Whenever we make a trip to the grocery store, we cheerfully bring home with us nutritious food, yummy snacks—and tons of plastics.

From produce to condiments, the majority of the products are bagged and packaged in plastic. According to Industry Canada, food packaging is responsible for about a third of all Canadian household waste, of which just 20 per cent gets recycled.

In February 2021, online supermarket Loop launched its online store in Ontario to test Canadian consumers’ interest in reusable packaging. By partnering up with big retailers including Loblaws, Loop is offering 98 products with reusable packaging for delivery.

The announcement has created a lot of excitement from the media and public, as it marks a major step in introducing zero-waste shopping to the mainstream.

But how sustainable is the program, really? I talked to three long-term sustainability enthusiasts and entrepreneurs to get their insights.

Young girl volunteering and collecting trash in nature. Photo: Getty Images.

A closer look at Loop Canadas logistics and infrastructure  

There is no denying that the Loop-Loblaws partnership is a positive initiative. Big retailers and supermarket chains have a great influence on consumers and the environment.

But for people like Erin Andrews, the founder and director at Impact Zero Toronto, Loop’s reusable packaging program isn’t perfect.

“Reusables are positive, but in what circumstances are they positive? What needs to be true in order for this to actually have a net positive impact on the planet?”

There is an important distinction between intention and impact, says Andrews. Determining the level of impact created by the program requires analysis from a financial, environmental and community perspective.

One of the financial barriers lies in the deposit model of Loop’s reusable containers. Andrews says that deposits are proven to have a lower return rate, thus don’t make the best practice.

“What does that mean for people where an additional $2 deposit on a container for a product that costs three or four dollars? That makes it very inaccessible for people,” she says.

Similar concerns are expressed by Heenal Rajani, the co-founder of Reimagine Co., a zero-waste store based in London, ON.

“I’ve looked into the Loop program itself, it does seem pretty small selection of products currently available and pretty, pretty expensive.”

Though Loop’s program is designed to reduce packaging waste and carbon footprint, the reusable containers purchased and returned in Canada are sent to New Jersey to be washed.

Both Andrews and Rajani criticized the carbon impact of this centralized shipping model.

“One of the biggest impacts output of carbon is transportation,” Rajani says.

“And there’s still this disconnected relationship with food… cause packaging waste is a huge issue but the biggest issue around food is food waste, and there’s nothing in this loop model that is really addressing this waste of food. You’re still getting these big-size packages.”

I reached out to Loop regarding the centralized shipping model and received a response from Lauren Taylor, VP of Creative and Communications at Terra Cycle and Loop Global: “In Canada, Loop is in the pilot phase of our rollout, with limited customers, to gauge the interest of Canadians and the specific needs of the market. During this phase, we aggregate the returns at our Toronto Loop location and clean them in large batches at our New Jersey facility. As Loop scales up, we are absolutely planning to open multiple facilities in Canada to service the market.”

This does seem like a reasonable argument. But instead of waiting for Loop to launch local washing facilities, let’s talk about the local initiatives and partnerships that already exist.

Why community programs work—support, share and sustain 

Circular economy. Illustration from Impact Zero.

Connecting and supporting a network of local circular businesses, Impact Zero Toronto is working to make the circular economy a reality in Toronto.

The volunteer-run, non-profit organization launched its newest accelerator program in March. One of the projects, Circulr, operates a local community-driven washing infrastructure system.

The company makes use of empty washing facilities in commercial kitchens—many are not being used because of COVID, and some are just not being used in the evenings. The project helps generate revenue for local restaurants while making use of their facilities.

“Part of circularity is also increasing the utility of things that already exist. We don’t need to go and build all these new washing facilities.”

The project also intentionally employs at-risk communities and people who are struggling to find employment. Andrews says this kind of project not only creates a positive impact from an environmental perspective but also benefits the community.

“This system that we’re working on the circular is all about leveraging what already exists in Toronto, supporting everyone and being the logistics between a very resilient network.”

“We have hundreds of washing facilities that are all smaller scale, you’re employing micro-groups of people across the city. It’s very community-driven and a very strong business model.”

Reimagine Co. also works with local suppliers, not only to source products but also to raise awareness on food waste.

One of Rajani’s favourite local partners is Urban Roots London, a non-profit organization that revitalizes the city’s underused and promotes urban agriculture.

“Growing your own food is such a big thing for resilience and really understanding food. And when you realize how much work goes into growing, you’re much less likely to just waste [it],” he says.

Reimagine Co started as a 3 month pop-up in London, Ontario, co-founded by husband-and-wife team Kara Rijnen and Heenal Rajani. Photo from Reimagine Co.

These local zero-waste shops did it first

Loop certainly isn’t the first to address the problem of plastic packaging. With the climate crisis (finally) garnering more attention from the public in recent years, we’ve seen many zero-waste stores emerge in our cities.

When Rajani and his wife, Kara Rajani, moved to Canada, they experienced a cultural shock from the amount of garbage produced by households. They were able to seek resources from the local community to make their zero-waste lifestyle possible.

Eventually, they decided to share their knowledge with more people by starting Reimagine Co. as a crowdfunding campaign and officially opened a package-free shop and grocery store just a few months ago.

“We have over 100 products and we’re growing all the time, new products being added. You can come and refill your own container, it doesn’t have to be this brand-new container,” says Rajani.

Opened two years ago, Unboxed Market is the first zero-waste store in Toronto.

“The objective of the store when we opened it was to try and eliminate excess waste and single-use plastics wherever possible,” says co-founder Michelle Genttner.

“That’s a forever-ongoing uphill battle but we’ve definitely taken that on and are going full steam ahead with it.”

Both Genttner and her partner come from a hospitality background “in the world in bars and restaurants,” she says.

The two were always interested in running a little easy grocery store, or so they thought.

“We seem to be never the ones for easy as we found this eco-conscious refill or zero-waste low-waste style store, and we started researching more. I decided that was very much the move that most aligned with us.”

The aluminum Häagen-Dazs containers on Loop’s posters may seem innovative, but Unboxed Market has been selling ice cream in reusable containers for a while.

Genttner says they reached out to some local ice cream and gelato makers for collaboration, before finally teamed up with Death in Venice, a popular ice cream joint just down the street.

“It’s not easy, regardless if you’re a larger or a smaller [business]. It depends on how you have your mind set up to be able to change over packaging… so it gets a little bit complicated.”

To track and ensure the environmental impact of their products, Genttner says they never source from massive distributors.

“It’s definitely easier for us to work with smaller companies to recognize where their packaging is, what their footprint is, what they’re doing as companies to push their own abilities to grow forward.”

It would impossible for local zero-waste shops like Unboxed Market to compete with larger conglomerates, says Genttner in terms of pricing.

“But I think that a lot of people are becoming much more aware in how they shop and where they shop and why they’re shopping…there’s a myriad of options that exist.”

Not everyone has the resources to access reusable options. The problem of packaging and grocery waste requires a bigger solution than a partnership between big corporates.

“There doesn’t seem to be any top-level-down responsibility, it’s all just push it further down the chain which is difficult for an individual consumer,” Genttner says.

“It needs to be better presented to consumers and industry in a way that we can all move forward together.”