of hygiene products rotting in our landfills – there are many dropoff points for both the handles and head of razors, including many gyms. Or, check the TerraCycle website and they’ll help you recycle from home. Finally – foil coffee bags More and more coffee companies have modified their product design to reduce material waste, and that means using plastic film bags. Best of all TerraCycle can transform them into an eye opening variety of raw plastic materials. Waking up to the surprising ways we can recycle. https://youtu.be/IcnibTnefwY
We have plenty of room for improvement in choosing and using materials to hold our stuff, but what’s best depends on the circumstances.
June 28, 2022 — Think about the last time you went to the grocery store. Maybe you bought a gallon of milk, a carton of strawberries, a box of granola bars, a jar of peanut butter. Each of these food or beverage products likely came in plastic or glass packaging. Humans have become heavily reliant on packaging for two key reasons: convenience and safety. Doing so has had huge implications for the environment — from the carbon-emitting fossil fuels used to make packaging to the habitat-harming trash it becomes when we’re done.
Which is why many consumers and producers are looking for “sustainable alternatives” to lessen the harmful impact on our planet. Between 2016 and 2020, Google searches for sustainable goods increased by 71%. But can packaging really be sustainable? Well, it’s more nuanced than you might think.
Glass vs. Plastic
The Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions of “sustainable” include “capable of being maintained or continued at a certain rate or level” and “designating forms of human activity (esp. of an economic nature) in which environmental degradation is minimized.” The question of what constitutes sustainable packaging often focuses on two common materials: glass and plastic. Plastic has been demonized in recent years due to its origins in fossil fuels and its finite life in a recycling plant. Images of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch often depict piles of single-use water bottles and other plastic debris floating in the ocean.
Many consumers consider plastic an unsustainable option, in part because of how much of it ends up in landfills or in nature. Photo courtesy of United Nations Development Programme in Europe and CIS from Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
Given these myriad issues associated with plastic and plastic waste, many consumers think of glass as a safer, more sustainable alternative. Glass can be recycled indefinitely without degrading. Surely it is better for the environment, right?
Despite the common assumption that glass outweighs plastic in environmental benefits, some recent life-cycle assessments (LCAs) show a more complicated story.
In 2020, researchers at the University of Southampton looked at the relative environmental impacts — from raw material extraction through use and final disposal — of glass and plastic used in beverage packaging. The LCA assessed 1-liter (1.06-quart) beverage containers into three categories: fizzy drinks, fruit juice and milk. It examined glass bottles, aluminum cans, milk cartons, Tetra Pak, and two types of plastic bottles, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE).
The assessment focused on 11 “impact categories” within the three beverage groupings, ranging from eutrophication to global warming potential to toxicity for humans. The glass bottle had a higher negative impact than the typical packaging alternatives for each beverage across nearly all impact and beverage categories.
An older LCA, published in 2014 in The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment by researchers from GE and LCA consultant EarthShift, compared glass and plastic bottles for holding contrast media used in X-ray procedures. The LCA suggested that the plastic bottle had lower environmental impacts across all designated impact categories, including greenhouse gas emissions, impact on ecosystems and impact on resources. Adding in the impacts of the packaging containing the bottles yielded less clear results, however.
Also in 2020, researchers in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Politecnico di Milano in Italy published an LCA comparing reusable glass bottles to single-use glass bottles. The LCA concluded that the refillable glass bottle is “by far preferable” to the single-use glass bottle. However, as the study notes, the distance a refillable bottle travels affects how well (and, at large distances, whether) it has a lower overall environmental impact than the single-use option.
According to Packaging Sustainability author Wendy Jedlička, the weight of glass has a heavy impact on its carbon footprint. In the United States, the manufacturing of glass and glass products was responsible for 15 million metric tons (16.5 million tons) of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gases in 2018.
Is Plastic Any Better?
While these LCAs may have surprising conclusions about glass for some readers, writing previously in Ensia, freelance writer Karine Vann noted, “[LCAs] tend to privilege the impacts of production (which, for example, materials like plastic score well on because they are lightweight and low-carbon to produce) over the impacts of disposal (a measure for which, being difficult or impossible to recycle, plastics score poorly).” One study found that 79% of plastic ends up in a landfill or in nature, potentially harming wildlife. And according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in 2018 just 2 million tons (1.8 million metric tons) of plastic containers and packaging were recycled — 13.6% of the amount generated that same year.
