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Return to sender: An early Loop customer weighs in

Product selection remains somewhat limited, but TerraCycle's bold experiment in reusable packaging — aka the milkman model of delivery — gets many things right.

Like sustainability advocates everywhere, I was excited in January to learn that TerraCycle was working with two dozen of the world’s largest brands to launch Loop, a "circular economy" e-commerce website.

Loop delivers products in reusable containers from brands that consumers already know and love. They magically appear on front doorsteps on an as-needed basis.

When a consumer empties the container of ice cream, shampoo, oatmeal, cleaning products, razor blades and other consumable products, they place the empty containers in a tote on their front porch and, like the milkman days of old, the containers are replaced with new products in reusable containers. The empty containers are returned, rinsed, refilled and redelivered.

A few weeks ago, the New York City area pilot market for Loop expanded to include my adopted hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania. I immediately signed up to try it out. 

Here are my initial observations after receiving my second Loop shipment.

It has enormous potential

While there are opportunities for improvement (more below), the idea of Loop is an exciting rethinking of how brands deliver products to consumers.

Consumers no longer have to buy both the product and packaging that must be thrown away or recycled. They can spend their money on the product, not the packaging.

The deposits for the Loop containers and the delivery fee dramatically can increase the amount charged to your credit card and create a bit of sticker shock.
Recycling bins no longer will be buried in piles of boxes, bottles and cans because Loop’s "closed loop" system allows the packaging to be reused multiple times. 

If packaging is damaged or too worn for reuse, Loop takes responsibility for properly recycling it.

I’m looking forward to stress-free recycling days. 

Some pleasant surprises

Each of my Loop shipments arrived in a tote with a tamper-resistant plastic lock-tie securing the zippers to ensure that the tote remains unopened during shipping.

After receiving my first shipment, I was prepared to be indignant that my first contact with Loop would be a plastic tab that I had to find some way to dispose of properly. Then I saw the text printed on the tag. It reads, in both English and French, "Put me back in the Loop Tote for recycling." 

There was a similar sustainability surprise in my second Loop shipment when I opened the tote to find my new Gillette razor and razor blades. While the razor’s reusable case inexplicably was wrapped in single-use plastic, the razor set came with a small, resealable plastic pouch for collecting my used razor blades so they can be returned and recycled. They’ve made it easy to recycle my used razor blades. That’s impressive. 

The reusable Haagen Dazs container

The packaging is rather attractive

Loop’s reusable packaging has been designed for consumer appeal in addition to being designed for durable reuse.

The star of the show is probably the reusable Haagen-Dazs ice cream container.

I’ve only seen quick glimpses of the container with actual ice cream in it because our teenage daughters devoured the contents of both containers shortly upon arrival in the Loop tote. Our daughters are, however, showing the empty container to houseguests as "something cool my dad found."

Our guest bathroom now includes a beautiful glass, refillable bottle with a plastic pump for dispensing Soapply’s "This is more than soap" hand soap.

Our master bath includes a refillable, glass bottle of Crest mouthwash with a silicone sleeve that is now the prettiest part of my side of the bathroom counter.

While I was happy to put the steel cut oats, spaghetti and wasabi peas in their refillable, retro-looking aluminum cans on the kitchen counter, I was overruled and they were moved to the pantry where we’re "supposed to" keep such products.

We did run into a challenge when we moved the spaghetti to the pantry — the attractive cylindrical spaghetti container takes up a lot more room than the single-use, rectangular cardboard boxes that we traditionally purchase. We go through a lot of spaghetti in our house and the reusable container takes up a lot of room on the spaghetti shelf. 

The solution, which we only recently adopted, is to take the spaghetti out of Loop’s reusable container and store it in a reused, more space-efficient cardboard box from our traditional spaghetti brand.

Similarly, the attractive Clorox lemon-scented disinfectant wipes were moved beneath the sink because cleaning products are not, apparently, to be displayed like a work of fine art on the kitchen counter.

The pricing is clear

Both the Loop invoice and website make it very clear how much one pays for products versus how much one leaves as a refundable deposit for the reusable containers. They also separate out the shipping fee.

The deposits add up quickly, ranging from $15 for each Loop tote, $5 for each Haagen-Dazs container, $3 for a variety of other containers and $1.25 for the Soapply container.

The Loop website allows me to track my total deposits, and it’s possible to watch the deposit amount rise and fall as products are shipped and returned. At one point, I had $72.25 in reusable container deposit money sitting in my Loop account.

My first shipment included a $20 delivery fee, but I soon started receiving "free shipping" emails and did not pay shipping for my second delivery.

