Solving the single-use packaging problem with durable design

Loop is inspiring brands and consumers to choose reusable packaging, requiring a global transformation to solve our single use packaging problem.

Two people open a box that says Loop on it.

All images courtesy of Loop.

Much thought has gone into the planet’s single-use packaging problem, especially as consumer awareness about recycling, composting, and materials use continues to rise. But for every conscious choice to reuse a thermal mug at a coffee shop, multiple issues remain on how to transform our waste into something economically and ecologically feasible for reintroduction into the product chain.

So, what if we start all over again from the origin of the problem? Delete single-use packaging from the options and deliver consumer goods in reusable containers from the start. It’s a bold idea, and one that will require cooperation from the largest players in consumer packaged goods.

The good news is, it’s already happening.

TerraCycle and Loop: Changing the system from the inside out

Global recycling provider TerraCycle has spent two decades identifying the inefficiencies that limit the potential for recycling and reuse of the endless bulk of packaging entering the waste stream. Now they are looking at ways to intercept the problem at its source. “Why do we have a garbage problem? Because the companies who manage our waste are not involved in the design process,” says TerraCycle CEO and Founder Tom Szaky. The solution, he realized, “is to have the garbage company approve it before it can exist.”

And so, in January 2019, TerraCycle announced Loop to help lead the massive rethinking required to invigorate brands and consumers with new possibilities in durable, cleanable, reusable packaging. Loop’s goal is to ensure all of the packaging in Loop can easily be recycled at the end of its useful life. Available online now in the US and UK, at Kroger and Walgreens in the US and Tesco in the UK. In France, Carrefour has already begun to roll out Loop sections in select stores in Paris.

To make the Loop model work, Szaky and team knew the stakeholders in this revised product delivery cycle would have to be the most familiar names in consumer goods. While Szaky announced the new venture at the World Economic Forum in 2019, conversations about this idea for a fundamental business model shift began a couple years earlier with brands like Procter & Gamble, Unilever, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and UPS who quickly saw the value. In this new business model, product manufacturers would reimagine their packaging as reusable assets that would depreciate over time, making the numbers work out from an accounting perspective as well. “When they move the package from being a cost to an asset, you can explode the investment per package significantly,” Szaky notes.

Reimagining the entire customer experience of a product and its packaging creates some compelling opportunities, too. In addition to delivering an item that feels more substantial (and worth keeping and reusing), new designs can fix old problems — such as the way ice cream gets stuck in the corners of pint containers.

This is where Loop’s in-house design consultants come in. Working closely with partner brands’ agencies or in-house product design, R&D, and operations departments, Loop assists in a step-by-step analysis and exploration of how to transition from single-use packaging to reusable packaging. Everything including aesthetics, usage improvement and materials is up for discussion — with Loop there to help provide ideas about what’s available today and what might be possible in the future.

(Re)design as a disruptor

A big part of the redesign process is actually determined by the fundamental properties of reuse, which Loop helps to explain to clients as well. “We help them understand our parameters, our requirements, how we clean containers, how we process each order, and what they can do on their end to develop reusable packaging fit for the Loop platform,” explains Jasmin Druffner, durable packaging developer with Loop.

Once Loop has educated its clients, they then consider how these principles can be interpreted in a modern, eco-friendly aesthetic. Brands can choose from stock packaging designs or work with a partner from Loop’s network of recommended durable packaging design agencies, such as Touch Design, Drink Works, Adept Group and 4sight Inc., to help make something new and exciting.

The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Loop customers are certainly delighted with the new style of packaged goods, showing their enthusiasm by posting photos of products and packages on social media and elevating the experience to something like a fabulous unboxing experience. Eco-friendly is, after all, a very good look for a brand.

Aesthetically, the new look of these clients’ packaging is heavy on delight, both through material choice and the more substantial heft of more durably designed goods. Many brands are opting for truly distinctive appearances as they reintroduce their products through the Loop process. “For many brands it is important for brands to differentiate their new reusable packaging from the single-use version,” Druffner says. “I’d say that packaging design is the first line of defense when it comes to making that visual change for consumers.”

