Online store pilot project tests consumer reactions to reusable grocery packaging model

Loop pilot project

SUDBURY – A pilot project launched last month will test Ontario consumers’ response to a new reusable packaging model. Loop, a partnership between recycling company TerraCycle and grocery company Loblaw, is an online store selling groceries, personal care and household items in reusable packaging. While it’s not an option yet for this region, the project is ultimately a test of whether consumers are ready to embrace this new model. The store carries some popular brands including PC, Organic Meadow, Seventh Generation, Hershey’s Chipits, Ocean Spray, Heinz Ketchup and Nature’s Path. There are 98 products listed online, although not all are currently in stock. 

“The fact is that there’s too much plastic waste in our environment. We are part of the problem and must be part of the solution,” said Galen Weston, executive chairman, Loblaw Companies Limited. “We are actively reducing plastic waste in hundreds of ways in our business today through better processes, new materials, and packaging design. Loop is one of the most innovative opportunities as we work with them to make it easier for consumers to be part of the solution.”

Loop works by having consumers pay a deposit on each package that is fully refundable when the package is returned. People place their order online through which is then shipped by FedEx in a tote. Containers are returned for refund and Loop sorts and professionally cleans them, thus creating a zero-waste shopping loop. Deposits range from $0.50 to $5.50 for a stainless steel Haagen Dazs ice cream container. There is a $25 FedEx fee that is waived for orders over $50. 

“Loop is designed to be as convenient as the single-use shopping experience while creating a sustainable, circular model for consumption,” said Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of Loop and TerraCycle. “Collaboration is necessary to tackle the waste crisis head on. As Canada’s largest retailer, Loblaw’s operational scale and years of expertise will make Loop accessible to more shoppers and make meaningful progress toward our shared goal of reducing waste.”

In October 2020, Ontario introduced regulations to improve the existing blue box program. In a statement, Jeff Yurek, minister of the environment, conservation and parks, explained that, “By harnessing the innovation and ingenuity of industry and expanding recycling opportunities for people and business across the province, we will divert more waste away from landfills by finding new purposes for products and reinserting them back into the economy.” 

The legislation was intended to transition the costs of the program away from municipal taxpayers by making the producers of products and packaging fully responsible for costs. Reducing plastic waste and litter and making producers responsible for managing the full lifecycle of their products is a key part of the province’s Made in Ontario Environment Plan. The proposed framework ensured that programs that were already having a positive environmental impact, such as the Beer Store’s deposit and return program, could continue under the new producer responsibility model. 

The Loop pilot project does function like the deposit return system on beer and wine bottles except with food packaging, but questions arise about the upfront affordability of the program, especially with quickly rising food costs. 

Liz Anawati, owner/co-founder of The Nickel Refillery, a zero-waste store located in Sudbury, thinks high deposit fees could be a barrier for some. “If you’re focused and worried about putting food on the table, you’re not going to worry about where the plastic ends up.”

Demand itself is essential for the price point to come down, she believes. “The only way for us to see improved pricing is through demand and for it to become more normal, across societal norms. It’s going to be a really big deal to get people to start paying more attention.”

She thinks Loop is a good start. “These name brands, up until this point, have gotten away with putting out there whatever they want. There’s been no questions asked and very little accountability. They sell how they sell. The packages are how they have them. The pricing is what they can price. For the most part they haven’t had a lot of accountability besides just making sure that product was available.” 

Retailers and brands are beginning to understand that consumers will change the way they buy, and although the initial pilot may be expensive, she does think that will change in time. “I don’t think it’s going to stay that expensive,” she said. “Maybe they can make it cheaper and choose not to? I don’t know. I personally think a lot of their prices currently are very expensive, much more so than in our store, and we’re a lot smaller, so I think they can do better. But with this initial rollout, I think they’re just giving people a glimmer.”

Ms. Anawati noted that people who are already waste reduction minded are always looking for new ways to do it and so the pricing won’t be that shocking to them. “The average person is not going to be able to afford the prices or they’re not going to bother buying the product,” she said. “In time, once consumers get more comfortable with their model and it catches on, all the producers are going to try to get on board. I think with that, too, prices will come down.”

Single use packaging and waste is a people issue, Ms. Anawati said. “If producers don’t do something they’re just going to look negligent. They’re going to lack accountability from all angles. It’s a really good thing they’re trying to do here. Whether they’re at the right price point, I would probably say they aren’t yet, but it’s a great step in the right direction.”

“It does target mainstream and that’s key,” she said. “Our model can’t target everybody. Some people see our store as radical. When you see big companies doing this it starts to normalize it. It starts to normalize reusable and refillable and I think that’s a benefit for everyone, whether it’s a small business like us or a mainstream name brand. The main thing is people are going to start talking about it now. I hope to see prices come down. I hope to see more products available. In the meantime, I’m really happy to see it started.”