Tesco is trialling a scheme in the UK where online shoppers will get products in reusable packaging.
The supermarket giant is joining forces with Loop, which styles itself as a «zero waste shopping platform».
The trial covers 150 items, which will be delivered in reusable containers for which consumers pay a deposit.
Greenpeace said rising demand for home deliveries due to the lockdown gave «a real opportunity for innovation in reusable packaging».
Tom Szaky, the chief executive of Loop, said the UK service would start off as a pilot, but would be delivering to the whole of the UK mainland, including Northern Ireland.
Customers will apply for the service by clicking on a link on the Tesco website, and will then be able to order their delivery, which will come in a bag via courier firm DPD.
After using the products, which include Heinz Tomato Ketchup, Persil washing liquid, Coca-Cola, and Danone yoghurt, customers ask for DPD to come and pick up the empties in the bag.
These are then cleaned by hygiene and food safety firm Ecolab in certain DHL warehouses, and then returned to be reused.
When BBC News asked Mr Szaky whether UK consumers might be put off reusing containers due to Covid-19 safety concerns, he said: «When you go to the dentist, has it ever crossed your mind that the tools the dentist is using have been in hundreds, maybe thousands of mouths before yours? No? It comes down to cleaning.»
He said the containers are not cleaned by the consumer – the idea being to make it as easy to use the containers as single-use packaging – but instead they are professionally cleaned.
Mr Szaky added that the service, which has already been piloted in France and the US, has seen double-digit growth in those markets during the coronavirus crisis.
The plan in the UK is for Loop to partner with Tesco for a year, but also to collaborate with other businesses including an undisclosed fast food chain.
Customers could either return Loop packaging through Tesco, or through other retailers, to get a return on their deposit. If the service is a success, it will offered in-store in Tesco, and after a year, it may be used in other supermarkets.
«Our goal is not about money [at the moment] – we’re losing money on this launch,» Mr Szaky said. Instead, Loop and Tesco want to «really understand whether the British public is excited about this proposition. Which locations [in the UK] are most excited will inform where Tesco goes in-store first,» he said.
The plan is to eventually integrate Loop into Tesco’s online delivery service.
Dave Lewis, Tesco Group chief executive, said in a statement: «Our ground-breaking partnership with Loop has been designed to test a new way of helping customers use less plastic and explore the exciting potential of reuse.
«We will learn what works at scale as we develop plans with Loop to introduce reusable packaging into our business.»
‘Win win win’
Environmental campaign groups welcomed the move. Greenpeace said that rising demand for home deliveries due to the coronavirus crisis «presents a real opportunity for innovation in reusable packaging».
«Replacing throwaway packaging with refillable containers won’t just help stem plastic pollution and protect wildlife,» said Louise Edge, senior campaigner at Greenpeace. «By preventing swaps from single use plastic to cardboard, it helps protect our forests too. Plus, reuse can deliver reduction in greenhouse gases, so it’s a win win win for the environment.»
Tanya Steele, chief executive at WWF, said: «There needs to be a cultural shift, from a society that is reliant on disposable products and packaging, to one that embraces a circular model. «At the heart of this is reusability, which is why Tesco’s Loop trial is a welcome first step in understanding how initiatives like this could work at scale in the future.»
After launching in France with Carrefour and the US with Kroger and Walgreens, Loop has set its sights on the UK. France and the UK are the «epicentre» of «where consumers are most concerned about waste», while the US is a «megamarket» for any product or service, he said.
The firm also has plans to partner with Loblaws, in Canada, Aeon, in Japan, and Woolworths in Australia.
A number of companies are making moves towards more environmentally-friendly packaging. Drinks giant Diageo said that from next year it would be trialling Johnnie Walker whisky in paper bottles.
Carlsberg is in the process of developing a paper beer bottle.
And supermarkets have been trialling reuse and refill schemes after consumer concerns about the environmental impact of packaging. Waitrose had a pilot scheme last year that allowed customers to bring their own containers for pasta, beer, and frozen fruit.
But despite consumer pressure, firms were warned earlier this year not to substitute plastic packaging for materials that could be more damaging to the environment.