Cumulative plastic waste generation and disposal (in million metric tons). Solid lines show historical data from 1950 to 2015; dashed lines show projections of historical trends to 2050. Copyright © 2017 The Authors, “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made,” some rights reserved; exclusive licensee American Association for the Advancement of Science. No claim to original U.S. Government Works. Distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial License 4.0 (CC BY-NC). Click image to expand.
Beyond that, the chemicals that make up plastics can pose their own health risks to humans. Nearly two decades ago, Scott Belcher, a research professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at NC State University, and colleagues found that bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical that serves as a building block for certain plastics, can disrupt the function of hormones, interacting with estrogen receptors. BPA also has been associated with alterations of cells of the nervous system during development and with heart arrythmias.
Although many plastic products for sale today are marketed as “BPA free,” that doesn’t mean they are free of harmful chemicals. “The question that consumers need answering is, ‘What’s being used instead of bisphenol-A?’ And this gets to this idea of regrettable substitution,” Belchers says. “A lot of these substances look chemically a lot like BPA. There’s BPS [bisphenol-S], BPAF [bisphenol-AF] — all of these other bisphenols can have similar or even more activity than BPA. And because the specifics of their use are often hidden as confidential business information, we don’t know how — or how widely — substituted chemicals are used.”
And BPA and its substitutes aren’t the only chemicals found in plastic packaging. Belcher also expresses concerns regarding PFAS chemicals, which are commonly used in takeout boxes, microwave popcorn bags and other food packaging materials that repel grease. And flame retardants, colorings and other materials go into plastics as well.
Jane Muncke, environmental toxicologist and managing director of the Food Packaging Forum, a nonprofit organization focused on chemicals in food packaging, has found that potentially harmful chemicals can move from plastic packaging to food due to four main factors: temperature, storage time, type of food and materials used in the packaging. Through years of study, researchers have been able to determine that various chemicals found in plastics are associated with adverse health effects, such as cancer, infertility, diabet
es, obesity, neurodevelopmenta l issues, immune system problems and asthma. “Exposure to hazardous chemicals contributes to premature mortality and to increased chronic disease,” says Muncke.
“[The] ideal that we’re shooting for is to get rid of the chemicals that impact your body,” Belcher says.
All that said, Muncke suggests the big sustainability issue with food might not be the packaging at all, but the products themselves. She points to providing nonseasonal food products in the winter. “There’s always the example of organic cucumbers grown in December in southern Spain, where they’re pumping out fossil aquifers, nonrenewable groundwater aquifers, to produce organic cucumbers that then get flown to central Europe so that we have fresh cucumbers in December. And then, the argument is always ‘Yeah, well we don’t want to have food waste,’ so we shrink wrap it in plastic,” Muncke says. “Then people say it’s sustainable packaging. The point is that it is a product that is not sustainable. It doesn’t matter if you wrap it in ‘sustainable packaging’ or not, it’s a product that shouldn’t exist. People shouldn’t be making and buying that product.”
Some experts point to the products themselves, not necessarily the packaging, as an issue that should be dealt with. One such example is nonseasonal food. Photo © iStockphoto.com | Esben_H
Muncke calls for examining why we need certain products in the first place. “It’s kind of a straw man argument, it’s like shifting the discussion away from where it needs to be,” she says. “How do we produce, how do we consume foods, and then, once we’ve clarified how that should be happening we can talk about how to package them.”
Still, Muncke says we can’t change the entire economy and stop shipping fresh vegetables across the globe without a transition. So, as a tool for those in the food business who deal with packaging decisions, Muncke and industry, nonprofit and technical partners developed the Understanding Packaging (UP) Scorecard, which helps businesses reduce the adverse health and environmental impacts of food packaging and containers. The scorecard compares packaging across six categories: climate impact, water use, plastic pollution, chemicals of concern, recoverability and sustainability of sourcing — with the goal of transitioning to more sustainable systems.
Culture Is Key
Sustainability in packaging requires not only systems thinking but also a consideration of culture, says Packaging Sustainability author Jedlička. Systems thinking takes a holistic approach that brings together different elements of society, such as people, the economy and the environment. In packaging design, systems thinking looks at addressing human needs while also considering impacts to the planet.
