It's now well-known that the packaging for our food and personal products is an unsustainable, garbage-producing mess. Even stuff that's recyclable mostly isn't — especially plastics. In all the years we've been diligently recycling, the truth is we haven't gotten very far. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, just 9 percent of plastic was recycled, 16 percent of it was burned, and 75 percent was sent to landfills in 2015.

Looking at these numbers, it's easy to see why our oceans, and the animals that live there, are choked with plastics, and our beaches strewn with the stuff. Clearly the "recycle more" mantra has failed and we need another solution to packaging. Even the experts agree: "While recycling is critically important, it's not going to solve the waste problem," according to Tom Szaky, the CEO of TerraCycle, a company that has worked on issues around packaging and recycling for over a decade.

Enter Loop, a program with a mission to "eliminate the idea of waste," says Szaky. Loop takes up the first part of the mantra "reduce, reuse, recycle" by creating returnable, reusable packaging for common consumer items.

The idea for Loop was founded at the World Economic Forum by TerraCycle and some big names in the consumer products business, including Procter & Gamble, Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever, Mars Petcare, The Clorox Company, The Body Shop, Coca-Cola European Partners, Mondelēz International, Danone, Jacobs Douwe Egberts, Lesieur, BIC, Beiersdorf, RB, People Against Dirty, Nature’s Path, Thousand Fell, Greenhouse, Grilliance, Burlap & Barrel Single Origin Spices, Reinberger Nut Butter, CoZie and Preserve.

The Loop logo behind jarred goods. A huge variety of products are already part of the Loop roll-out, from shelf-stable foods, to personal-care items. (Photo: Courtesy TerraCycle)

How did TerraCycle come up with this large-scale reusable packaging concept? Szaky says he and his team dug deep and looked at some hard truths over several years: "If recyclability is not the foundational answer [to our waste problems], what's the root cause? The root cause of waste is disposability," says Szaky. And while it's easy to say "use fewer disposable items" — something many of us have dedicated serious time to, the truth is that all the rah-rah-reuse enthusiasm and personal changes it may have engendered hasn't been even close to enough. Our waste has increased over the past decade.

It's time to get real: "Disposability is easy to vilify, but we also need to look at why disposability won — because it's cheap and convenient. That speaks to why consumers want it — they're willing to sacrifice the environmental negatives for the cheapness and convenience," said Szaky. It's not pretty to hear, but it's true.

So, instead of trying to change the behavior of billions, TerraCycle looked at how to solve the root cause of waste, while still maintaining the virtues of disposables, like affordability and convenience.

The birth of a circular system

An infographic showing how Loop works. Loop works by creating a circular system — rather than a linear one — for packaging. (Photo: Courtesy TerraCycle)

Loop takes some of its DNA from AirBnB and Uber, by understanding that consumers have no interest in owning a package, or having to deal with its disposal. Just like many people don't want to own a car, they just want to get from A to B, so Loop shifts the packaging responsibility back to the companies that make the products we want (the ice cream, olive oil or deodorant that's inside the packages).

Szaky says some of the cues for this came from the past: "In the milkman model, the package wasn't owned by the consumer, but owned by manufacturer — so they were motivated to make it long-lasting. When packaging was shifted to become the property of consumer, it was all about making it as cheap as possible, to drive price down," says Szaky.

How does Loop work exactly? You order from the Loop store, and your stuff will be shipped to you. On the first transaction, there's a deposit for the container — say 25 cents for a Coca-Cola. Once it's returned to the store, or sent back in the reusable shipping container, "no matter what state it's returned in (even if broken, because the container is the manufacturer's responsibility), you get your deposit back in full," says Szaky.

Durability becomes a goal again

Deos deodorant in reusable white and aluminum containers. Deodorant in reusable containers means you pay what you always did for the product, but it looks much higher-end in your bathroom vanity. (Photo: Courtesy TerraCycle)

If you sign up for auto-refills timed to your schedule for personal care stuff (or, let's face it, ice cream!) the deposit stays in your account and you simply get your deodorant, toothpaste or razors refilled automatically — with literally no waste. You get what you want — the product inside — and the package is the company's to deal with. (Yep, you can even return dirty packages.)

The huge boon to a new packaging model isn't just for the consumer or the planet we all share. It benefits the companies that make our stuff, too. When Pepsi owns the package, and the consumer owns the contents, the number of times the package can be reused becomes more important than its cheapness — and a durable package could even cost the company less in the long run if designed well — a win-win for the company and the environment.

Durable, reusable packaging also allows companies to make containers that are more functional (like the Haagen Daaz container that keeps ice cream colder, longer). It also allows for way more fun, interesting and marketable design possibilities.

Pampers reusable diaper container. Even Pampers gets a circular packaging upgrade in the Loop program. (Photo: Courtesy TerraCycle)

Imagine: Instead of ugly, wasteful plastic bottles, what if we used high-design glass ones for our mouthwash? In the age of Instagram, it's actually a genius PR move for companies to make their product containers beautiful as well as functional.

In France, Carrefour grocery stores have partnered with Loop, and a pilot program at Tesco in London will debut sometime later in 2019. About 125 products will be available for U.S. consumers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York via the Loop store, starting in May. (There is also a small box in the bottom right corner of the Loop website if you want to reserve your spot in line for the program.)

Some of the biggest ocean-plastic polluters (see the Greenpeace list here) are the same companies that have invested in Loop. We've asked for a change, and they're giving it to us.

A reusable glass and metal Crest mouthwash container sits on a bathroom vanity. This container sure looks a lot prettier than a disposable plastic one. (Photo: Courtesy TerraCycle)

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

Loop could be the major packaging shift we've been waiting for
A new initiative from Terracycle called Loop creates returnable, reusable packaging for common consumer items.