An old-school plan to fight plastic pollution gathers steam

Companies like Coca-Cola used to collect 98 percent of their bottles, and new entrepreneurs are learning from their tactics.

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A conveyor belt carries mixed plastic to a sorter in a recycling facility in San Francisco, California.

In the flood of innovative solutions that have emerged in the last several years to save the world from plastic pollution, Tom Szaky’s fix may be one of the most audacious.

Don’t misunderstand. He has not tried to come up with yet another formula to make plastic magically biodegrade like leaves on the ground, a goal of many entrepreneurs that remains elusive. Nor has he devised new ways to remake disposable plastic packaging into new plastic packaging.

Instead, Szaky has gone old school with a concept that dates to the turn of the last century—returnable, refillable containers. The idea was introduced to the world by Coca-Cola in the early 1920s, when Coke was sold in expensive glass bottles that the company’s bottlers needed back. They charged a two-cent deposit, roughly 40 percent of the full cost of the soft drink, and got about 98 percent of their bottles back, to be reused 40 or 50 times. Bottle deposit programs remain one of the most effective methods ever invented for recovering packaging.

Ten months ago, Szaky launched Loop, an online delivery service that uses sturdy, reusable containers. The bold part of his venture—or risk, if you are one of his financial backers—is that Loop pushes far beyond the uniformity of returnable beverage bottles and sells more than 300 items, from food to laundry detergent, in containers of various sizes and made from various materials. His signature product is Häagen-Dazs ice cream that...

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