Goodbye shipping waste, hello reusable packaging.
Online shopping is quick and comfortable. But shipping goods produces masses of packaging. The startup LimeLoop, which has joined the URBAN-X startup platform URBAN-X, produces reusable packaging for sustainable shipping. We spoke to Co-Founder Chantal Emmanuel about how the business idea came up.
Chantal Emmanuel has always loved problem-solving. At the end of 2017, the software engineer got a call one day from her friend and later Co-Founder and CEO Ashley Etling, who wanted to talk about rubbish. Specifically, all the packaging from online shopping that ends up on the curb on bin day. Holding the phone to her ear, Emmanuel looked at her own pile of flattened boxes from recent purchases that were waiting in her kitchen. Mentally, she started adding up the similar piles that she suspected were sitting in her neighbours’ houses – as well as in the houses of all of their neighbours. Emmanuel agreed with her friend Ashley: Something had to be done. Then she asked herself: Why not by us?
So, Chantal, what exactly is LimeLoop about?
The way we ship today was designed to send 1,000 T-shirts from a manufacturer to a single store. Now we use the same system to send 1,000 T-shirts from a store to 1,000 individual people. This produces an insurmountable amount of waste that grows exponentially every year. I was also personally contributing to the problem. I'm slightly ashamed to say that I’m an avid online shopper myself. At LimeLoop, we've designed a fleet of reusable packaging that is primarily made out of recycled materials. Brands use them to send out their products. There's a prepaid label in the packaging that the customer just flips over, before they take the empty package to the post office, which then goes back to the brand. The same packaging can be used over 200 times. To make this as easy as possible, we’ve also created an online platform that brands and end consumers can use to answer questions such as: Where's my package? How can I print out a label? What’s the environmental impact? The packages themselves contain a sensor that captures data including location, engagement and temperature.
Every year, 3 billion trees are pulped to produce packaging. Why can’t we just recycle more?
Contrary to what a lot of people believe, only about 9% of recyclable materials are actually recycled. It's a broken system. We launched LimeLoop in 2018, the year that China announced that it would no longer take a lot of the world's rubbish. China had been one of the major export sites for US recycling. Without it, a lot of the municipalities no longer have a destination for their waste. So, things that you put out to be recycled actually end up in landfill. Aside from that, recycling materials requires resources. To reuse a cardboard box, for example, it takes a lot of water and pulping and raw materials. It's not the net-zero experience that many people think it is. And you can only recycle a cardboard box about five times before its fibres become too weak.
Could we do away with single-use packaging?
Ideally, we as a society would move away from packaging itself. If you think about it, we need packaging to get a product safely from point A to point B. But is packaging really the only means for that? I would argue that the answer is no. We can start by eliminating external packaging. Its useful life is probably only a couple of hours. A couple of days, at most. Then it sits in landfill indefinitely. There are plenty of opportunities to think about how we do things and how we could do them more efficiently. Maybe you need most of your items delivered on Saturdays. In that case, let's just get all of your packages to you on a Saturday, delivered directly into your hands, as opposed to five different deliveries throughout the week in boxes that you then have to dispose of.
How are things going for LimeLoop?
We work with over 40 customers, from small businesses to some of the largest companies in the world. One of the biggest things we're working through right now is asking people to do something differently. Anytime you do that, there's going to be some conflict. A consumer might say, oh no, I have to return that package. But that now just means flipping over a label and dropping it at the post office! That’s as opposed to the weekly ritual that many of us have of breaking down cardboard boxes and putting them out on the street.
How can we solve this?
I think if we continue to put ourselves in consumers’ shoes and design things that encourage them to send the package back, we’ll continue to see consumer behaviour change. For me, solving problems is almost like an out-of-body experience. If you give me vague details, and if I have enough information, I can visualise how to move forward. The other challenge is scaling. Especially with COVID, e-commerce numbers have skyrocketed. There was an overnight demand for solutions like ours. Some of the brands we're talking to are now running at holiday level year-round in terms of e-commerce orders. So it’s about making sure that we're in the right place to scale.
You can be the person who says, I'm going to use my life to make the changes that the world needs.
How did joining URBAN-X help?
We learned about the programme through one of our current investors. I remember that from the first call, it very much felt like this was a good fit for us, especially the combination of social impact with a technology-driven solution. Often you're either put into the social impact box – like do-gooding, almost like a non-profit – or you're seen as a technology company. It’s hard to find people who understand that this intersects. URBAN-X definitely does. We're taking on a big, meaty problem that requires an intricate solution. The things we need to do constantly surpass the size of our still small team. URBAN-X provides experts that let us augment our team in many ways. We have meetings with their in-house engineers for everything from rethinking our branding to manufacturing supply chains and designing the hardware like the sensors. Because of this, we're able to function like a much bigger team than we actually are.
How much packaging material has LimeLoop saved so far?
We've diverted over a million packages since our launch. The number is constantly growing. Because we see repeated use of a package, it brings the cost per use down to something pretty similar to, if not cheaper than, what our customers were paying with single-use packages.
What change would you like to see in the world?
We talk a lot about this. When the most recent UN report on climate change came out, I had a moment of feeling defeated. What are we fighting for, if the rest of the world isn’t pulling its weight? I called my business partner, and after talking this through with her, I landed on this: You can throw your hands up and say, it’s too late! But at least it won't be too bad before I die. Or, you can be the person who says, I'm going to use my life to make the changes that the world needs. Put all of your energy into this. Create a narrative for our children to look back and say, we were on the brink of disaster. And we got together as a community, as a society, as a world and made real changes that created a better place that we live in today.
WHAT IT´S ABOUT?
LimeLoop makes packaging pouches from upcycled billboard vinyl and recycled cotton, which can be reused over 200 times. Companies rent or buy the zippered pouches to ship products to customers who return them to the brand. LimeLoop also provides a platform that helps online stores handle the distribution and recovery of the packaging. The startup joined URBAN-X as part of Cohort 10 in 2021.
WHY WAS THE STARTUP FOUNDED?
The rise of online shopping means that more and more padded packaging, corrugated fibreboard, shrink wrap, and air pillows end up in our bins and pollute our oceans, land and air. Every year, 3 billion trees are pulped to produce cardboard packaging alone. LimeLoop’s reusable packaging pouches save 13,000 gallons of water, 1 tree and 3 gallons of oil per 150 shipments.
WHERE IS THE HEAD OFFICE?
LimeLoop’s team of four full-time employees works across the US.
WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THE NAME?
“A lime is a natural thing,” says Chantal Emmanuel. “It's green and has a tough exterior that protects a soft interior. The loop is what the packaging itself makes through the system and back.”
DO YOU WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THEM? Click here.
URBAN-X is the platform for founders reimagining city life. Founded by MINI in 2016, URBAN-X partners with startups to build bold technology solutions for a sustainable planet. Breaking from traditional startup programme moulds, URBAN-X provides entrepreneurs from Seed to Series B with individualised and tailored support that accelerates growth and builds successful businesses for the next generation of climate- and city-focused innovators. Core to its platform, URBAN-X offers world-class engineering and design resources, industry-leading investment capital, a global network of investors, policymakers, corporate strategies and end-customers, and exclusive educational content for a global network of founders.
They offer a custom-tailored journey to get to ‘product-market fit’ through an intensive and immersive programme, both virtually and at our headquarters in New Lab in Brooklyn, New York.
URBAN-X works closely with BMW iVentures and BMW Startup Garage to connect teams to internal resources where appropriate. If you want to learn more about URBAN-X, click here.