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How TerraCycle's safety and cleaning practices can be adopted across industries

COVID-19 has called the use of reusable packaging into question, but could robust cleaning procedures help regain consumer trust?

A person in sterile coverall gown using cleaning tool in cleanroom facility.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the safety of reuse into question. But Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle, thinks when the crisis is over there will be even more opportunity for reusable packaging and containers to become more commonplace, if done right.

"Recycling is going to take a real punch to the face, to be quite fair," Szaky said during GreenBiz Group’s Circularity 20 Digital event this week, pointing to the continued decrease in oil prices and the pressure that's putting on the economics of using recycled plastics. "That’s disastrous for the recycling industry, which creates its revenue by selling recycled plastics, which are hedged against, in many ways, the price of oil."

Many recycling activities have been paused as the pandemic has raised health and safety concerns, which could lead to a waste crisis post-pandemic, he said. Recycling centers have closed temporarily or indefinitely, across California and in parts of Ohio, Oregon and Alabama.

"That, I think, will benefit waste innovations," said Szaky, whose company is in the business of recycling and eliminating waste. "It will especially benefit the reuse movement because that is sort of the next step up in waste innovation."

Szaky acknowledged that reuse is not a silver bullet solution to addressing the waste problem, but if life cycle assessment is considered, he said that reuse can be better than single-use options in a significant number of cases. It plays a role in reducing waste and TerraCycle's e-commerce program Loop — which features items in reusable containers — plans to be part of that, while being affordable and convenient.

We’re still very focused on trying to create a reusable system that has the same convenience as disposability ...

"We’re still very focused on trying to create a reusable system that has the same convenience as disposability because [while] disposability has a lot of negatives, it is the gold standard, by far, for convenience," he said. "That is our holy grail, to get to the exact same convenience you get when you throw something in the garbage, with no thinking, no thought and off you go."

While Loop is still working toward the convenience factor, it’s also working toward building trust with consumers outside of its core following. As Szaky wrote in a piece for GreenBiz recently, "Reusable packaging is faced with proving its trustworthiness alongside disposables in a world that is standing six feet apart in the grocery aisle."

In the time that comes after COVID-19, TerraCycle’s Loop and other companies that are working on launching or improving their reuse models must do it right. That means consumers need to be able to know that the reusable packaging they are using was thoroughly cleaned and doesn’t pose a health risk to them.

During the Circularity 20 Digital conversation, Szaky described the cleaning process for the packaging in the Loop program, between when it leaves one consumer’s possession and ends up with another.

First, the customer either will drop off their Loop tote at a retailer or have it picked up and shipped. (TerraCycle recently announced that it would expand its reuse platform Loop across the contiguous United States including in physical retail stores.) Earlier this year, the company announced partnerships with Walgreens and Kroger that would allow consumers to drop off totes in bins within their stores, starting this fall. 

Once the tote reaches a Loop distribution center, it is checked in and the packages inside it are sorted based on the contents and type of packaging material. Then each type of packages is stored until there are enough to start cleaning, which takes place in a proper cleanroom where people are in full gear.

"The process to clean — which is what chemistry is used, dwell times both in drying and washing and temperatures, and all those different types of knobs and dials on the cleaning protocol — are set to be specific to that content and the type of material that content was in," said Szaky, noting that both factors have meaningful effects on the cleaning process.

Once the packages are cleaned, it is immediately shipped to the manufacturer, which has protocols for maintaining cleanliness for the packaging. Szaky noted that each time the cleanroom is used it is reset — pipes flushed for potential allergens and air vented — for the next batch of cleaning.

Lauren Phipps, GreenBiz Group’s director and senior analyst for the circular economy, who led the conversation with Szaky, asked if there was an opportunity for retailers and restaurants to implement similar practices for their reusable items and how they could communicate their practices with consumers.

Szaky responded by sharing that he’s been working with the group Consumers Beyond Disposability — which is housed under the World Economic Forum and includes the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, City of Paris and PepsiCo — to develop guidelines for companies that want to put reuse in play. The group plans to share those guidelines during the Davos gathering in January.

But for now, Szaky gave an example of how safe reuse could work in a coffee shop.

"I would recommend that there’s some process that when you give your cup to the barista, maybe the barista looks at the cup and only accepts certain types of cups … then has some process that is consumer-facing, that you can see and that you can be proud that that process is strong and you can trust it," he said.

"Trust is a critical commodity that we have to build with individuals right now, or in fact almost re-earn."

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