IMPACT

Loop Review: A Waste-Free Packaging Service For Returning Containers

The service promises to help you cut waste. It’s better at emptying your wallet.

When I first heard about Loop, a reusable packaging service designed to help cut down on waste, I couldn’t wait to try it. As a conscious consumer, I am proud of my reusable straws and grocery bags, but I struggle to find affordable, plastic-free alternatives to some of my favorite food brands and household items like shampoo. 

Plastic packaging has become a frequent target of activist groups campaigning against the deluge of garbage entering the oceans. Items like candy wrappers and soda bottles are some of the most common pieces of trash found on beaches during cleanup efforts, and a handful of giant consumer goods companies are largely responsible for the mess. Several of these companies, including Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Nestle and Coca-Cola, have partnered with Loop, redesigning some of their products’ packaging to discourage people from trashing it.

Launched by recycling company TerraCycle, Loop delivers products from name brands like Clorox and Hidden Valley in packaging that can be returned, refilled and redistributed. The service made its debut to much fanfare at the World Economic Forum in January. The returnable, reusable containers are meant to stay in circulation longer than traditional packaging in an attempt to slash not only waste but also climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions. But does it really work in practice? That’s what I wanted to find out. 

Loop launched a beta test in May, and I signed up for a trial membership over the summer and used the service for two months. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t exactly what I expected. 

For an in-depth look at what it’s like to use Loop, check out our full review below.

Haagen-Dazs ice cream in a metal tin, designed for the Loop service.
Haagen-Dazs ice cream in a metal tin, designed for the Loop service.

HOW IT WORKS

After creating a personal account on the Loop store website, you can start shopping. Available products include groceries and items for housecleaning and personal hygiene. The most popular things sold on the service so far have been cleaning products, such as Cascade dishwasher pods and Clorox disinfectant wipes; foods like Häagen-Dazs ice cream; and personal care items, including Pantene shampoo and conditioner, according to Loop representative Lauren Taylor.

I placed two orders over the course of my trial, purchasing rolled oats, dry salted almonds, nut butter, coffee, all-purpose cleaner and gummy bears for my first order, and just coffee and oats for my second. They all came in metal containers except for the nut butter, which was in a glass jar. I was disappointed to find that the service offers only a limited number of products, and I was stunned at how much it costs to buy this stuff from the Loop website. (More on that later.) 

The goods are shipped within two days through UPS and arrive in a very sturdy and large tote bag. Once you’ve emptied the reusable containers, you load up the tote and send them back to be cleaned for reuse. You don’t have to ship all your empties back at the same time ― which makes sense because, as I discovered, my gummy bear supply doesn’t run out at the same rate as my all-purpose cleaner supply. You can also set up your account to automatically refill products in your tote. 

Loop is currently available in only a few states along the East Coast: New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont, and in Washington, D.C. It also ships to Paris. Next year Loop will expand to London, Toronto, California, Germany and Tokyo, Taylor told HuffPost. She didn’t share how many users have signed up so far, but she said Loop will add more brands and products to its online store as more people use the service.

Joan Marc Simon, executive director of Zero Waste Europe, called Loop “a good initiative with the best intentions,” adding that there’s a lot that needs to change about it. I agree, but there are also some great things about the service, so let’s start there.

Procter & Gamble, one of the multinationals that partnered with Loop, designed packages for multiple brands -- from personal
Procter & Gamble, one of the multinationals that partnered with Loop, designed packages for multiple brands -- from personal hygiene products to cleaning supplies -- to be sold on Loop's website.

WHAT YOU’LL LIKE 

1) It’s not too complicated to use

Disposable packaging is tough to quit because it’s incredibly easy and convenient. For a service like Loop to be successful, it has to be as simple and hassle-free as throwing out a candy wrapper, said Simon. Loop isn’t quite as simple as that, but it’s not too difficult to figure out. 

The online shopping experience was smooth, and the goods arrived as described on the website. Returning Loop’s big tote bag with the empty canisters was easy enough, though not as easy as taking out the trash or recycling. I made a quick pitstop on my morning commute to drop off the goods at a UPS and a day later received an email confirmation that my empty products had been received and a deposit refund was on its way to my credit card. 

2) It’ll make you feel good about yourself

As someone who reads and writes a fair amount about plastic, I have serious guilt over my consuming habits. Every plastic soap dispenser or soda bottle I toss away contributes to my sense of personal failure. Even though I bought only a few items from Loop, those were items that didn’t end up in my trash can. 

Taylor said that Loop has “prevented the manufacturing of thousands of single-use, disposable packaging.” Simon agreed that reusing packages with Loop makes sense as a way to reduce waste. 

Knowing that Loop was helping me slash my plastic use, even in a small way, made me feel good. 

3) It will change the way you think about waste

Testing Loop deepened my sensitivity to waste and made me want to be more proactive. I became more skeptical about the materials around me: Did I have to buy a plastic tub of coffee grounds, or could I wait a day to stop by the store that offers beans in bulk?

It seems promising that Loop has convinced several large consumer goods companies to rethink packaging, and it’s easy to envision a world where every company follows suit. Erik Loomis, a history professor at the University of Rhode Island, cautioned me about being too optimistic: By touting their participation in so-called sustainable programs, these companies get an image boost that distracts from how they operate on a global scale and discourages the public from asking what they could be doing better. “If we’re going to actually deal with climate change, we have to deal with the big questions that hold corporations responsible,” Loomis said. Fair enough.  