Including culture into a systems thinking methodology makes for a more useful tool, Jedlička says. For example, she notes that for years train passengers in India would drink chai tea out of unfired clay cups, then toss the cups out the window to the side of the tracks, where they would degrade. When plastic cups were introduced the habit continued, littering the landscape. “I can look at a list of [materials] and go, ‘Yeah, that’ll work.’ But is that appropriate? Does it fit the community?… How does it fit into the bigger scheme of things?” —Wendy Jedlička
“Culture is really key,” says Jedlička. “That’s one of the things that the systems thinking methodologies don’t directly address. They look at profitability, which is great; they look at people, fair trade, and the environment, which is super important. But that culture aspect, that’s what makes everything else sink or swim.”
In other words, sustainability is based on the context. “I can look at a list of [materials] and go, ‘Yeah, that’ll work,’” Jedlička says. “But is that appropriate? Does it fit the community?… How does it fit into the bigger scheme of things?”
She offers The Beer Store in Ontario, Canada, as an example. In 2021 they collected 98% of the refillable glass bottles sold in their home province, reusing each 15 times on average. This system works because it has become part of the culture.
The Beer Store is one of many companies across the world that follows the “milkman” model, where packaging is reused. Loop is a global reuse platform that works with companies to help build a circular economy. It partners with retailers like McDonalds, brands like Coca Cola, and operational partners like FedEx to enhance adoption of multiuse packaging.
Whole System Thinking
The scope of sustainable packaging ranges far beyond the debate over glass versus plastic — a conversation that is ongoing — and there isn’t a universal sustainable packaging material. “There’s not one answer, and there’s not one optimal packaging type. I mean, glass is great, but paper is also great, and so are many other materials,” says Jedlička, “in the right context, and preferably as part of a closed-loop system.”
In the perspectives of Muncke and Jedlička, as important as the stuff our stuff comes in, is considering why we need a product in the first place and the culture in which it functions. Taking these additional aspects into consideration allows decision makers — both producers and consumers — to think more holistically about packaging and products, which is more likely to change the systems in which this all occurs, and, in doing so, contribute to finding packaging that is truly sustainable.
Editor’s note: Elise Bernstein wrote this story as a participant in the Ensia Mentor Program. The mentor for the project was Mary Hoff.
Improved strategies to reuse and recover glass and aluminum can help retailers achieve sustainability goals
Tomra’s reverse vending solutions for collecting, reusing and recycling aluminum and glass now have the option to issue refunds with a digital voucher.
While numerous initiatives exist to reduce the amount of plastic consumption in retail, there are still plenty of other packaging materials that can have a negative impact on the environment if not responsibly conserved. Two of the most recyclable and reusable — and often overlooked — materials are glass and aluminum.
Greener GoalsIn 2018, 39.6% of beer and soft-drink bottles were recovered for recycling, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with 39.8% of wine and liquor bottles and 15.0% of food and other glass jars recycled. In total, 33.1% of all glass food and beverage containers were recycled. Meanwhile, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Can Manufacturers Institute, the aluminum beverage can recycling rate was 45% in 2020.
Bumping up these percentages can vastly improve retailers’ sustainability goals. In fact, glass is infinitely recyclable — unlike some plastics — without experiencing any loss in purity or quality. The Arlington, Va.-based Glass Packaging Institute points out that more than a ton of natural resources is saved for every ton of glass recycled. One ton of carbon dioxide is reduced for every 6 tons of recycled container glass used in the manufacturing process.The Can Manufacturers Institute also estimates that increasing the recycled content of the average can reduces its carbon footprint, since making an aluminum beverage can from recycled material results in more than 90% fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than making the container from primary material.
Consumer CollectionSeven in 10 supermarket shoppers are trying to reduce their impact on the environment, as indicated by a recent Coca-Cola Retailing Research Council North America report. Additionally, not all communities have recycling collections come to their homes. As a result, incorporating a recycling collection site at the retail level can have a direct impact on shopper loyalty. A convenient and easy option for grocery stores to help shoppers recycle aluminum and glass is via reverse vending machines, which collect empty and used bottles and cans in return for money or other forms of incentivization to the recycler.
