Kroger and Walgreens are teaming up with UPS and waste management firm TerraCycle to combat the scourge of packaging and food waste with an innovative grocery delivery system that takes its cues from the milkman.

The collaboration, Loop, brings popular products from 70 brands — including such giants as Nestle, Unilever and Proctor & Gamble — to customers’ doorsteps in reusable containers made of glass and steel. Loop debuted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, and pilot programs launched this week in Washington D.C., Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Paris.

“Loop was designed from the ground up to reinvent the way we consume by leveraging the sustainable, circular milkman model of yesterday with the convenience of e-commerce,” Tom Szaky, founder and chief executive of Loop and TerraCycle, said in a news release.

Customers can shop online through Loop’s website, where items cost roughly the same as what they would in a traditional store. Orders are delivered in specially designed Loop tote bags, and each product has bespoke packaging of its own: glass jars for Nature’s Path granola and metal containers for Häagen-Dazs ice cream.

“If you go to a brand and ask them to create durable packaging, they will say 'My costs are going to go through the roof,’” Anthony Rossi, Loop’s vice president of global business development, said at the Cal Poly FreshPACKmoves seminar earlier this week, according to Thepacker.com. “So in our platform, all of the packaging is always owned by the brand and is [secured] by a deposit from the consumer,” he said. “That transition of ownership allows [brands] to invest in materials that can go through the platform and survive 100 times.”

When customers are done with the items, UPS, which has been partnering with TerraCycle for years, collects the empties for free. Loop then sanitizes them and ships them back to the brands and the cycle starts anew. The idea is reminiscent of home milk delivery, which was common in the United States for decades. But the advent of refrigeration, the convenience of grocery stores and processes that extended milk’s shelf life helped edge out the milkman and the need for the farm-fresh bottles to be delivered.

Loop requires a small deposit for its containers, which is refunded once the packaging is safely returned. The company also will provide recycling services for items that have long been condemned to the trash, such as diapers, pens and razor blades.

“There are some big firsts baked into Loop, and that’s really using a lot of TerraCycle’s original competency,” Szaky told Waste Dive. “If it’s reasonable to recover and reasonable to reuse, then it must be reused, is the rule.”

As industries confront their role in climate change, the grocery world is coming to terms with its monumental waste. ReFEd, a nonprofit that fights food waste in the United States, estimates the retail food sector generates more than 8 million tons of food waste annually, worth about $18.2 billion a year.

Then there’s packaging. From 1960 to 2015, the amount of packaging waste in the United States surged 185 percent, from 27 million tons to nearly 78 million tons. Containers and packaging make up 23 percent of landfill waste, according to a 2015 report from the Environmental Protection Agency. Finding a solution for plastic waste has become more urgent since 2018, when China announced it would no longer import and recycle other nations’ plastics.

Loop is just one of many waste-reduction efforts underway in the grocery industry. California and Hawaii have statewide plastic bag bans, and many cities have plastic bag taxes. Recent years have seen the rise of zero-waste grocery stores, where customers bring their own containers and shop in bulk, allowing them to get the quantity they need, even if it’s just a single egg. Zero-waste grocery stores have taken off in Europe and Asia, but they have yet to see much success in the United States.

“Customers are increasingly seeking out sustainable products and services that fit their lifestyle. As the exclusive grocery retail partner for Loop in the U.S., Kroger is taking another big step toward a world with zero waste,” Jessica Adelman, Kroger’s group vice president of corporate affairs, said in a news release.

Kroger, the nation’s biggest supermarket chain, has been leading the charge for greener grocers. In 2017, the Cincinnati-based company pledged to stamp out food waste in its stores and across the company by 2025. Kroger also has promised to phase out plastic bags, which take anywhere from 300 to 500 years to degrade, by the same deadline.

Down the line, New Jersey-based Loop plans to expand its product offerings and enter into other global markets, including Canada, Asia and Europe.