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Do You Like Meaningless Consumerism to Make Yourself Feel Good About the Environment? If So, Do I Have the Product For You!

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I got a call last week from Kate Bratskeir of Huffington Post to ask me to comment on a new delivery service that is supposedly green friendly. There’s this company called Loop that sends you specialty groceries in reusable tins and it then collects and refills for you. It is supposed to be green-friendly and address our problems of waste. It’s also a total joke. Bratskeir was skeptical; I was contemptuous, much more so than what comes through in the quotes from me she chose to use.

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. 

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.  

….

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. 

….

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.” 

I mostly come across as my usual “you should feel bad about everything” self but I was really much more dismissive of this. As I told her, if you want to solve the problems of waste, you have to do it through the government. Moreover, this, like straw activism, also makes some serious mistakes. Yes, globally, plastic waste is a huge issue, as we see in the oceans. But the U.S. actually does a very good job of containing its garbage. We produce far too much waste and it has massive impacts on the planet, but this is one issue in which we do a good job. Almost all of the trash in the oceans is coming from river systems such as the Indus, Yangtze, and Niger, not the Mississippi, Hudson, and Columbia. If we want to solve this waste problem–and we can–we have to work with governments around the world to create quality waste management practices. And in fact, much of the U.S. responsibility on this comes not from trash but from the supposedly green practice of recycling, which often means shipping stuff and dumping it on China to deal with.

Moreover, all something like Loop does is make rich people feel good about themselves. The tins of tea on that site are $16, plus a $3 deposit on the container. Providing services to the ultra-wealthy so they can feel good about their own consumption is neither a solution for global waste or for climate change. If anything, this extremely individualistic path toward “change” is counterproductive, placing the onus for change on those who can afford it while dismissing the kind of centralized government change these problems require.

In short, Loop is super dumb.

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