A new way of thinking about food waste

It all changed in the 1950s. That’s the point in time where TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky said the attitude towards packaging changed. Szaky is the Hungarian born, Canadian-raised, United States-residing, evangelical-like champion of Loop, an enterprise that is set on reusing products instead of recycling them. The headline act at the Future of Reuse event at Barangaroo in Sydney in March, Szaky shared his views on the history of rubbish, what we need to do with our rubbish, and where the Loop system has a place in the circular economy.

Why did Szaky narrow it down to the 1950s as being the tipping point? Because that was when packaging disposability met head on with a new era in insatiable consumerism.

“Before the 1950s garbage didn’t exist; it was a by-product but nature knew what to do with it,” he said. “A 100 years ago, every chair in this room that we are sitting on would have been made of wood. You could throw them in the forest and the forest would have thanked you. The carpet would have been cotton and the forest would have been just fine breaking it down. Today, most things in this room will be garbage eventually, but if we threw it into a forest, it would hate us for it.

“Then the 1950s roll around. Disposability brought around unparalleled convenience and affordability, which elevated people out of poverty, allowed folks to not be in the kitchen for two hours at a time. It offered huge and profound benefits for society.”

But, according to Szaky, a strange thing happened – the packaging the product comes in became the property of the consumer.

“And is there any disposable package you want to own when it is empty?” he said. “Take coffee cups. Once you finish your coffee you own the coffee cup. Isn’t that weird? If I took it from you when it was empty you would have no problem relinquishing ownership.”

So it has become a mindset. And one of the truism of any packaging waste – waste in general, according to Szaky – is that there has always been negative connotations attached with it. With other contentious subjects, such as climate change or the use of palm oil, there has been debate over the merits of palm oil in products, or whether climate change is a naturally occurring event or the result of man-made pollutants. With waste, there has been no debate, it has always been a negative.

Szaky believes that in the past two years it’s hit a point where it’s moved from a problem to a crisis.

“Three or four years ago I would have had to explain a photo of empty plastics bottles in an ocean to some people and what it represented. Now I don’t have to anymore,” he said. “I think it has tipped over because it such an easy topic to have an emotional perspective on. You could argue that sometimes that emotion is misguided. I don’t think plastic is evil. Plastic is just a material – whether it is an alloy, a fibre or polymer – but it is how we use these materials that is the real question we should be asking ourselves.”

One answer is to recycle, which is something that Australians have  embraced over the past decade. Yet, consumers realise that there is only so much landfill to go around, while there is also many applications that recycled material can be put to use. But is it enough to take those empty soft drink cans, or those soft plastic lolly wraps and put them to better use? Yes, but there is a problem arising, according to Szaky, and he gave the example of the city of Philadelphia in the US as to what is happening now.

“In 2013, the city was paid $67 per tonne for its recyclables – like PET bottles and aluminium cans,” he said. “Today, they have to pay $105 per tonne to get them recycled. Now the city is debating whether they should have recycling in the city at all. It’s a fair point because it’s now a big expense for tax payers – it’s gone from a revenue to a cost.”

TerraCycle has been at the forefront of recycling and has come up with many innovative ideas to make sure that landfills are kept empty, oceans free of plastics and other waste, as well as making sure that people are informed of the many ecological options when getting rid of waste. The company works with retailers to reinforce to the public that they have eco-friendly policies, and also help them not only keep market share, but increase it.

“We do aerosol recycling with Unilever through DM, which is a big pharmacy in Germany,” he said. “The message is you can bring in aerosols to be recycled – such as the propellent, aluminium and plastic – and turn them into bicycles for kids in need. But what is DM getting? Foot traffic – half a million extra consumers that would not have shopped at their store (according to them) and Unilever gets a huge display in the store all year round, which drives profit dollars.”

While TerraCycle started out as a recycling company – and continues to be so – it has started a new program called Loop, which is designed to take sustainability one step further. While Szaky embraces products that are made out of recycled materials – especially those that have been partially constructed from recovered ocean waste – his main plank is reuse. And this is what Loop is all about. So how does it work?

Take Häagan Daz ice cream for example. Instead of buying a tub of ice-cream in the usual cardboard/wax packaging, it will be available in a stainless-steel container. Once the ice-cream is finished, it’s ready to be picked up, returned to the Loop station, washed, and then returned to the brand for reuse.

In order to take the business to the next step, Loop has partnered in Australia with Woolworths, who is providing the online platform for the service.

“It begins with an online platform so users learn as much as they can,” said Szaky. “When the Woolie’s platform launches, customers will be able to access 200 Loop products on their website in home care, personal care, packaged food and beverages – where there are big waste issues. Once the consumer selects the items they want, you pay a one-time, refundable deposit for the tote bag, then Woolworths will deliver the products. And here’s the cool part – you’ll get a return bag and you put all your returned Loop products back in the bag – just like garbage. We do that on purpose so you feel like you are throwing something away. No cleaning, no sorting, just throwing it into a bin. It just so happens that the contents of the bin are reusable. During the next delivery, Woolies will pick it up for you from your home.”

