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In the Loop

TerraCycle's Tom Szaky on reuse in the age of contagion

TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky, 2020

The pandemic is changing the dialogue around reusable packaging, although not everyone agrees that this shift is necessarily a bad one.

I recently caught up with Tom Szaky, CEO of reusable packaging platform Loop and its parent company TerraCycle, in advance of our interview during this week’s Circularity 20 Digital event. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Lauren Phipps: How is the reuse market faring in the "age of contagion"? 

Tom Szaky: I think it’s both good and bad at the same time. What’s the bad? It’s the obvious: reusable shopping bags. Many supermarkets have asked consumers to stop bringing those. And reusable coffee cups. Many coffee shops — noting that many are closed now — paused very early on. Those are the overt negatives for reuse. 

There are positives, though. Loop sales have never been stronger. I think the fundamental difference here is not that single-use or disposable is inherently safe or that reuse is inherently unsafe: It's how you deploy those systems.

Supermarkets don't want you to bring your reusable shopping bag because you're not cleaning it as a consumer; you may have contagion and can pass it off incredibly fast. Inversely, if there's a professional system doing it well, then safety is there. That's the subtlety: It's not reuse overall, it's how reuse is used. 

Phipps: So, do you gawk at the collection of jars that I bring to the grocery store (under normal circumstances) and clean myself? 

Szaky: I don't trust your cleaning, like I don't trust anyone's cleaning. In a normal world, I would say that's probably just fine because we are swimming in reuse, right? There's so much reuse we aren't aware of. It's OK and germs are generally good. While we should certainly be freaked out about the concept of COVID, we shouldn't be freaked out about the concept of reuse. 

What's important, especially in this time, is to think about the reuse ecosystems that are potentially very risky that we're very comfortable with.

The fundamental difference here is not that single-use or disposable is inherently safe, or that reuse is inherently unsafe: It's how you deploy those systems.

For example, we all go to the dentist to get our teeth cleaned. When we sit in the chair and the dentist brings out their tools — most of them are reused stainless steel tools — and they would have been in many many patients' mouths, probably some with potentially horrible diseases. And have any of us ever considered that as a problem? We probably haven't because we trust that the dentist is professionally sterilizing the tools in every reuse. 

Again, this is the important part: We need to take a step back and understand how we deploy these systems and what is the appropriate level of risk. 

Phipps: Given that it's about the "how" and not the "what," what advice would you give to other brands, retailers or even third-party service providers working to scale reuse solutions to help them navigate this time? 

Szaky: What will help you in the short term is some form of professional cleaning management. That will create comfort right away for consumers, even with heightened COVID concerns. 

If you're a reuse organization and you're trying to promote a reuse system where you're expecting the consumer to clean — and there's many wonderful companies promoting reusable cups, bags, etc. — I think it's going to be a little challenging during COVID.

I wouldn't fight it. I would just hunker down, make sure your company is protected and you can get through it. As things loosen, then start pushing your system. 

This article is adapted from GreenBiz's weekly newsletter, Circular Weekly, running Fridays. Subscribe here.

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