Why Not Refill Instead of Recycle?


Big food companies are revisiting a very retro idea. Why not reuse instead of recycle? Consumers have learned that we haven’t really been recycling for the last 20 years. Instead, we just sent our garbage off to China. Once it was transported around the world, some garbage was recycled. But more was just dumped in the ocean. What was recycled was often done in a way that created a LOT of pollution and toxins. But the pollution was a world away. And that was good enough! At least until last year, when China refused to recycle garbage from the US and Europe. Has the time arrived for America to go back to reusable packaging?

Let’s take a few steps back. Why do we have a crisis today? The oceans are filling up with plastic. Our landfills are… filled. If you live in a big city, in the autumn after the leaves fall from the trees, you see shreds of plastic bags caught in almost every tree branch. Plastic is not the only form of recyclable garbage, but it is a big part of the problem.

Before the 1970s, very little packaging was made of plastic. But as time went on we got better at making stronger, more diverse, and less expensive plastics. And that’s the problem. Today’s plastic is incredibly durable. And cheap. That’s why plastic replaced cardboard containers, paper bags, glass bottles, and other containers.

What was used before plastic? For food products, glass was often used. It was durable, could be made into any shape, and it could be made efficiently cleaned and reused. Consider the milkman. There was a time when milk, bread, and other products were delivered to your door. After you drank the milk, you left the bottle on the front step and the milkman replaced it. The old bottle, a very heavy glass bottle, was taken back to the dairy, washed, sterilized and refilled for the next customer. Except for the occasional broken bottle, there was virtually no “consumer waste”. For the consumer, it all happened automatically!

But then something happened. Small grocery stores gave way to supermarkets. Instead of going to one store for eggs and milk, a butcher for meat, a specialty store for olive oil, another store pickles… you could do all of your shopping in just one store! What will they think of next!

Soon, the milkman faded away along with the home delivery of soda-pop, seltzer and other products. Now, everything could be purchased at the supermarket. Thick reusable glass bottles for milk and soda morphed into plastic containers. Empty a milk or soda bottle and you’re left with a plastic container. Then, water became America’s favorite beverage. Instead of flowing out of kitchen taps or public water fountains, drinking water meant more empty bottles. Plastic bottles. Globally, more than 1 million plastic bottles are produced. Every minute. That’s over 525,000,000,000 plastic bottles every year. JUST plastic bottles!

Initially, we just threw out plastic bottles. Later, recycling programs were introduced. So we carefully separated recyclables, which went to a “recycling center” which just cleaned and packaged the plastic, shipped it overseas to China… where most of it was dumped in the ocean. Pretty soon, the ocean was filled with garbage.

For a while, we thought that the best solution was to design containers that used less plastic or that quickly biodegraded. But it only slightly slowed the tidal wave of plastic. More efficient packaging helped, but we kept wrapping things in plastic. Remember just picking up some tomatoes or a head of lettuce? Now we buy produce in plastic “clam-shells”.

Now add the billions of people have been raised out of grinding poverty in the last couple of decades. As wealth rises consumers tend to buy more processed foods, which leads to more packaging. America and Europe may have created plastic garbage, but every continent now contributes to the garbage pile.

Why not get to the root of the problem? Just stop making plastic bottles and containers. Go back to reusable containers made of glass, steel, and durable materials. A couple of dozen big brands (such as Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, PepsiCo), announced their interest in reusable containers. A firm called Loop will work with consumer product companies to used steel and glass containers’ Loop will deliver products to everyone’s door and then pick up and reuse the containers.

Good, but not good enough folks!

Consumer packing for food and home products is ground zero for plastic packaging.  Amazon and Walmart are slugging it out to see who dominates this space. Both are also pushing for home delivery, with Amazon in the lead. Amazon is building their own air fleet and airports, “one-upped” the industry standard 2-day delivery with a 1-day service, developed hundreds of “delivery partners” to move packages that last mile, and have filled our homes with Amazon delivery boxes.

Unexpectedly, Amazon has breathed new life into a home delivery service decades ago. ESPECIALLY after their take over of Whole Foods. Amazon does deliver milk, eggs and juice… just like the milkman! And a whole lot more. Due to their delivery service, Amazon adds 1.5 million cardboard boxes to our trash every day! And then there’s the soon to be trash inside of the boxes. Wait a minute! If the milkman used to deliver consumer packages to your home and then take it away to be reused… why can’t Amazon take a leadership role taking back and reusing their own packaging?

Amazon is spending millions, if not billions, to deliver their products to consumers. More and more, the guy who shows up at your door to drop off a box to your front door is an amazon employee or partner. Why is it impossible for them to pick up the garbage their deliveries create?  Who is in a better position to demand that more of their suppliers provide reusable packaging? And, wholefoods has it’s own brands of milk, juice, ice cream, sodas, water, etc. As the producer, they can certainly require reusable packaging. And they own the delivery services that can become pickup services to return the empties (and maybe a few of their boxes)?

If Amazon wants to crush its competitors, which does appear to be their goal, having a national “reuse” service would differentiate them from their competition. When you place an order with Whole Foods, you have the option to add a tip, because… ahhhh…. Amazon can’t afford to pay their workers? Why not add another option? For a few dollars more allow customers to select “reusable containers”. Let the market price the value of reusable containers.

IT’s going to take a lot more than Amazon to fix the plastic pollution problem. But no single corporation is better positioned to make reusable packaging something more than a quirky idea. They have the volume, they have the customer base, and they have the ambition to make it happen.

What do you think? Is reusable packing a good ides? Would you use it? Would you even pay a bit more to reduce the pollution problem? Tell us! Let us know what you think!



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