One example of reverse vending solutions for collecting, reusing and recycling aluminum and glass is Norway-based Tomra. With 82,000-plus installations across more than 60 markets, Tomra’s reverse vending machines capture 40 billion used beverage containers every year, reducing reliance on raw materials and ensuring that fewer containers end up in landfills, oceans and streets, while bringing real benefits to stores and their communities.Tomra’s various systems are geared toward grocery retailers of any size, with indoor and outdoor installations available. Units now have the option to issue recycling refunds not only with a traditional paper voucher, but also with a digital voucher — sent directly to the end user’s mobile phone, or via instant and secure electronic transfer to their account. Both digital payouts are enabled through the myTOMRA app. Campbell, Calif.-based Olyns also provides reverse vending solutions. In November 2021, the company raised a $1 million seed round led by Vanedge Capital. Olyns’ eye-catching bottle collection machine is designed for high-traffic indoor locations, and its gamified mobile app provides bottle refunds and rewards. Each Olyns machine reportedly collects about 1.5 metric tons of recycled material per year. Don’t forget partnering with CPG packaging companies like Westminster, Colo.-based Ball Corp., which supplies innovative, sustainable aluminum packaging solutions for beverage, personal care and household products. Driving category growth, the company’s Ball Aluminum Cup can be easily recycled like its aluminum can counterparts. In fact, according to Ball Corp., aluminum cans, cups and bottles can be recycled and back on a store shelf within 60 days. Meanwhile, big-name retailers like Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart are touting their own recycling efforts. The food retailer joined forces with soft-drink giant PepsiCo Beverages North America in late August 2021 on a pilot program to boost recycling awareness and participation in Tulsa, Okla. Shoppers were invited to bring their beverage containers to be properly recycled from Thursdays to Sundays, with encouragement to participate via the chance to earn rewards and prizes.
After Fred Meyer customers consume products that are part of Loop’s program, they drop off the packaging at designated in-store drop-off units to be picked up, cleaned, refilled and repurchased by a new shopper.
Get in the LoopIn addition to recycling efforts, retailers are accelerating initiatives in the reuse movement. TerraCycle’s Loop, the global reuse platform that was initially launched via e-commerce, is now moving in-store with food retailers. Loop is enabled by a multi-stakeholder coalition of manufacturers, retailers and consumers that aims to “Eliminate the Idea of Waste.” Loop’s movement to an in-store retail model began in Paris with Carrefour in December 2020. In 2021, Loop launched in-store at Aeon in Japan and at Tesco in the United Kingdom. The platform recently expanded to the United States with rollouts in such retailers as The Kroger Co. in October 2021. Loop’s business model consists of participating brands offering products in refillable, reusable glass or metal containers that are merchandised in dedicated Loop-specific displays. After customers consume the products, they drop off the empty packaging at designated drop-off units. Loop then picks up the empty containers from the store to be cleaned, refilled and made available for purchase by a new shopper.
“Loop’s goal has always been to grow, scale and be accessible to consumers around the world,” says Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of Trenton, N.J.-based TerraCycle and Loop. “With the world’s largest retailers bringing Loop to physical brick-and-mortar locations, we are giving consumers what they’ve been asking for since Loop was introduced in 2019 — the ability to purchase the products they use every day in durable, reusable containers, with the convenience of shopping at their local market.”Cincinnati-based Kroger recently strengthened its partnership with Loop in February. Through a first-of-its-kind partnership in the United States, customers can now walk into one of 25 Kroger-owned Fred Meyer stores in the Portland, Ore., area and purchase more than 20 products from leading consumer brands packaged in reusable containers. The new Loop assortment includes well-known food and household products from a range of brands, including Arbor Teas, Cascade, Clorox, Gerber, Nature’s Heart, Nature’s Path, Pantene, Seventh Generation and Stubb’s, as well as Kroger’s own Simple Truth brand. More brands are expected to be added to the Loop product portfolio in the coming months.
“Our focus on innovative solutions as we continue on our Zero Hunger | Zero Waste journey aligns with Loop’s mission to create a convenient circular packaging platform,” notes Lisa Zwack, Kroger’s head of sustainability. “Customers are increasingly seeking out sustainable products and services that fit their lifestyle, and this collection makes it convenient. As the first grocer in America to offer these products, Kroger is pleased to take another meaningful step toward a world with zero waste.”Be on the lookout for other reuse pioneers. For example, Algramo has developed a reuse system powered by vending machines that dispense household products into smart reusable packaging. The Chile-based company recently expanded into North America, and is now piloting is reuse systems in New York City, having previously piloted the system in its home country with retailers such as Walmart. Zero-waste grocers are also on the rise. With claims of being the first zero-waste grocery store, Nude Foods Market, in Boulder, Colo., has everything a traditional grocery store has — produce, prepared meals, snacks, bulk items, cleaning products, beauty products, and more — just without all of the plastic packaging. Instead, everything comes in reusable, returnable glass jars and is local, organic or rescued. Customers pay a small deposit per jar and then receive that deposit back, minus a small cleaning and sanitizing fee, to spend in the store when they return the jar. Promoting a circular economy, the jars are reused thousands of times.
