A "milkman for groceries" scheme is launching in London later this year as the world’s biggest brands attempt to find an answer to the plastic waste epidemic.
The delivery service, called Loop, allows shoppers to buy supermarket goods in durable containers that are then left on their doorsteps to be collected, cleaned and refilled.
Brands and retailers including Tesco, Unilever, Nestle, Pepsi, Cola and Procter & Gamble have got behind the bold project in the hope of tackling the global obsession with plastics.
Akin to a modern day milkman, it allows shoppers to buy their usual brand of everyday items such as deodorant, ice cream and toothpaste in reusable containers for a similar price, plus a small deposit which is refunded when the container is collected.
All the packaging is made from high quality materials, such as stainless steel and aluminium, designed to be durable enough to be reused up to 100 times.
The waste-free shopping system is launching in Paris and New York this May, followed by London in September with roll outs in Tokyo, San Francisco and Toronto planned for 2020.
The Loop delivery service will be run by TerraCycle, an innovative recycling company, who courier and clean the items before returning them to manufacturers for reuse.
Online orders of more than around five to seven items will qualify for free delivery.
Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle, said he came up with the innovative idea after years of working on recycling projects – finally concluding that it could not solve the world’s waste crisis.
How the Loop cycle works
"We realised that the solution to waste is not recycling," he said. "Let me preface by saying recycling is critically important and we really need to take it incredibly seriously but it’s not going to solve waste at the root cause.
"I would say it’s single use, or disposability. That came about in the 1950s and it really won because of its incredible convenience and affordability… so with that realisation we said what we need to do is create a solution to disposability that has the same virtues."
"You could call it the milkman version – but if you take a comparison to the milkman it’s not just about refill-ability, it’s about elevating design and function as well."
Unilever said some of its brands – including deodorants Dove and Lynx – are testing new formats within the Loop system with "a premium, refillable deodorant stick" made from stainless steel.
The company estimates that each deodorant stick will last for a month on average, with the exterior packaging designed to last around eight years, saving the equivalent of 100 plastic packs from being thrown away.
In all, nine Unilever brands will be on offer to customers with new, reusable packaging.
Alan Jope, Unilever’s CEO, said: “We want to put an end to the current ‘take-make-dispose’ culture and are committed to taking big steps towards designing our products for re-use. We’re proud to be a founding partner of Loop, which will deliver our much-loved brands in packaging which is truly circular by design.”
Future reusable packaging
While Unilever does not set the retail price for its products, a spokesperson said “the idea is that we’re looking for a similar price for consumers.”
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In the UK, shoppers will be able to use Loop’s delivery service through Tesco, which will be selling both its own-brand and branded products in the reusable packaging from September.
It will begin online, where customers must register as Loop members, before being rolled out to physical shops a few months later.
A spokesman for the supermarket said: “We are always looking for new ways to help our customers remove, reduce or recycle their plastic and packaging. Terracycle are a disruptive company and we are excited to be working with them on developing new ideas and solutions.”
Mr Szaky, 36, acknowledged that the project is a costly investment for manufacturers, who are spending between six and seven figures on redesigning their packaging.
But he said the "key shift" was switching the ownership of the packaging from the shopper to the manufacturer.
"By not owning the package, you don’t have to put the full cost of the package into the product, only the use of the package," he said.
Moreover with plastics now expected to outweigh fish in the ocean by 2050, global brands are under increasing public pressure to come up with workable solutions to the waste crisis.
Mr Szaky said his first targets were companies who Greenpeace had listed as its top 10 worst plastic polluters – eight of those have now partnered with him.
"We wanted to focus on the Goliaths out there because they are the biggest contributors to waste so let’s solve the biggest and that will have the biggest impact," he said.
Critics may highlight the fact that a delivery service has its own environmental impact – but Mr Szaky insists a number of life-cycle tests suggest the impact is between 50 to 75 per cent better than using disposable packaging.
While the trial is ultimately dependent on customer uptake for long term success, but Mr Szaky is optimistic.
"The busy mum who shops at Tesco can keep shopping at Tesco and just add Loop into her ecosystem. As Loop gets more and more choices, hopefully one day she’ll be able to wake up and… the concept of waste is gone."