Why Are Zero-Wasters Upset About a Waste-Free Delivery Service?

A new company revealed at the World Economic Forum looks like a promising way to expand low-waste consumption. Loop, launched by international recycling company Terra Cycle, intends to make reusable packaging convenient by delivering it to customers’ doors. While you might expect zero-waste activists to celebrate such a high-profile launch of a low-waste company as a victory for their mission, the movement has become intensely divided over Loop.

Loop customers can order food, health and beauty products, and cleaning supplies to be shipped to their homes in reusable stainless steel containers. When customers run out of a product, Loop can pick up those containers and sterilize them. Loop will refill those containers and send them back to customers, all at the same price for the brands’ disposable counterparts.

Major brands like Coca Cola, Unilever, and Procter & Gamble have agreed to partner with Loop. Initially, Loop will offer 300 products, though the company plans to expand its offerings over time.

Loop will begin serving the New York and Paris metropolitan areas this spring, and it plans to expand to London later this year, Toronto in early 2020, and Japan and the Bay Area in late 2020. The combined populations of these metropolitan areas total over 90 million consumers.

News of the plastic-free company traveled quickly through the zero-waste community. If you’ve missed the rise of one of the most influential environmental movements of our day, “zero-waste living” rose out of concern over the wastefulness of the “linear economy.” The growth of plastic packaging and single-use items (think Keurig single serving coffee cups) has led to rapidly expanding landfills and marine pollution.

Zero-wasters come together every day through blogs and Instagram posts to share clever ways around the disposable product lifestyle many of us are used to. While the online community has existed for years, the zero-waste movement is now having a visible cultural impact. Over the last two years, zero-waste has grown from a small online community to a national talking point.

With prominent companies responding to the growing “zero-waste” movement, one might expect savants and activists to be celebrating a shift toward global waste reduction. Instead, there is a sharp divide between two camps.

On one side are the optimists who see Loop as a step in the right direction. They note that making low-waste lifestyles more accessible and cost-effective are important steps for reducing total trash produced in the economy. Some commentators hope that the emersion of Loop will normalize plastic-free living, encouraging those fearful of being mocked to embrace their environmental convictions. For optimistic zero-wasters, incremental improvements are the practical, realistic way to see progress.

Then there are those who see the rise of Loop as a massive setback for the movement’s principles. Many involved in the zero-waste community have a fundamental distrust of multinational corporations and see their partnership with Loop as mere money-making marketing, billionaires putting on a guise of sustainability just to attract more customers. For these skeptics, being zero-waste includes boycotting major brands, which they see as key contributors to an unsustainable economy.

In actuality, if this dissension picks up steam, the zero-waste community will turn away what is perhaps its biggest opportunity to date: a partnership with the private sector. Such a rejection could have lasting consequences that stagnate the growth of low-waste living. To explain how, let’s look at some of the most common arguments zero-waste dissenters have posted.

1. This is just corporate greenwashing.

“Greenwashing” is a term environmentalists coined in the late 20thcentury to describe marketing tactics used to give a company the appearance of being environmentally conscious without actually changing practices.

To be fair, in the early days of the environmental movement, companies were much more willing to invest in advertising their love for the environment more than in the research and development of environmentally-friendly practices. More recently, we see more packaging with words like “green” and “eco-friendly” that give the air of environmental conscientiousness, but those are vague terms that don’t carry much weight.

But there is a world of difference between skepticism over marketing and broad anti-corporatism. Corporations are becoming more environmentally friendly by many measures. Renewable energies are growing more efficient, affordable, and accessible, mainly through private management. Carbon emissions, especially as a share of gross domestic product, are on the decline. Even the Canadian Environment Minister notes that most of the “real action” on climate change is happening inside businesses across the world. Perhaps this is because companies realize that sustainability is now linked to profitability — corporations managing anti-climate change practices see 18 percent higher return on investments than those that don’t.

In the early stages of environmentalism, activists and businesspeople saw each other as enemies. Perhaps some of today’s activists will never be able to overlook that past. But in many ways, the interests of businesses and the interests of environmentally-conscious consumers now align. It is difficult to listen to Loop CEO Tom Szaky explain his vision for a reuse-oriented “circular economy” with the depth of a zero-waste insider and label him as an advertising fraud.

Loop is a tool companies are using to achieve already-declared goals. Nestlé announced its goal of removing all non-recyclable packaging by 2025 nearly a year before Loop’s Davos debut, as did Procter & Gamble. Loop is a tool to help them get closer to their goals.

Furthermore, Loop is a service, not a marketing campaign. Gillette (incidentally a P&G brand) ran a commercial promoting a healthier masculinity, but the ad didn’t seem to anger feminists for not coinciding with a corporate policy change. Nike’s endorsement of Colin Kaepernick gained support from African-American athletes despite no changes in corporate policy. With these specific marketing moves, Gillette and Nike culturally aligned themselves with particular audiences with no actions actually serving them, but they were met with praise. Loop is an entirely new service offering popular items with lower waste than ever. It categorically cannot be dismissed as greenwashing.