2022 Giant National Capital Barbecue Battle Set to be 100% Carbon Neutral; Giant Food and GreenPrint Team to Make Popular Festival Greener
Event to Spotlight Local Grocer's Commitment to Sustainability with Category Leaders including Divert, Loop and Volta LANDOVER, Md. , June 15, 2022 /PRNewswire/ -- Giant Food, the leading greater Washington, D.C. regional grocery chain, announces that the 30th annual Giant National Capital Barbecue Battle will be 100% carbon neutral through a collaboration with GreenPrint, a global environmental technology leader of certified offset projects to reduce the harmful effects of carbon through reforestation, alternative energy and methane reduction. Giant's sustainability partners Divert, Loop and Volta will also be on-site at the event which takes place June 25-26, in person for the first time since 2019, and features live music, family entertainment and delicious BBQ. https://giantfood.com/
About Giant Food
Since opening its first location over 85 years ago in Washington, D.C. in 1936, Giant has been an integral part of the communities and customers it serves. Giant is committed to being a Better Neighbor and has designated four main giving pillars that address local Food Insecurity, Military Support, Pediatric Cancer Research and Social Equality. Giant is headquartered in Landover, Md. and operates 164 supermarkets in Virginia, Maryland, Delawar e, and the District of Columbia with approximately 20,000 associates. Included within the 164 stores are 152 full-service pharmacies, 92 full-service PNC Banks and 26 Starbucks locations. Giant fits all the ways today's busy customers want to shop - whether in store or online. With 159 Giant Pickup locations and Giant Delivers available in all of its markets, customers have even more convenient options right at their fingertips to get the best products and prices, whenever and however they choose. For more information on Giant, visit: www.giantfood.com.
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Nécessaire customers can recycle the empty products that are not readily recyclable via curb-side options.
Nécessaire, the creator of personal care products, has partnered with international recycling leader TerraCycle to launch a US national recycling program for Nécessaire’s product packaging.
By participating, Nécessaire customers can recycle the empty products that are not readily recyclable via curb-side options.
“We are pleased to expand our recycling efforts via a partnership with TerraCycle,” said Nécessaire CEO / Co-Founder Randi Christiansen. “Today, we take a three-part approach to recycling – first, we continue to source materials we believe to have a better carbon footprint; second, we verify our recycling claims via How2Recycle; and third, we are excited to partner with TerraCycle to ensure that the packaging that cannot be readily recycled via US curb-side solutions now has a home. The fact is that we have a footprint at Nécessaire – we take more than we give – and today, we recognize we can be responsible luxury at best. Joining forces with TerraCycle is part of our broader commitment to responsible luxury. A commitment towards which we still have far to go.”
Through the Nécessaire Recycling Program, consumers can send in the Nécessaire packaging that is not readily recyclable via curb-side programs, to be recycled for free, including but not limited to empty tubes, plastic closures, complex closures and pumps. Participation in the program is easy: sign up here and mail in eligible Nécessaire packaging using the provided prepaid UPS shipping label. Once collected, the packaging is cleaned and melted into hard plastic that can be remolded to make new recycled products.
While the Nécessaire Recycling Program is an integral part of the brand’s strategy to mitigate its environmental footprint, it is certainly not the first impact initiative introduced by Nécessaire. Since 2019, its first year in business, Nécessaire was an inaugural member of Climate Neutral. Nécessaire has measured, offset and reduced its carbon outputs annually. Nécessaire is also a member of 1% For the Planet, allocating a 1% earth tax to environmental nonprofits defending its air, land, water and wildlife worldwide.
