As of late October, shoppers at 10 Giant Food stores in the District and Virginia can buy a bottle of olive oil, use it up, and then drop it back off to be sanitized, refilled, and placed back on the shelf. The grocery chain’s partnership with reusable packaging platform Loop represents a growing push from environmentalists to emphasize the “reuse” part of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra.
“People remember the milkman, right? And that is an archetype of the reuse model,” said Tom Szacky, CEO and founder of TerraCycle, which runs the reusable packaging platform Loop. “But here’s the first time reuse has gone to any product category. You have everything from ketchup to beard oil, from razor blades to hot sauce and barbecue sauce.”
The reusably-packaged options also featured granola and baby food in glass or metal containers. Giant execs said they expect the next product partnerships to include refrigerated items like milk.
A wholesale director from South Mountain Creamery, a regional dairy company, attended the Loop partnership launch on October 20 at the Giant in Northwest’s Cathedral Heights.
“Loop and Giant are helping the District to meet its waste goals,” Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh said at the launch. “Every time this packaging is used, one fewer item is sent to the landfill or the incinerator.”
The District’s waste goals are ambitious. Under the Sustainable DC plan, the city aims to divert 80% of waste from landfills or incinerators by 2032. But as of 2018, D.C. was diverting just over 25% of waste. Activists from the environmental group Sierra Club have argued for years that the city’s failure to prioritize major recycling and composting facilities has made it unlikely that the city will meet the 2032 goal.
Meanwhile, thousands of pounds of trash end up in the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers each year. According to data from “trash traps” set up by the Anacostia Watershed Society, plastic bottles make up 65% of that trash. Even when it ends up in a blue bin instead, very little plastic waste can actually be recycled into new products, a Greenpeace study released last week found.
Environmental advocates are increasingly calling for a paradigm shift. Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fonner started the D.C.-based startup SpringEats because she wanted to be a part of that change. The grocery delivery service, which is still in beta testing, will offer District residents the opportunity to buy fresh produce and pantry staples in 100% reusable packaging.
“Replacing one type of single-use plastic with some type of single-use compostable—that’s a huge problem,” said Gupta-Fonner. “I think of this as a deep systems issue. The moment you start reusing, you have cut down on resource extraction at the source.”
Gupta-Fonner said a few dozen homes across the District are participating in SpringEats’ beta testing, which she and her spouse and co-founder run from their northern Virginia home. The pair has developed partnerships with local farmers who pack produce into packages such as reusable stainless steel clamshells, which customers receive, use, and return with the next delivery. The packages are then sanitized at a separate facility before being refilled and sent off again.
“We have so much garbage in our lives in the form of single-use packaging that we keep plundering natural resources for,” Gupta-Fonner said. “The moment you cut down on that production of raw material, you can end that. You can fundamentally, structurally change the way the system was designed.”
How Reusable Grocery Packaging Works at Giant Stores
Step 1: The customer buys a food item. It comes in packaging made of sturdy materials like glass or stainless steel. At Giant stores partnering with Loop, customers pay a refundable deposit per item for the container, usually between $0.50 and $3.00.
Step 2: The food gets used up, but instead of tossing the container, the buyer returns it to the seller. At Giant, customers put their empty bottles in a dropbox at the front of the store—that’s when they get the deposit back.
Step 3: Containers from the dropboxes are picked up and brought to a cleaning facility to be sanitized and inspected.
Step 4: The cleaned containers go back to the food suppliers to be refilled and returned to shelves or readied for delivery.
The Giant stores with Loop partnerships in the District are in northwest’s Cathedral Heights and in Shaw; just across the border in Virginia, there’s one in Arlington and one in Potomac Yard.