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How two companies are building systems to scale reuse, which is vital for a circular economy

Gravity food bins inside of a grocery store

Photo by Rosie Parsons on Shutterstock.

In the past few years, as consumers looked to cut down on plastic waste at the grocery store, more mainstream supermarkets turned to bulk shopping bins as a solution. But scoop bins quickly have become a thing of the past this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For MOM's Organic Market, a chain of family-owned and operated grocers in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States that has the purpose of protecting and restoring the environment, it was only a small adjustment.

"[Our reuse] programs are all still in operation, and we're minimally impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic," said Alexandra DySard, environmental and partnership manager at MOM's Organic Market, during GreenBiz Group’s clean economy conference VERGE 20 last week.

The chain has taken an innovative tack: it's still encouraging its shoppers to use reusable containers for all areas of its stores, but it's changed the way the bulk shopping operates. While scoopable bins are off limits in its stores, the chain is using gravity bins (the ones pictured above), which have a pull-down lever to dispense food without its having any contact with a person’s hand. It's easy to use and easy to sanitize.

On the B2B side of commerce, there’s another opportunity for reuse. In 2017, when LimeLoop, an IoT solution for sustainable e-commerce shipping logistics, started, it was in response to the amount of waste caused by e-commerce.

"Online shopping was resulting in huge waste piles," said Chantal Emmanuel, CTO and co-founder of LimeLoop.

Additionally, she said, the brands that LimeLoop was working with faced challenges in making the transition from in-store experiences to an online one. "We saw an opportunity to solve both of these problems through use," she said.

We knew that we had to have a holistic approach to this solution, because it's not enough to just drop off 2,000 shippers to a retail company and say, 'Good luck getting these back.'

In 2017, containers and packaging made up a significant portion of municipal solid waste (MSW), about 80.1 million tons (29.9 percent of total MSW generation), according to the EPA. Reuse can reduce the amount of waste that will need to be recycled or sent to landfills and incinerators. 

"[Reuse] is needed. It is possible. It is beneficial. It can be profitable, and it can work for all sizes of business, small, medium and large," said Holly Kaufman, president of Environment & Enterprise Strategies, who moderated the session about advancing reuse.

How to meet people where they are

LimeLoop partners directly with retail companies and provides them with a set of reusable packages made from upcycled billboard vinyl and lined with recycled cotton. The partner companies are able to use those to fill orders in the same way that they would with a cardboard box or plastic poly mailer, except they're reusable — for an estimated 200 uses — and include a prepaid return label. 

When a person receives their package, they pull out the product, flip over the label and return the package by putting it into their mailbox. The package is returned to the retail company, which sanitizes it and then puts it back in rotation for another customer.

"We like to remind people that it's actually easier than recycling a cardboard box," Emmanuel said.

But for retailers, making sure the LimeLoop packages are actually reused also can be a challenge. 

"We knew that we had to have a holistic approach to this solution, because it's not enough to just drop off 2,000 shippers to a retail company and say, ‘Good luck getting these back,’" Emmanuel said, noting that they need the whole logistical system and supply chain technology to make sure that those packages get from point A to point B, then back to point A.

"Otherwise, we're creating more waste than we would have if we were using a disposable cardboard box," she said.

With that in mind, the retailers get access to LimeLoop’s software platform, which acts as an order management system and also as a tool for communicating directly with consumers. 

Emmanuel said moving to such a reuse model demands an education process, because you need to let people know what to do with this packaging as it’s so different from a single-use cardboard package.

Pushing the goalposts

Back in 2005, MOM’s banned single-use plastic bags in its stores to encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bags. That was nearly a decade before California became the first state in the United States to ban them.

And in 2010, the grocery chain banned the sale of plastic flat bottled water in an effort to eliminate even more single-use plastic from its stores. In place of bottled water, it installed bulk water filling stations.

We all know that there is actually no such thing as disposable — nothing's disposable and ends up someplace, right? Everything goes somewhere.

In addition to making these changes in its own stores, DySard said MOM’s is very active in local and federal advocacy and policy, by submitting testimony and attending hearings on plastics-related legislation.

"I feel like that's the direction that we need to go [if] we want to continue to grow this movement of reusables and really give it legs," DySard said.

Establishing a reuse program won’t be easy for every company

Like the pivot that MOM’s had to make with its scoop bins during COVID-19 — as it works to open more locations, it is designing them to have mostly gravity bins — reuse models will need to be iterated.

Emmanuel also shared a hiccup from LimeLoop’s first fleet of 500 shipping packages, which had a solid plastic envelope on the front of it to put the label in. She and her team didn’t realize that it's customary for USPS to use permanent markers to mark on the labels. That wasn’t ideal.

"I had to spend a couple of days literally just like popping out holes in the middle of the plastic so that they could start marking on the labels," she said. For the next generation of its shippers, the company designed the packages in a way that USPS workers could mark directly onto the paper labels when they needed to.

Nothing is ever going to be perfect, but reuse is a practice worth working to improve and scale.

"We all know that there is actually no such thing as disposable — nothing's disposable and ends up someplace, right? Everything goes somewhere," Kaufman said. "We want it to go where we want it to go. And not into the ocean, the soil and bits of them go into our bodies.

"Even with dental and surgical equipment — those are the ultimate reuse. And if we can do those safely, we can certainly do all kinds of packaging safely."

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