“More and more consumers are focusing not only on the wellness of the skin, but also on the wellness of the planet,” said TerraCycle CEO and Founder Tom Szaky. “By participating in the Nécessaire Recycling Program, consumers have a unique opportunity to demonstrate their respect for the environment by diverting their packaging waste from landfills, as well as through the products that they choose to include in their hair care routines.”
The Nécessaire Recycling Program is open to any interested individual, school, office, or community organization.
As another school year comes to an end, the time has come for teachers and parents everywhere to clean out their backpacks and classrooms and dispose of their well-loved school supplies. This year, instead of relegating all the spent writing instruments, used stationery, old toys, piles of empty cleaning products, and the numerous other items that have accumulated over the year to already overcrowded landfills - recycle them through TerraCycle. International recycling leader TerraCycle is on a mission to help consumers recycle more and make the most out of their trash with a convenient recycling solution designed to solve virtually anything standard curbside recycling programs cannot accept – The Zero Waste Box (ZWB). According to the EPA, Americans throw away over 1.6 million disposable pens a year. This is only a small fraction of all of the school supply waste that is landfilled annually. TerraCycle’s Zero Waste Box solution provides a turn-key recycling option for all types of classroom waste, which are not typically recyclable through conventional recycling facilities. Available for both school-wide and individual use, the Zero Waste Box solution empowers students, teachers, and parents to responsibly dispose of their used school supplies while making an investment in preserving the environment for future generations. “Don’t let the name Zero Waste Box fool you, these are far more than your standard cardboard box,” said Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle. “Zero Waste Boxes allow consumers to recycle traditionally hard-to-recycle items with the assurance that these materials will not be landfilled. This school year TerraCycle is encouraging students, teachers, and parents to clean up their backpacks, classrooms, and the planet with the help of a Zero Waste Box.” To recycle school supply waste, TerraCycle offers the following Zero Waste Boxes:
- Backpacks - Zero Waste Box™
- Glue Sticks and Bottles - Zero Waste Box™
- Binders and Presentation Materials Zero Waste Box™
- Pens, Pencils, and Markers - Zero Waste Box™
- Office Supplies - Zero Waste Box™
- Toys - Zero Waste Box™
- Pens, Pencils, and Markers - Zero Waste Pallet
- Glue Sticks and Bottles - Zero Waste Pallet
- Binders and Presentation Materials - Zero Waste Pallet
By News release
Local musicians are invited to attend a free recycle and restring event at Placerville News Company, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, June 4 . Sponsored by D’Addario and international recycling company TerraCycle, musicians can bring any old instrument strings for recycling and get their electric or acoustic guitars restrung with D’Addario NYXL or Nickel Bronze Acoustic strings. Old strings collected during the event will be recycled through Playback, D’Addario’s free, national recycling program. The collected metal strings will be converted into recycled alloys which are commonly utilized in the construction of guitar necks and the recycled nylon will be used in automotive applications, for instance. Located adjacent to the Bell Tower in downtown Placerville, Placerville News Company has served as Hangtown’s premier newsstand for more than 160 years. In addition to gifts, souvenirs and art supplies, Placerville News Company recently introduced a new music counter featuring products from D’Addario including, guitar strings, bass strings and accessories. Playback is the world’s first instrument string recycling program, launched through a partnership between D’Addario and innovative recycling company TerraCycle. The program is a part of D’Addario’s Players Circle loyalty program and allows registered users to recycle their used strings in exchange for extra Players Circle points. Musicians attending the recycle and restring events will receive a code at the event, redeemable for extra Players Circle points. Points can be used towards merchandise or donated to the D’Addario Foundation, the company’s nonprofit organization supporting music education in underserved communities. D’Addario has been consistently committed to the environment, working to reduce their company’s packaging waste and use the most environmentally responsible packaging available on the market. Their partnership with TerraCycle allows them to further reinforce their role as an environmental leader in the music industry. TerraCycle is a global leader in recycling typically non-recyclable waste, working with companies to implement recycling initiatives and finding solutions for materials otherwise destined for landfill. Musicians interested in recycling through Playback can visit daddario.com/playback. For more information on the recycle and restring event contact Placerville News Company at (530) 622-4510.
