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Big brands like Häagen-Dazs and Tide are testing reusable packaging

Major brands are testing out reusable packaging in an attempt to cut down on plastic waste.

Häagen-Dazs ice cream in a reusable metal container.

Some of the world’s biggest companies, including Unilever, Nestlé, and PepsiCo, are rolling out reusable packaging for certain products in an attempt to phase out single-use plastics — and to alleviate their own reputations as polluters. This move, still in the planning stages, is a necessary step in shifting the conversation on reducing carbon emissions from a consumer focus to one that holds companies responsible.

Starting in May, Unilever’s Axe and Dove deodorants will come in refillable steel containers that are expected to last eight years. PepsiCo will start selling Tropicana orange juice in glass bottles and certain flavors of Quaker cereal in steel containers. Häagen-Dazs, owned by Nestlé, will come in refillable stainless steel tins. Procter & Gamble’s Pantene shampoo will come in aluminum bottles, and its Tide brand detergent will come in stainless steel containers.

The idea is to get consumers to cut back on the single-use plastics that have become an indispensable part of everyday life. Businesses and consumers have long concentrated on the third “R” in “reduce, reuse, recycle,” but with this initiative, companies are renewing focus on the first two. (By the way, an estimated 25 percent of all recyclable products end up in landfills anyway.) And instead of encouraging changes on the supply side — i.e., putting the onus for sustainable living on the consumer, which was a common theme in arguments about whether plastic straws should be banned — this move indicates that companies are starting to accept their outsize contribution to global carbon emissions.

This initiative, which is part of a partnership with the recycling company TerraCycle, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal, suggests that businesses are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the suggestion that their practices contribute to global pollution. “I sometimes wonder if it’s a fair accusation that we’re in the branded litter business,” Unilever CEO Alan Jope reportedly said at a conference this week. Helping people cut down on plastics is certainly a good way of challenging that accusation, but there’s a catch. For now, the TerraCycle program is in a pilot phase. It will be available to 5,000 shoppers in Paris and New York City in May, according to the Journal’s report, and will expand to London later this year and to 10 additional cities, including Toronto and Tokyo, in 2020.

Here’s how it works: Consumers who get selected for the trial get the chance to order hundreds of products online. Those products arrive in a reusable tote bag with no extra packaging. Once the containers are empty, TerraCycle picks them up, cleans them, and delivers refilled containers back to customers.

“People talk about recyclability and reuse and say they’d like to be involved in helping the environment, so let’s see if it’s true,” Simon Lowden, the president of PepsiCo’s global snacks group, told the Journal. “You simply have to start somewhere to test it and see what the barriers are and who actually buys into the model,” David Blanchard, chief of research and development at Unilever, told the paper.

It’s not surprising that these companies would want to test out costly new initiatives before offering them to the general public. But given the urgency of climate change — an October 2018 report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said we have just 12 years to make unprecedented changes if we want to stave off the worst effects of global warming — it’s worth asking whether a lack of consumer interest or a perceived lack of sufficient profits will prevent reusable products from being offered to a wider consumer base.

Nestlé, one of the companies participating in the TerraCycle initiative, is also planning to phase out many of its single-use plastic products and make all of its packaging recyclable by 2025. The company plans to completely eliminate certain “hard to recycle” plastics — like films, ice cream cone wrappers, and laminated paper cups — from its packaging. As Fast Company’s Mark Wilson pointed out, this isn’t going to come cheap — there’s “no immediate financial gain” to be made from going green. Companies can either absorb those costs, as Nestlé appears to be doing here, or pass them on to shoppers, which seems to be the case with the TerraCycle program.

According to the Journal’s report, the reusable versions will cost “roughly the same” as their single-use counterparts, but users will have to pay deposits of $1 to $10 per container. Shipping starts at approximately $20. Given a choice between cheaper single-use products and more expensive reusable ones, why wouldn’t a cash-strapped shopper go with the cheaper option? (The answer, of course, is existential guilt and fear of watching a climate catastrophe play out in their lifetime, but not everyone can afford to go green.) Megacorporations aren’t the only ones redesigning products to make them more eco-friendly. The period underwear company Thinx recently designed a reusable tampon applicator that retails for $60, and other startups are making reusable versions of common household products like plastic wrap and Ziploc bags.

In a world where consumers are often blamed for not being green enough — remember all the debates about whether banning plastic straws is actually good for the environment? — the TerraCycle program, despite being in its initial stages, suggests a future where the onus for changing consumption habits is placed on corporations rather than individuals.