ReturnBear, a Toronto startup that offers a platform for package return drop-offs, has partnered with Boox, a Petaluma, Calif.-based startup that offers reusable shipping containers and packaging.
Toronto-based Suppli and Vancouver's Reusables.com, which provide reusable metal food containers, have unveiled a partnership with Uber Eats.
The startups seek to tackle the problem of single-use packaging waste and promote a more circular Canadian economy, one built around reusing and recycling instead of extracting and exploiting natural resources for new products.
“ReturnBear is essentially here to make the returns process easier for consumers, more profitable for brands and businesses, and ultimately better for the planet,” Sylvia Ng, CEO of ReturnBear, told SustainableBiz.
Ng, a former director and general manager at Shopify, said ReturnBear was founded in October 2021 to reduce the waste from e-commerce returns, which she saw first-hand while at Shopify.
A spike in online shopping during the COVID pandemic led to more returns, which not only incur losses for the retailer but lead to mountains of waste that often ends up in landfills.
“If you as a merchant can’t parse out the economics of taking returns back, essentially it becomes easier for you to throw out those items into these landfills than it is to take them back to your inventory.”
Her company developed a software-as-a-service platform for circular e-commerce logistics, where businesses and customers can access a network of over 100 drop-off locations across Canada if they wish to return a package.
The return process starts by putting in a request through the brand. ReturnBear shows the user nearby drop-off locations at The Bay or Cadillac Fairview shopping centres, which do not require re-packing the return or printing a shipping label. The refund is given at the drop-off location, and ReturnBear checks the package for quality control and handles the repackaging.
Ng said ReturnBear reduces the amount of packaging waste and travel distances for a return, which cuts down on shipping costs and greenhouse gas emissions from car trips.
ReturnBear further expanded its scope with the Boox partnership. Described as a “natural partner” by Ng, Boox was interested in entering the Canadian market and ReturnBear was seeking to push itself to be more sustainable.
Boox says it reduces environmental impact by over 70 per cent compared to single-use packaging.
“Some of these brands you couldn’t buy from in Canada before this partnership, precisely because these brands have made a commitment to sustainability,” she said. The firms required a circular packaging logistical partner before they would join the Canadian market.
Other brands will join the partnership over time, Ng expects.
Suppli, Reusables.com’s Uber Eats partnership
Uber Eats announced pilot partnerships with Suppli and Reusables.com to offer their reusable food container services in Toronto and Vancouver, respectively, through the Uber Eats app.
The food delivery platform is aiming to reduce single-use plastic waste and eliminate all plastic waste from its merchants’ deliveries by 2030.
Suppli offers reusable metal take-out containers as an option for orders from over 50 restaurants such as Basil Box and Mad Radish. After eating their meal, customers have two weeks to return the container to a drop-off bin in locations like a restaurant, coffee shop or a plastics-free grocery store. The container is cleaned and returned to the restaurant for reuse.
Reusables.com offers a similar service.
Julianna Greco, Suppli’s co-founder, told SustainableBiz her company has prevented over 70,000 single-use containers from entering landfills.
She also said Suppli is economically competitive with biodegradable or Styrofoam single-use containers.
The Uber Eats partnership opens Suppli and Reusables.com to dozens of restaurants in Toronto and Vancouver, which Greco called an “opportunity to make a really great impact.”
“They’re (Uber Eats) in a place where they were looking for a solution. Just working with them on a partnership made a lot of sense from both sides. We’re excited to be partnering with them.”
Fostering the circular economy
Guided by expanding bans on single-use plastics, Canadian companies in the circular economy are looking to make this their moment.
“I’m very bullish about where we’re at,” Ng said, adding, “we still have a long way to go.”
Ng said consumers are more interested in sustainability, but need to push harder on the government for circular products.
The greatest obstacle for sustainable e-commerce, she noted, is the lack of visibility into supply-chain systems.
“As much as we feel like we’re very tech enabled now, a lot of our systems still to this day don’t talk to each other.”
When Ng engages other brands, she notices many lack visibility into their returns logistics. By collecting the data with technology, systems can be optimized to aid in circularity.
Greco believes lawmakers can play a pivotal role in this transition, pointing to legislation in Europe that mandates restaurants provide a reusable option.
“There’s a piece that legislation has to play here in terms of enabling businesses to actually get to this spot of where the circular economy can be a little bit more achievable.”
She also said more funding from the government or private sector is crucial because many circular economy businesses are evolving in a new sector which some investors are hesitant to enter.