Design drives consumer adoption of new, eco-friendly packaging

To further help consumers make the adjustment to new packaging, most brands are opting for familiar product portions and package sizes for now, but with a perceptibly more permanent feel to their containers. The most readily reusable materials seem to be dictating a distinctly fresh and crisp aesthetic for durable packaging. Working with stainless steel, glass, polypropylene, and other engineered plastics that resist scratches and damage from impact, the packages also need to survive the Loop cleaning process, which involves washing and drying at high temperatures.

Product labeling is also shifting, with many brands opting for a permanently affixed logo on the container, while other “fine print” details are provided with accompanying inserts. Permanent artwork might be screen-printed, powder-coated, or sand-blasted onto containers. Alternatively, Druffner notes, “many brands are looking to incorporate wash-off labels, meaning that each label comes off during our cleaning processes and are re-applied during filling — this strategy enables brands to launch with more SKUs more quickly, and even fluctuate their inventory based on demand.”

Such a wide array of options can seem overwhelming, and that’s why Loop has developed design resources that help clear the path for a new idea. A stock catalog of pre-approved packaging is provided in a PDF guide that helps Loop’s clients’ in-house designers navigate through options. A similar resource for manufacturers’ R&D departments includes details on how packages will be cleaned.

Cleaning is of vital importance to the process, not just for the safety of consumers, but also for the long-term reusability and eventual recycling of the package. When a new container is still in the 3D rendering phase, Loop evaluates it for any signs of the hang ups that make it difficult to wash. Things like gaskets or hinges, narrow bottle necks or lids that won’t unlock from a tube, those are some of the countless elements that TerraCycle has seen get in the way of the recycling process. Next comes the prototyping phase, when Loop runs an item through its rigorous series of tests to check its durability. It needs to sustain 10 or more uses to pass the test.

This is where 3D design technology can take a leap in environmental impact reduction: eliminate already known, wasteful physical properties — such as rendering, prototyping, and even photoshoots — and solve them digitally.

“If you go on to the websites for some very famous brands and look at their products, many of the photos were done digitally,” says Vince Digneo, head of sustainability at Adobe. “They did not produce emissions from airfare, shipping, any kind of commuting or travel, or lights or catering or food waste or any of these things that go on with a physical photoshoot. It’s now virtual. This saves a ton of time, energy, emissions, money — and all these resources.”

Exploring 3D design as a catalyst to the plastic package revolution

The prototyping phase of this package design process is an area where an even more eco-friendly approach might be taken with 3D design. “The idea of prototyping digitally, being able to then rapid prototype and bring that to the production process through digital printing and other methods phenomenally cuts down waste,” Szaky observes.

“And it’s not just about the environmental benefit, that waste is also equal to cost. It will save tremendous amounts of money and time. It’ll allow you to innovate significantly faster and actually try to have the product accomplish what it’s intended to do, which is delight somebody and make someone’s life better in some way.”

Beyond functionality and durability, the design possibilities of reusable packaging are expanding all the time. Digital prototypes make it possible for companies to experiment with new shapes and materials — quickly and easily. There is also no risk in exploring unheard of ideas. For example, in a move to improve the customer experience, Ajinomoto’s Loop spice containers may have embedded volume sensors that can provide real-time information via an app.

That kind of reimagining of a package’s purpose, making it more valuable to consumers and also manufacturers looking to build “durable” relationships with customers that have the power to choose one product over another, is definitely proof that we can create a future where consumer packaging has a longer life. After all, we already cherish that trusty thermal coffee mug — drinking out of it is more satisfying because of the feel of the container in hand and also the choice we have made to avoid disposable options. When we can extend that mentality to other containers and welcome more into our lives, then we are a giant leap closer to a waste-free world.

It’s not just shopping, it’s about the global community of consumers, manufacturers, designers, brands, retailers and thinkers coming together for a common goal, curating our cabinets for a more environmentally friendly future.