Whether it's remembering the grocery totes or ditching straws, consumers are taking steps to stem the tide of single-use plastics. Now food companies are innovating to do their part too.

Scot Case feels like he's part of a movement when the grocery tote from Loop arrives at his Pennsylvania home. Instead of a collection of plastic bottles, bags, tubs and jugs, he gets brand-name foods (plus household goods and personal-care products) all in refillable containers. His wasabi peas don't come in a plastic bag and the Häagen-Dazs ice cream is in an insulated, stainless-steel carton instead of plastic-lined cardboard. "My teenagers show the pints to their friends," Case says. "That's how I know something exciting is happening here." (He even takes guests to his bathroom to show off the refillable glass-and-metal soap dispenser—much to his wife's horror.)

flowers in a vase that looks like a water bottle
Credit: Getty Images/Juj Winn

Packaging Without Plastic

Beyond the cool factor, this service underscores the pressing issue of single--use plastic: In the U.S., 14.5 million tons of plastics are generated per year. Of that, 1.9 million tons are recycled and 10 million tons end up in landfills, reports the EPA.

One revolutionary aspect of Loop (loopstore.com) is that it puts the onus on manufacturers to change the way food is packaged (as opposed to asking consumers to, say, BYO jars for the bulk bin). Still in its infancy, it offers 130 products with packaging that can be returned to Loop and reused up to 100 times—with 100 more items in the pipeline. Brands include Hidden Valley, Nature's Path and Cascade. It's available in nine states, plus D.C.—with plans to expand to the West Coast in 2020—as well as some international cities.

As for the carbon footprint of shipping? The EPA estimates that, compared to driving yourself to the store, a grocery delivery service that hits multiple households in a neighborhood can reduce emissions by up to 50%, so the benefit for the planet may only increase as this service scales up. It's worth noting that innovation comes with a cost: each product has a refundable deposit and prices can be up to 20% more than brick-and-mortar retail. But for customers like Case, the price tag is a worthwhile investment in finding new, sustainable solutions.

The Future Is "Plantics"

The Loop model leans on an obvious solution to the problem: stop using plastic. But we still need packaging: "It keeps food safe for consumption and maintains its quality," explains Susan Selke, Ph.D., director of the School of Packaging at Michigan State University. So rather than asking, "How can we get rid of plastic," it may be better to ask, "What if plastic wasn't plastic?" Hemp, for example, is quickly rising as an alternative for food packaging like cling wrap and takeout containers. Kevin Tubbs, co-founder of Hemp Plastic Company, in Boulder, Colorado, calls the material "plantics." Not only is hemp renewable—unlike the petroleum that standard plastic is made from—it also has a lighter carbon footprint. Other upsides of plantics haven't been fully realized. They're technically biodegradable, but some will only break down at an industrial composter. Since this infrastructure is not widespread (yet!), Selke suggests taking greater interest in local waste management efforts to push for change.

Revamping Recycling

No story on plastic would be complete without recycling—a multifaceted system that isn't without its flaws. Recycling has traditionally been the burden of municipalities and individuals with their blue bins, but companies are now coming to the table. Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestlé and Unilever have been working with 30 European countries and Canada to improve plastics recovery and find new markets for recycled materials. There's legislation proposed in the U.S. to do something similar. And Coca-Cola is engaging with local communities around the world to collect and recycle a one-for-one equivalent volume of all the bottles, caps and cans it makes.

"Our society will probably never completely get rid of single-use items," says Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, "but I am encouraged that there is a lot of awareness on this issue. We need to rethink our disposable economy." The good news: some of the ideas to do so are already here.

This story originally appeared in EatingWell Magazine March 2020.