2. Loop is servicing areas that already have better zero-waste options.

New York and Paris do have strong zero-waste communities, and residents of dense urban areas do have uniquely broad choices in their consumption habits. Still, no metropolitan area seems to be without food deserts, and megacities like New York are no exception.

But a clever 2018 study suggests that eating habits link to income more than location. When a new supermarket enters a food desert, expanding convenient nutritional opportunities for nearby residents, customers usually employ the same purchasing practices they used to use at a more distant grocery.

So while no one can purchase from a bulk food store if none are within driving distance, much more than availability is at play when people are making consumption choices. This shouldn’t be big news. As we do with many habits, many Americans are aware of and concerned about our waste production but, for any number of reasons, don’t have the drive to fundamentally alter consumption practices.

Others might have trustworthy brands they are wary of leaving. For example, in an appearance-obsessed society, if we find hair or skin products that “work for us,” we might need a lot of extra motivation to explore products from low-waste brands. Even the website for Plaine Products, a small hair product company that delivers its products similarly to Loop, showcases reviews focusing on how their products made customers look rather than those excited about a low-waste hair care option. If someone’s favorite product is now available without waste through Loop, that barrier of fear is removed, and that person is more likely to reduce his or her total trash output.

Some worry about “being weird” and having to explain their unorthodox shopping and storage habits to friends and family. Some don’t know how to practice sustainability and give up trying. We are a species of excuse-makers who hate hassle. Over half of Britons own reusable water bottles, but less than a fifth use them regularly due to inconvenience.

These excuses may fall on deaf ears of zero-wasters who devote much of their free time to figuring out how to live a zero-waste lifestyle in today’s culture. Their devotion to their virtues certainly is commendable, and nothing about Loop will keep these devotees from continuing their habits. Loop is not for them.

Loop is for the average person. Humans are simply bad at changing habits — think of all the New Year’s resolutions abandoned by February. More convenient low-waste consumption means less waste produced by people who might never change brands or spend time exploring alternative stores. Loop expands the low-waste tent.

3. Buying from big brands is bad for the environment.

While many of us prefer to shop locally out of a sense of community support or because we prefer the personalization of commerce that often comes through small businesses, some local shoppers do so for environmental reasons. Considering importing food from across the world requires a lot of gasoline, they believe eating local is an essential way to reduce carbon emissions.

Loop makes no pretenses about connecting customers with global companies. It expressly attempts to make big brands more appealing and more environmentally friendly. If zero-wasters care about our planet’s health, say the local shoppers, they cannot support a company that adds to the global shipping industry. A true zero-waster would never purchase from billion-dollar brands with histories of unsustainable business practices. Promoting zero-waste cannot just be putting everything in reusable containers. And so on.

Many activism movements face this kind of tension eventually. For a concrete idea to become a movement, it not only needs to attract people who already agree with it, but it also needs to persuade other people to endorse it. In the zero-waste case, practical methods for eliminating household waste appealed to environmentalists of many sorts. Someone interested in shopping local is much more aware and open to plastic-free packaging than the typical shopper.

But the environment is not a monolithic entity. It is a complex relationship of countless factors. Waste, carbon emissions, pollution, water scarcity, and sustainability all appeal to a generic group we call “environmentalists.” But it is possible for one of these variables to improve at the cost of another. The question, then, is whether the environmental benefits of turning Loop away and shopping local outweigh the benefits of expanding no-waste packaging to people of milder environmental fervor.

The preponderance of evidence suggests it does not. While the intuition behind avoiding items flown in on gas-guzzling airplanes sounds reasonable, the data indicate the difference is negligible. Only a small percentage of an agricultural good’s carbon footprint occurs during shipping. Taking a short drive to pick up your locally-produced groceries at a farmer’s market emits more carbon dioxide than it took for your corner supermarket to import the same items. Eliminating red meat and dairy products from your diet just one day a week would reduce your carbon footprint more than buying all your groceries locally. Economies of scale often use resources more efficiently, which is why the cheaper imported food can actually be less wasteful.

Considering Loop offers products in reusable containers for the same price they would be in stores, environmentally-conscious local shoppers should rejoice. Not only do residents not have to drive or use public transportation to reach low-waste items, but they also save money to buy the low-waste items that are much more than their standard, plastic-packaged counterparts.

Welcome, Loop

This article has only scratched the surface of the lively arguments within zero-waste circles. Interested parties can find plenty more arguments for and against Loop as a waste-reduction tool. But as a new product built by a company that has long been devoted to reducing waste worldwide, Loop deserves more than rash anti-corporatism. Zero-wasters need to remember that their vision is commended across much of the western world, but their devotion is not shared. While that might be sad, it is still human. And a human-sourced problem needs a human-based solution.

John Kristof is a policy analyst and freelance writer who covers economic issues, with loved ones involved in the zero-waste community. Follow John on Twitter @jmkristof.

An education and fiscal policy researcher who has published political and economic commentary in a variety of outlets. See also johnkristof.com and @jmkristof.

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