Take that back! How businesses are taking responsibility for hard-to-recycle products

Friday March 17, 2023

Recycling, at its best, is an invitation to see opportunity instead of waste. In a closed-loop system, our used products and packaging would be used to create the next generation of goods, eliminating waste and greatly reducing our need for raw materials. 

Unfortunately, the reality of recycling is far from that dream. Canadians throw away more than 3 million tonnes of plastic every year, and only 9% of that is recycled. In response, some manufacturers and retailers are taking matters into their own hands by creating takeback programs for hard-to-recycle products. 

We asked some of our bullfrogpowered businesses what motivated them to take action on recycling, how customers feel about their takeback programs, and where they see opportunities for the circular economy to flourish. 

How conventional recycling is falling short for businesses and consumers 

Recycling programs vary from city to city, making it difficult for manufacturers to choose materials that all municipalities will accept. And many common types of packaging need to be sent to specialized facilities that would be expensive and inconvenient for consumers. Faced with these issues, companies are offering takeback programs to fill the gaps left by conventional recycling. 

Amy Merli, Sustainability Coordinator for Retail & Bring it Back Program Lead for Lush North America, pointed out that conventional plastic-sorting facilities use near-infrared radiation, but the black pigments in Lush’s pots throw off the technology and cause black plastics to be sorted incorrectly. 

“Due to the limitations of conventional plastic-sorting facilities we took full ownership of our packaging to prevent our plastic pots from ending up in landfills.” Amy said. "Our process is truly closed loop and we work closely with our partners to ensure full transparency recycling in every step.” Lush launched a pot return program in 2008 and created a circular system where the plastic pellets from recycled pots go directly to Lush’s manufacturers to be used as raw materials for new pots.

Jackie Kanham, Senior Director of Sustainability and Social Impact at DECIEM

With many barriers to recycling, DECIEM has taken an inclusive approach to their recycling program. “To encourage maximum usage, we wanted to make sure our program was open to everyone, not just DECIEM customers, so we accept packaging waste from any beauty brand,” says Jackie Kanham, Senior Director of Sustainability and Social Impact at DECIEM. “One of the drawbacks of conventional recycling is that it’s not consistent across different countries and cities. Our program aims to fill that gap.” 

Other bullfrogpowered businesses including Earnest Ice Cream and Saponetti offer their products in reusable, refundable glass jars to circumvent single-use packaging entirely. Nikki Self, Co-founder & CEO at Saponetti, noted that container deposit programs are a great way to incentivize packaging returns, which reduces waste and keeps municipal recycling costs low.  

For Staples Canada, addressing recycling barriers has been at the forefront of their consumer recycling programs. From what started with recycling printer ink and toner, Staples has now expanded to recycling batteries, electronics, and writing instruments. “We’re committed to providing solutions that are easy for Canadians to participate in and make an impact.” says Leigh Pearson, Senior Director Facilities and Sustainability at Staples Canada. “It’s part of who we are and our commitment to the communities we live and work in.” 

How takeback programs can change habits and attitudes 

Physical barriers from governments or municipalities continue to be an obstacle for our ‘plastic problem.’ Until these barriers are broken down, change will need to come from consumer demand and their shopping habits. 

“Consumer responsibility starts with how they choose to shop, and how willing they are to make extra efforts to change their habits and participate in circular economy systems.” says Nikki Self. Saponetti, among many other green businesses, encourage their customers to reuse containers to avoid any single-use plastics from ending up in our landfills. 

Vancouver business Earnest Ice Cream has a $1 deposit on their reusable glass jars, incentivizing many to collect their jars and use their credit towards their next ice cream purchase. Last year alone, they received over 167,000 jar returns. To our knowledge, we were the first ice cream company to package in reusable glass jars. Since Earnest launched there have been a few companies following suit - which is great! It's a lot of extra work, but at the end of the day, it’s worth it.” says Erica Bernardi, Co-founder & Co-owner of Earnest Ice Cream. Erica says they hope their reusable glass jar program can get customers thinking about how to reuse and reduce in other ways in their lives.  

To address their issue of plastic waste and waste diversion, Lush’s pot return program offers customers a free face mask for every five clean pots returned. In 2022, Lush enhanced the program’s appeal by allowing shoppers to return one pot for $1 off their purchase, promoting responsibility for packaging and strengthening the commitment to circularity. 

Ethical Bean has been addressing the end-of-life cycle for their coffee bags through their partnership with TerraCycle. Customers can mail their used coffee bags to Terracycle and in return, collect TerraCycle points that can be used towards a donation to a not-for-profit organization of their choice. Jeff Chiang, Head of Ethical Bean, says the coffee bags are upcycled to community items like park benches and playground equipment. 

Ethical Bean coffee bags, part of their recycle program that’s been running for almost 10 years. #RiseGrindRecycle

How industry leaders continue to pave the way for change 

While we wait on the development of new packaging technologies, businesses and consumers should continue putting pressure on governments and municipalities to ban single-use plastics. In the interim, Nikki Self of Saponetti points out that manufacturers and retailers need to be proactive about trimming waste within the supply chain and implementing solutions that eliminate or repurpose single-use packaging.  

Jackie Kanham of DECIEM is hopeful as a more circular economy becomes the norm that the availability of post-consumer recycled materials will become more readily available on the open market.  

“By empowering consumers with choice and transparency, and advocating for legislation that strengthens local recycling infrastructure, we hope to create a more sustainable future and inspire other companies to make positive changes.” Amy Merli, Lush. 

This mindset is also reflected in these companies’ choice to source renewable energy. Our bullfrogpowered businesses have committed to environmental stewardship and continue to pave the way as industry leaders for waste diversion. By purchasing renewable energy through Bullfrog Power and reflecting on their own plastic pollution, these forward-thinking businesses have taken the extra step to ensure a greener world for future generations.