Mostly reasonable prices

Compared to the prices for similar products at our local grocery store, the Loop prices are roughly equivalent for most products. The Crest mouthwash and Clorox wipes are the same price as my local store. The Gillette razors are about 6 percent more expensive with Loop and the Soapply product is about 5 percent more expensive than ordering from the Soapply website.

Unfortunately, however, the Haagen-Dazs ice cream is almost twice as expensive through Loop as it is at my local grocery store. With Loop (in my region), the 14 fluid-ounce vanilla ice cream (the only flavor available through Loop in my area) is $6.49 versus $3.33 for the same size at my local grocery store in a traditional cardboard packaging.

Note that my price comparisons exclude the deposit one leaves Loop to ensure returns of their reusable containers. Those deposits and the delivery fee dramatically can increase the amount charged to your credit card and create a bit of sticker shock.

Loop packaging

It's easy to return containers

Each Loop shipment comes with a reversible shipping label. You simply slide it out of a special pocket on top of the Loop tote, flip it over to reveal the return address and call UPS for pickup.

Customer service is helpful

Based on my limited encounters with the Loop customer service team, they’re all very excited to be part of this bold new venture and to doing their part to change the world.

When our initial shipment of Crest mouthwash leaked a little during transit, the Loop customer service team quickly rectified it with an apology and a refund.

They also helped me correct a mistake when I unintentionally ordered my second shipment twice after encountering a problem with the website.

But the product selection is limited

In my region (and I can’t speak for the other pilot regions), there is not a wide product selection. The website lists 81 products, but 11 (including four of the five Haagen-Dazs flavors) have been out of stock since I joined.

Five more products, including the Cascade dishwashing soap and Tide laundry detergent, are listed as "coming soon."

That leaves 65 products, which is an impressive start for the pilot phase, but pales when compared with a typical grocery delivery service or the seemingly infinite Amazon options.

And some of the innovative products that I was most excited to see, such as the deodorants in reusable containers, are not yet listed on the website in my region.

The large, rigid, reusable Styrofoam-type container takes up a lot of space. So does the massive amount of flexible, reusable fill used to keep the containers safe.

Delivery times are comparatively slow

Let’s face it. Amazon has spoiled us with overnight delivery and the expectation that we soon will be able to get things delivered within a few hours of placing an order.

As a result, the initial seven-day wait between placing my first order May 22 and receiving my first shipment May 29 felt like forever (especially with a spouse who sometimes rolls her eyes at my "green ventures").

The Loop team did warn me via email that my shipment might be delayed because my initial shipment was placed the Wednesday before the upcoming Memorial Day weekend.

I ordered my second shipment June 7 and received it June 11 (with a weekend in between that might have delayed shipping).

Shipments contain a large volume of reusable shipping material

The Loop website includes a video of a couple receiving a Loop delivery, unloading their tote full of products in reusable containers, then efficiently folding the Loop tote compactly for easy storage.

My reality is that while the tote itself folds fairly compactly, the large, rigid, reusable Styrofoam-type container used to keep the ice cream cold takes up a lot of space. So does the massive amount of flexible, reusable fill used to keep the reusable containers safe during shipping.

We now keep the Loop tote and its packing materials in the garage until we’re ready to return empty containers. It works for us, but it might be challenging for those living in compact city apartments.

The Loop tote is heavy when empty

The Loop tote (19 inches x 16.5 inches x 16 inches) and all of its packaging materials for my second shipment, which included the reusable Styrofoam-like container and reusable icepacks to keep the ice cream cold, weighs 17.4 pounds without any products in it.

As a result, I felt guilty when I returned my first Loop tote, which I’m assuming weighed about the same, because my returned tote only contained an empty Haagen-Dazs ice cream container and all of the reusable packaging fill that was used to keep my original shipment well protected. We simply hadn’t emptied the other containers and, with a second Loop shipment on the way, it seemed silly to keep the original tote filling space in our garage. I can only imagine the carbon footprint of returning a nearly empty tote that weighs more than 17 pounds.

Some final thoughts

Being a part of the Loop pilot project allows me to feel like part of a radical transformation of the current consumer model. As more brands participate, as the system scales and as refillable containers begin lining traditional grocery store shelves and become available on additional online retailers, we’re going to see a significant reduction in single-use packaging.

It’s easy to imagine the day when the excessive packaging that currently clutters our lives will seem as quaint as the horse poop that used to collect in the streets during the days of the horse and buggy.

My family and I are excited to be part of the change, and we’re looking forward to seeing what comes next.

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