One of the issues that is not lost on Szaky is trying to get consumers on board. This is why the company has tried to make it as easy as possible for those who are embracing the concept.

“Those bags of reusable garbage end up back at a Loop centre that we’re setting up, and will partner with DHL and Ecolab. They will be cleaning the containers and we will sort them out – a bit like a MERF. We store them, clean them and send them back to the manufacturers to be refilled. This is important, because every actor has normalised the process and they do as little as possible.”

The brands pay for it, but the idea is that they save money on not having to buy packaging. The manufacturer is filling units with only the difference being that the product will arrive in a slightly different form from its current configuration and will be more durable. Szaky said it is the same concept as normal shopping – take something that is bulk, put it in package, then on pallets and send it to a retailer. The retailer puts it on the shelf, the consumer buys it, but instead of throwing it in a recycling or rubbish bin they put it in reusable bag.

But will consumers take to the idea? Yet another thing to have to think about during the day – throw the food wrapping in the bin? Recycle it in the bin outside? Put it in the soft plastic pile to be recycled at Coles? Now, a reusable bag? Szaky is confident it will take off, not least because the brands have hit a nerve with consumers with something they didn’t see coming.

“Take the original Axe deodorant container, which has recyclability issues for a variety of reasons. It has a low cost, but that cost is in the whole price of the deodorant, which is ironic because you don’t want to own it once it is empty,” Szaky said. “The company designed a new deodorant exclusively for Loop, and it’s incredibly beautiful, stainless steel, which is not just design beauty but aesthetic beauty. It’s more expensive to make, no doubt about it. But what goes into the price of your deodorant is the depreciation of the container and the cost of cleaning, which allows the deodorant to be the same price as the disposable version.”

And while the design of these new products has had a huge impact on the psyche of the consumer and their willingness to embrace the new concept, there are also practical considerations about the design that make them different from its disposable counterpart.

Take the aforementioned Häagan Daz ice cream for example. According to Szaky, most Americans eat ice cream in their bedroom, with the average serving being a punnet. And the number one complaint of eating a tub of ice cream in bed is how messy it is.

“Condensation on the cardboard packaging is annoying, but the number one complaint is that their hand gets cold,” said Szaky. “Another complaint is that because your hand is warming the pack it melts from the outside so you have a bowl of ice cream floating in ice cream soup.

“Whereas a new container for ice cream designed for the Häagan Daz range solves this problem because it has two layers of stainless steel – the outside is warm, while the inside is -18˚C and melts from the top down not from the outside in,” said Szaky. “Even the inside is concave so you don’t have a concave angle at the bottom, which means consumers can scoop out every last little bit of ice cream.”

And what has been the overall reaction to Loop being instigated? At the time of writing, its roll out is being ramped up all over the world, including Australia. In the US, the world’s biggest supermarket chain, Kroger, is setting up Loop facilities at some of its west coast stores, while Walgreen is doing the same on the US east coast.

“In France it will happen in July while in Japan it will be October,” said Szaky. “And the most important part is that you can return the empty container to anywhere you want. You don’t have to remember where you purchased the item. You can buy your ice cream at retailer one and return it to retailer two, and then at retailer two you can buy your coffee and a reusable container and return it to retailer three and so on and so forth.”

If a brand wants to come on board with the Loop concept, there are a few rules that have to be taken into consideration, one being that the packaging/container that the product comes in must be usable at least 10 times. Another is that is that it must be cleanable to the standards in their category. Also, once its life has come to an end, the container/packaging must be recyclable unto itself.

“Loops fundamental role is not to be a product or a retailer but to be a platform for reuse,” Szaky said. “One of these ice-cream containers goes through a big reuse cycle, and then at some point it can be recycled. But the steel, for example, in the Häagan Daz ice-cream container will always be an ice cream container. That allows the materials to stay in a closed-loop fashion. We at TerraCycle call it a down cycle – it moves it into one lower category.

“Take paper. It goes from beautiful white paper to toilet paper or newspaper. If you look at plastic it goes from a water bottle to shampoo bottle to a frisbee or park bench.”

When all is said and done, Szaky sees it as a win-win-win-win situation. It is a win for TerraCycle, it is win for the consumer, it is a win for the environment, and it is a win for the brand.

“The reality is, if you put purpose into the product you can take down your marketing because mainstream media and social media will do more for you than marketing would. You can keep the price of the product the same if you spend the marketing dollars to fund the new polymer. And it ends up doing really well. A product acts like it is completely disposable but is actually reusable. And it also moves package from being a cost to an asset.”

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