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How Igloo Went Sustainable With Recool

by Bill McCool on 04/15/2020 | 6 Minute Read

There’s a pretty decent chance that, at some point in your life, you bought a styrofoam cooler.

Maybe you were young, and you didn’t want the commitment of buying the real thing, and you lacked the necessary storage space for such an item—maybe you didn’t have the coin for it, and, hey, it’s for one lousy beach trip, right? Just spend the $5 bucks, fill her up, and toss it when you’re done.

Except for the fact that polystyrene food containers and Styrofoam, in general, aren’t that great for the environment.

That’s why it was so refreshing to see Igloo release the Recool last year, their biodegradable and compostable cooler made from paper pulp. Not only could it carry up to 75 lbs, but it can keep ice cold for 12 hours while also holding water for five days without an iota of leakage. Best of all, it doesn’t chip away or easily break like a styrofoam cooler, and you can reuse it for multiple trips to the beach, all without the hassle of plunking down the extra money for a Playmate.

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And there’s a reason the Recool has resonated as strongly as it does with consumers. After all, they sold more than 250,000 units of the biodegradable cooler in its first year. Single-use coolers were something ubiquitous and immediate; waste was at their very core. However, a reusable cooler that can not only improve upon the cheaply-designed Styrofoam deal that you’d typically find at Walmart but can completely eradicate it is a sustainable success story for our modern era that bristles at the idea of excessive waste and polluting our waterways. In turn, that becomes an emotional story for a brand to tell and its one that consumers gravitate towards.

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Also, you can’t really have fun without a cooler.

You likely already have an emotional attachment to Igloo, one that might not feel as obvious as you think, but its there. It is a family cookout, an all-day beach venture, grilling with your pals—hell, it could even be that time you lost power after a vicious storm ripped down a power line in front of your apartment, and you needed to keep everything in your fridge cold.

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“If you were to go into your parents' garage and find one, it brings back this flood of memories from what you did with them as a kid,” says Dave Allen, CEO and president of Igloo. “It's amazing.” 

Allen’s most prominent challenge when he took the helm at Igloo was to try and bring the public back to the brand as they felt that people had lost that emotional attachment to the brand. While they make highly durable goods that last for generations, that’s something that can get lost in a disposable society, that commitment to craftsmanship. 

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“We just really lost that insight and connection with consumers around that emotional engagement,” he says.

And the cornerstone of bringing consumers back to the brand was sustainability. Because when you think of Igloo, sustainability is not really at the forefront of your mind. Visions of Playmates and their ilk bring to mind plastics, though the intention behind the product itself is to last for quite some time—even if, say, a wheel falls off of your cooler, you can buy a replacement part directly from them instead of sinking money on a new one.

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Up and down the California coast, beach towns were implementing styrofoam bans (though San Diego recently reneged on that promise), and Igloo’s VP of creative service Ben Soto wanted to help eradicate coolers made from the same material.

“We didn't set off to do anything bigger than just that, but I think it was a combination of the response from not only our customers but also our employees that we then realized that we really struck a chord,” Allen says. “We took a step back, and asked what else could we do, and given the reception that we had, instead of this being a one-off product introduction, we turn it into a category, and then resource it appropriately. Put the right people and investment behind it, and say hey, look, this is something that we can get behind, and then we can go and make a difference.” 

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“We're really committed to going in and being a leader in the space.”

To make a Recool, Igloo takes pre-and-post recycled materials, like corrugate and craft paper, and they mix it into a slurry with a thickness resembling that of a paste. Then, they mold it into the Recool’s form, where it will run through a dryer so they can take all of the moisture out of the product. It’s completely alien to anything the company has done before, and while it was less costly to make overseas in China, they still elected to make the coolers here in the US.

Their innovation doesn't end with paper pulp, however. “We've looked at using agave, bamboo, and we even tried using hemp in some of the coolers, so we're trying to see where else we can take this product because they're very different stories for us to be able to tell,” Allen admits. Of course, they ultimately found that those materials weren't scalable, but it doesn't mean that they won't be in the future--without a little more research and development.

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The brand also recently decided to team up with Target, and they’re now releasing a line of soft-side coolers made from recycled plastic called Repreve. Each bag gets woven with a polyester-like fabric that utilizes recycled content, and about nine plastic bottles go into the manufacturing of each bag. They’re looking to add 20 different bag styles to the collection throughout the year, and they figure they’ll have recycled over 1 million bottles. 

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They also want to incorporate more ocean plastic into their products, and further down the road, they want to use greener forms of polyethylene in their hardshell coolers made from sugarcane, and they’ll likely have a Playmate using this material sometime in 2021. Additionally, in the wake of new regulations from the California Air Resource Board (CARB), Igloo teamed up with chemical company BASF to work on a new insulation formula for their hard-sided coolers. Now, they’ve created Thermecool, which will go into every one of their plastic coolers from here on out, and with its improved environmental standards, the new insulation is 50 times better for the planet and has a similar net effect to removing 86,000 cars from American roads for a year.

While it’s been a busy year for Igloo and their newfound passion for sustainability, they have no plan to scale back, and they hope to continue their newfound mission.

“Consumers are just more and more aware of sustainability and its role in their daily lives, about making the planet a better place for their kids and their grandkids,” Dave says. “Our job is to be able to go and leverage our brand as a force for good and try and do the right thing."

“We're really excited to be at the forefront of this,” he adds. “We're committed to going in and using our brand to drive change and make a positive impact on the planet.”

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