Emory University recently became one of 37 colleges participating in the Gillette University Recycling Pilot Program in partnership with the recycling company TerraCycle, which specializes in handling hard-to-recycle materials. The program encourages students to recycle their used disposable razors, replaceable-blade cartridge units and associated packaging at public drop-off locations across the country. By joining the program, Emory will have the option to act as a drop-off location for razors. In a May 24 email to the Wheel, TerraCycle Senior Account Manager Marielle Christie wrote that if the University decides to act as a razor collection site, the location will be coordinated in the fall. Students who register for the program by June 3 will be entered in a raffle for the chance to win a year’s supply of Gillette or Venus razors, two tickets to an NFL game at Gillette Stadium or a heated razor. One winner from each school will be announced by the end of June, according to Christie. The university program — which is in its first year — was created in hopes of recycling the estimated 2 billion razors and refill blades thrown away each year in the United States, which Christie called a “waste epidemic.” “The recycling programs are grassroot, community-based efforts, so we encourage students to sign up and participate not only for the chances to win the prizes, but also to have the opportunity to divert this super unique and niche waste stream from the already-crowded landfills that we have in the U.S.,” Christie said. Christie explained that disposable razors are a “highly overlooked waste stream,” as they are made of both plastic and metal, and therefore cannot be recycled through traditional “curbside” methods in blue recycling bins. To avoid being landfilled, razors need to be collected with the intention of separating the metal and plastic components. “Through our partnership with Gillette, we are working to inspire Emory students to rethink what is waste, as well as help foster awareness that solutions do exist for items that may seem otherwise unrecyclable,” TerraCycle founder and CEO Tom Szaky wrote in a May 4 email to the Wheel.Daniel Sagarna (24C) helped bring the program to Emory after his friend’s father, TerraCycle Chief Administrative Officer Richard Perl, asked him to raise awareness about the program on campus and gauge how receptive students were to the idea. Sagarna collected student signatures on a petition to get Emory involved with the program. The petition was then given to TerraCycle and University administration. Although Sagarna said the number of signatures was not disclosed to him, he noted that students generally supported the idea. “Whenever I would explain to someone one-on-one, face-to-face what the whole program partnership was, they thought, ‘This is a really good idea. This is something I also didn’t think about,’” Sagarna said. All Gillette products collected at the drop-off locations will be cleaned and sorted by material composition. The products will then be broken down and used by manufacturing companies to produce goods such as outdoor furniture, shipping pellets, storage containers, construction tubing and athletic fields. The idea behind the program is not new — Gillette first partnered with TerraCycle in 2019 to create the “world’s first national razor recycling program” and offer drop-off locations. However, the companies wanted to better reach the younger generation, which Christie said is more likely to prioritize sustainability. Gillette and TerraCycle were inspired to create a branch of the program and contest specifically dedicated to colleges. Sagarna agreed with Christie, explaining that teenagers and young adults were “given” environmental problems to solve. “It’s unfortunate, but it is up to us, because we’re going to be the people that are living here in 40, 50, 60 years,” Sagarna said. “The fact that we’re young, and we’re going to have more and more power as we grow up, it’s definitely great that they’re using that.” Emory’s involvement in the program follows two years of waste management issues. During the 2020-21 academic year, Emory’s compostable waste was landfilled, as the University’s former compost partner succumbed to compost market failures in September 2020. Without a compost partner amid the pandemic, all compostable waste was rerouted to the landfill. Emory’s reliance on single-use plastics — such as takeout containers and personal protective equipment — also increased during the pandemic. Pre-consumer material, which includes waste from food preparation that are disposed of before consumption, began being composted again in summer 2021 after Emory formed a new partnership with the waste management company Goodr. However, the University still faced composting difficulties during the 2021-22 academic year. All post-consumer materials, such as leftover food scraps and soiled napkins, from the Clairmont campus were landfilled due to residents not properly sorting their waste between designated bins. Clairmont compost was thus “contaminated” with non-compostable waste, according to a March 25 email to the Wheel by Associate Vice President for Facilities Management David Forbes. As a result, Goodr could not properly compost Clairmont’s post-consumer materials. Sagarna noted that although students can personally work to correctly sort their compost, he does not believe enough people will take it into their own hands. “At that point, you’ve got to really start changing the way that we think about [sorting and composting],” Sagarna said. “[Changing how we think about it] sort of does lie on the school a bit more, and changing the way that the school operates.” Joining the program brings Emory one step closer to becoming a sustainable institution, Sagarna added. “The goal is to eventually become as eco-friendly and sustainable as possible,” Sagarna said. “This definitely does pave the way for more things to come in the future.”