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    No Replay for &Repeat

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    If you are a consumer in the Nordics and especially in Sweden, the brand &Repeat might ring a bell. For me, it certainly did, when I saw in this week’s news that the company had filed for bankruptcy. It provides the perfect opportunity to revive our Snap column, left orphaned at the end of April by our dear Julia Axelsson who parked her professional writing career.

    So, where did I last see that brand, &Repeat? It has been on the sticker of one of my favourite lunch treats, a take-away salad (Hummus & Za’atar, if you really want to know) of Stockholm-based chain Panini Internazionale. I must admit that, unlike the Panini stickers of my childhood (like the Pokemon cards for football fans, clearly more of a southern European thing), this sticker has been rather irritating.

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    The &Repeat idea is based on good intentions: increase incentives for consumers to recycle plastics. In Sweden, a high proportion of pet bottles and aluminium cans are recycled thanks to a system first introduced in 1984 and managed by a private company, Returpack AB via the brand ‘Pantamera’ (possibly translated to “deposit-more”). For any plastic bottle or can of soft drink, beer or water (even those sold at airports), consumers pay a deposit of SEK 1 or 2 (just under €0.10 or 0.20 at today’s exchange rate), which can be refunded when the container is returned at one of the many stores participating in the program. Thanks to this system the national target of recycling at least 90% of bottles and cans is close to being reached, according to the company.

    So, why do Swedish consumers only sort about 30% of plastics and why not apply the same deposit system to more types of consumer plastics than just bottles? The latter question is at least part of what &Repeat set out to do. One of their services was to facilitate a deposit system in the shape of a QR-code sticker which added SEK 2 (€0.18) to the price of a take-out meal like Panini’s and promised SEK 4 (€0.36) back when the consumer uploaded a photo of the sticker-marked plastic lid being thrown away in a recycling bin.

    Isn’t this something that should have made me happy? In short, no. First of all, I did try the system when I finally got hold of a plastic recycling bin, but the app didn’t work for me. Second, but most importantly, as we all know by now (or should know, if you read the Laundromat), plastic recycling is a bit of a scam when it comes to consumers. The diversity of materials and colours coupled with the varying degrees of contamination and the costs linked to sorting make it so that only a limited amount of consumer plastic waste can be effectively recycled. These caveats are less prevalent for industrial packaging, where waste tends to be more uniform and assembled in larger quantities, but even there, critics say that recycling certain types of plastics is merely a ‘zero-sum-game’ given that the process still requires huge quantities of energy and in some cases can only be performed once.

    In short, putting the onus of plastic recycling on the consumer has been the battle cry of the plastic industry which wishes to continue its relentless production undisturbed. The plastic producers, consumer packagers, bottlers and other plastic aficionados are more than happy to support the idea of recycling and the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW) is their greenwashing champion, as long as they do not need to pay for the downstream treatment of the waste their products will eventually become. In Sweden, for instance, the Pantamera project mentioned above is supported by a tax on packaging which is regulated by Naturvårdsverket, the Swedish environmental agency and enforced by a penalty fee on the producers if they do not reach a certain recycling threshold. This is one of the key reasons why this program works (together with the fact that Swedes have become quasi-religious about the domestic task of ‘panta’ = recovering their bottles’ deposits). And let’s not forget to mention that Returpack AB is owned by industry associations for brewers and food retail.

    Regulators have a crucial role to play but just like with other questions that affect large money spinning industries, lobbyists are never far. Thus, what solutions the regulators prescribe and inscribe into the law may be heavily influenced by the distractions procured by the very same companies that are responsible for causing plastic waste. Take plastic straws. Were plastic straws ever a significant problem? Yes, for a couple of turtles who had the misfortune of being photographed in an unflattering position with one of them stuck up their nose. But are plastic straws the culprit for microplastic pollution? No, not even close. In fact, in Sweden, unless you intentionally throw your plastic straw in the ocean, it is almost guaranteed to be ‘recycled for energy’ (i.e. incinerated to produce electricity or heat).

    In many other countries, plastic waste does indeed end in the ocean which is a problem that definitely needs to be addressed, but even then, straws only represents a tiny fraction of waste and an even smaller proportion of microplastic pollution. Indeed, the biggest culprits seem to be ships due to their coatings designed to be released in the water over time, the fishing industry with its nets, or even the fashion industry with its synthetic fibres. But it was easier to ban straws. It makes almost no difference to the oceans or to GHG emissions but it is visible and annoying for children and the now rare cinema goers who are left sipping their sodas with melting paper tubes. And while the more optimistic champions of recycling claim that ‘it is only the beginning’ and that it constitutes an encouraging start, I would argue that no, it is just annoying for the consumers and it has therefore used up a non-negligible part of their goodwill. Worst of all, it constitutes a major distraction from other actions that could make a much bigger difference.

    So what about &Repeat? The master plan wasn’t just to provide a new deposit system for recycling but also for reusable containers. After all, the solution to single-use is multiple-use. While ‘Big Plastic’ is trying to make us believe that it is enough to reduce plastic waste by replacing it with paper-based packaging (which are often lined with a plastic layer, that is definitely not recyclable), isn’t the real solution to eliminate or at least reduce packaging all together? Yes, and the EU has been at work designing a legislation (PPWR if you like acronyms) that forces restaurants, among others, to phase out single-use items and, by the way, also makes the Swedish ‘pant’ system mandatory for the rest of Europe by 2029. But that wasn’t enough to secure &Repeat’s future. At the end of the day, investors decide. The business ran out of cash and wasn’t viable enough to warrant additional funding. So, after the Renewcell bankruptcy earlier this year, circularity loses yet another soldiering start up.

    This corporate obituary should serve to highlight two major issues that we need to consider on our journey to a circular economy. First, to be successful like Pantamera, a circular project has to involve and incentivise the entire supply chain, which implicates both carrots and sticks. Second, we must remain extremely critical of any distractions deviously presented to us by those who desperately try to hang on to unsustainable business models and hold our governments accountable for forging laws that prevent it. As for investors, perhaps we shouldn’t expect them to throw good money after unprofitable ideas, but it is also crucial that they don’t participate in funding the lobbying that will leave us sucking on floppy straws.

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