How We Built Our Packaging Return Program

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This post is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of our Packaging Return Program written by our sustainability manager, Rose Hartley.

When I joined Imperfect in 2018, we were called Imperfect Produce and delivered wonky fruits and vegetables to seven cities. A year later, we had expanded to over 40 cities, had become Imperfect Foods, and offered a full grocery assortment so our customers could do all of their shopping with us, and together we could have a larger positive impact on the food system. 

Scaling a business is full of tough trade-offs. We’d long heard from our customers that they loved how little packaging our orders contained compared to other grocers and meal kit companies. But to keep our new lineup of perishable items safe, we needed to include insulated liners and frozen gel packs. While necessary from a food safety standpoint, this decision to add a new type of packaging made us aware of the challenges of maintaining our commitment to reducing waste as we grew. 

On the Sustainability Team, we saw this rapid growth as an opportunity to expand our sustainability commitments and model a better way to deliver groceries. Plastics are ubiquitous in the grocery industry and the United States produces around 42 million metric tons of plastic waste every year. Moreover, in a 2020 survey, our customers shared that reducing single-use materials and plastics was the top sustainability priority for us to tackle. We knew it was time to take our commitment to eliminate material and plastic waste as seriously as we took our commitment to eliminate food waste

So we asked ourselves: How could we design a circular system to eliminate single-use materials used in our deliveries? 

The answer: A Packaging Return Program, which keeps our insulated liners and gel packs out of landfills through a unique closed-loop system. It starts when our customers leave their clean gel packs and liners where we normally drop off their deliveries. Our Imperfect Delivery Teams collect them, then the gel packs get sanitized and reused, decreasing our dependence on new virgin plastics. The insulated silver liners get aggregated into the massive quantities needed for recycling (usually a minimum of a few hundred pounds, or several thousand liners) and are then broken down into high-quality resins. The recycled plastic resin is then used in packaging for household goods, further decreasing our dependence on new virgin plastics. For the small percentage of our customers whose boxes are delivered by a third party, we enable them to mail in their gel packs and insulated liners to be recycled.

We are proud to be the first national grocer to offer a packaging reuse and recycling service right from our customers’ doorsteps at no additional cost. So far, this one-of-a-kind program is on track to keep half a million pounds of plastic out of landfills every month and recover 6 million pounds of plastic in its first year. However, running it is not easy. It’s a complex juggling act that happens in dozens of cities across the country every day! 

We rely on a ton of collaboration internally to make this program possible. Our Delivery Team worked tirelessly to create a first-in-the-nation program in just over two months, and they continue to partner with our Sustainability Team to iterate and improve the program every day:

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Adham, Sr. Delivery Manager for Detroit, Nashville, Louisville- Adham joined Imperfect in 2018, choosing to leave a successful business he had founded in order to be part of a movement to end food waste. An expert in building strong teams across the Midwest, Adham has used the Packaging Return Program as a tool to teach new team members about Imperfect’s mission and the importance of recycling and reuse.   

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Christine, Reno Delivery Driver- Christine has been an Imperfect Foods customer since 2019, and joined the Imperfect Reno Delivery Team in March 2021. Her favorite part of the Packaging Return Program is how happy it makes the customers, and playing a key role in keeping packaging from ending up in the landfill each day.

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Karl, Northern California Delivery Supervisor- Karl has been part of the Imperfect family since 2016, and has been instrumental in keeping the PRP organized throughout the Bay Area. His favorite part of the Program is seeing the drivers get competitive with returns each day – who can pick up the most? He also loves seeing the customer’s faces when we pick up their packaging.

Building a program this large, available to all of our customers, was ambitious and would not have been possible without the right external partnerships, too. Our collaboration with Recyclops is a perfect example. Recyclops is on a mission to ensure that everyone has access to affordable recycling, regardless of where they live. When we first spoke to them about this program, they were just as passionate as we were about scaling it quickly so all of our customers could get involved. This made them an ideal partner to return and recycle our insulated silver liners across the entire country. 

Finding a way to reuse our gel packs was a bit more complicated. We’re set up to freeze and pack gel packs into customer orders, and since we deliver our customers’ boxes each week, we can retrieve gel packs for reuse. However, sanitizing and drying thousands of gel packs each week isn’t something Imperfect is set up to do ourselves. So we collaborate with partners with commercial wash systems, including Dispatch Goods, GO Box, Tosca, and Paradigm, to complete the circle and cover the parts of the reuse and recycling process we can’t tackle alone. 

Finally, this program is only possible because of the active participation and encouragement of our customers. We’re thrilled to share that across the country, we’re already seeing extraordinarily high packaging return rates from our community. And, we’re hearing that our customers want to return more than just our gel packs and liners!

It’s clear that everyone wants to make sustainable choices if given the option and folks expect their grocers to step up their game when it comes to sustainability. 

For the sake of our planet, we need to meet this moment and run, not walk, away from single-use plastics and materials entirely and embrace reusable options. Our first-of-its-kind packaging return program is a powerful first step in the right direction as well as a proof of concept for the entire food industry. This is bigger than just Imperfect Foods — and we invite our counterparts across the entire food and agriculture industry to join us.  

It’s inspiring for me to work on programs like this one and see the enormous change we can make together when we commit to new ways of doing business. Please keep sending us your ideas for how we can be more sustainable, in every definition of the word. We have a lot more work to do and a lot more exciting things to come! 

P.S. If you’re an Imperfect customer who wants to learn how to take part in the Packaging Return Program, please head here to find out how.

Thanks for your support! 

-Rose Hartley, Sustainability Manager 

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