WHAT YOU’LL DISLIKE

1) It’s not cheap, and the product range is limited 

It’s easy to rack up a large bill with Loop. Though there’s no membership fee (hooray!), there are plenty of other costs built in. You not only have to purchase the products and cover shipping costs, you also must pay a deposit for each reusable container, since you’re essentially renting those from the company. The tote bag is a $15 deposit, and a glass jar of cake mix requires a $3 deposit, while a bottle of body wash takes a $5 deposit. It adds up fast.

My first order came to a whopping $85.70. For only six items! To be fair, $32 was for packaging deposits and $20 was for shipping. And I snagged a $20 discount as a first-time customer. For my second round of orders, I bought only two more products, so the total was $37 with the deposits.

After using the service for two months, buying a total of eight products and receiving refunds for all my deposits, I paid a total of $69.70. (HuffPost provided funds for the purposes of reporting this piece.)

Some of the products in Loop’s online market seemed overly expensive to me. Part of the issue here is that Loop offers just one brand per product (for now), with no cheaper, off-brand alternatives to choose from. Never before have I purchased a $14 nut butter ($16, including the jar deposit), but there were no other options. I can usually find similar goods at my supermarket for less than I can on Loop’s website because there’s more choice outside Loop and I can hunt for a bargain. 

Product selections are limited on Loop's website. Some categories offer only one choice. If something you want seems too pric
Product selections are limited on Loop's website. Some categories offer only one choice. If something you want seems too pricey -- like this $14 nut butter -- you can't shop around for a better deal.

Some of these prices are prohibitive if you’re on a tight budget. Which made me wonder if the service would ever become affordable for people who don’t have piles of extra money lying around. Loomis said services like Loop turn environmentalism into “a consumer movement,” something that can be practiced only by well-off people. Right now, Loop is too burdensome for the average working person. The service, he said, appears to have been created “by rich people for rich people.”

Taylor said that Loop will keep partnering with additional brands to offer more choices and that most of the current prices are “comparable” to what you’d see in a brick-and-mortar store. She said that Loop doesn’t want to be a luxury service made just for the rich. 

2) It’s not totally waste-free

The whole point of Loop is to slash the amount of trash produced by shopping. The company even developed a reusable tote bag to avoid cardboard boxes and packing material. But when my first order arrived, I noticed something odd: Every item, including the tote bag, comes with a plastic seal on it! I asked Taylor about this, and she said it’s a quality control measure. The seals are meant to prove that items haven’t been tampered with during shipping. 

You can actually send back the plastic seals, along with your empties, to be recycled, Taylor added. Loop’s parent company operates a number of experimental programs for hard-to-recycle items like these. So you don’t have to worry about the plastic wraps ending up in a landfill or an incinerator.

My tin of rolled oats, with the clear plastic seal around the lid. Loop says you can send these seals back with your empties
My tin of rolled oats, with the clear plastic seal around the lid. Loop says you can send these seals back with your empties to be recycled by its parent company, which specializes in hard-to-recycle items.

When it comes to reducing greenhouse emissions, the results are murkier. Online shopping can in some instances have a smaller carbon footprint than in-person shopping, but there are many factors at play here, and they’re tough to measure. I’ll point out, though, that fast shipping uses more resources ― and Loop ships pretty quickly.

Using the service instead of driving a car to the store is probably less carbon-intensive, said Simon, especially if lots of people sign up for Loop. “One shipping vehicle can transport [totes] for hundreds of families, which is better than having hundreds of families driving to the supermarket individually,” Simon said. 

But, in my case, I would have walked to the grocery store instead of driving, so I’m not convinced that having goods delivered to my door by truck is my best option for slashing emissions.

3) It takes up a lot of space

The Loop tote bag is huge. Seriously huge. It drove me and my husband crazy, occupying all that precious floorspace in the living room of our teeny New York City apartment. We also don’t have a lot of countertop space to hoard the reusable containers. Though Loop didn’t totally fit my lifestyle, it might work just fine for someone with more storage space. 

4) Sometimes visiting the corner store is just more convenient

It takes a couple of days for the service to send you new items when you run out. That’s not a huge inconvenience, but it could be a problem if you’re waiting on a product you use every day, like bath soap or shampoo. On its website, Loop recommends ordering everyday products two at a time, in case you run out unexpectedly. Ordering two bottles of shampoo is easy in theory, but it takes some getting used to if you’re not a big online shopper, which I’m not.

Look at the size of the Loop tote. It's huge. And if you live in a tiny apartment, like me, its size is kind of a pain.
Look at the size of the Loop tote. It's huge. And if you live in a tiny apartment, like me, its size is kind of a pain.

THE TAKEAWAY

After using Loop for two months, I decided it’s not the best fit for me. The service isn’t quite ready for prime time, though parts of the experience I liked.

I was willing to put up with some inconveniences ― such as paying the deposits on Loop’s reusable containers and stuffing the enormous tote bag behind my couch ― if it meant I’d create less waste. But ultimately the price of buying items through the service was too steep. I would definitely try it again in the future if it were cheaper and the product selection improved. 

Loomis, the history professor, thinks it’ll take more than that for Loop to succeed at replacing plastic packaging. “If you want to make [reusable packaging] accessible, you need the government’s investment to make it part of American policy rather than a boutique consumer item.”

When I asked Simon, the zero-waste expert, if he thought Loop would ever go mainstream, he wasn’t overly optimistic. “I hope the system succeeds, but for the moment I would be surprised if it does,” said Simon. “It definitely needs to be fine-tuned and simplified, but I guess that is the rationale behind the pilot: to learn from mistakes before scaling up.” 

Taylor said the service will get better as it grows. She added that Loop isn’t meant to be a silver bullet for plastic waste: “There is no single solution to solve the waste crisis we are in.” 

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