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In the Loop

Behind the world's largest pilot for reusable bags

The new Beyond the Bag Consortium will reach more than 150 stores, from mom-and-pop shops to some of the biggest retailers in the U.S.

A variety of colorful reusable bags

Image via Shutterstock/Igisheva Maria

It’s an all too familiar feeling: You’ve rushed out the door, and halfway to your destination (or perhaps just as you’ve arrived) you find your pocket empty. Your keys, your wallet, your cell phone — whatever the missing object, it’s not just desired, it is essential. And as the realization of its absence dawns, your stomach sinks and panic sets in. 

For those of us who strive to reduce our day-to-day impact, that feeling has a funny habit of creeping up at the grocery store when we realize we’ve left our reusable bags at home, in the car or who-knows-where-else. The unfortunate truth is: It’s easy to forget to reuse. 

Shifting bag behavior 

I won’t bore you with the ever-expanding reasons why single use is bad, especially when looking at single-use plastics and bags. I can’t imagine there is anything I could write about the negative impacts on people and planet you haven’t heard a hundred times over.  

But in spite of this rampant knowledge, switching to reusable bags isn’t easy. 

The proof is in the pudding in New Jersey, where a strict ban on single-use bags took effect at grocery stores in May. Instead of spurring a reduction in bag consumption, the bill unexpectedly led New Jerseyans to purchase and hoard reusable bags at an alarming rate

It turns out Americans are particularly addicted to the single-use plastic bag, consuming an average of 365 bags per person per year. Shifting to reusables does not come naturally in the land of the free and the home of the brave. 

Compare that with Denmark, where citizens consume an average of 4 bags per year and one has to wonder: Is it easy to forget reusable bags or is it simply a behavior Americans have unlearned? 

Going Beyond the Bag: The largest pilot to date 

To help understand and tackle this very issue, Closed Loop Partners — in collaboration with Ideo — launched the Beyond the Bag Challenge back in 2020: A call for innovations and reinventions to replace the ubiquitous bag. 

After nine winners were announced in February 2021, the challenge evolved year after year into a cross-industry consortium, launching the first multi-retailer, reusable-bag pilot and garnering GreenBiz’s interest and coverage as learnings were collected.

The goal of the Bring Your Own Bag Pilot is to determine how collective retailer action can encourage customers to bring their own bag… In parallel, the goal of the Returnable Bag Pilot is to measure how well the returnable bag system resonates ...

Now, the consortium is piquing our interest again: Informed by previous pilot learnings, the Beyond the Bag Consortium last week announced its largest pilot project to date

What makes this initiative unique is its expansive scale: reaching three states and more than 150 stores — including mom-and-pop shops alongside some of the biggest retailers in the nation, such as CVS Health, Target, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Kroger — it is above and away the largest pilot of its kind.

A tale of two pilots

"A suite of solutions is needed to reduce single-use plastic waste," shared Kate Daly, head of the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners over email.

That’s why this initiative is delivering two complimentary pilots in one. 

The first Bring Your Own Bag pilot will take place from April to July in select metro areas of Colorado and Arizona. Participating stores will leverage Closed Loop Partners’ educational playbook designed to nudge consumers to remember their all-too-forgettable reusable bags. 

With financial incentives, communication plans and staff training — to name just a few suggested strategies — the pilot aims to drive a broader cultural shift, so Americans might act a bit more like Danish. 

But what happens if you still forget? The second Returnable Bag Pilot hopes to answer just that. 

Taking place from May to July in select New Jersey locations, this pilot will go into the belly of the bag-forgetting-beast — offering New Jerseyans a reusable bag at checkout for a small deposit. Upon return, the user will earn back their deposit, while the bag will be washed and redistributed for its next use.  

Daly noted: "Both solutions are designed to make reuse easier for both customers and retailers. By testing different solutions across multiple markets and at a larger scale, these pilots holistically advance the consortium’s goal of reducing single-use plastic bag waste."

What to watch

As a self-proclaimed reuse fanatic, this initiative announcement sparks my particular interest. But what I’ll be keeping my eye on — with truly bated breath — are the results. 

With that, I have a few questions I’m still ruminating on: 

The initiatives will track and measure consumer behavior before, during and after the pilots, but what does success look like? 

Daly shared: "The goal of the Bring Your Own Bag Pilot is to determine how collective retailer action can encourage customers to bring their own bag… In parallel, the goal of the Returnable Bag Pilot is to measure how well the returnable bag system resonates with customers, as well as consistency of customer participation." 

As the data rolls in, I’ll be keeping my eye on participation and — more important — impact. Only time will tell what level of participation and engagement will secure the environmental and cultural wins we so crave. 

Delighted as I am by the unprecedented scale, this initiative still represents a pilot. What will it take to expand beyond a temporary initiative with limited geographic scope? In other words, what comes next? 

Daly told me: "The Bring Your Own Bag Pilot’s market interventions are designed to be low-cost and easy to implement, providing a model to scale to other locations. [If successful], we hope to bring on more retailers to participate and join us in these pilots, to identify the most effective strategies to support customers in bringing their own bags. For the Returnable Bag Pilot, customer reaction to the system will inform the feasibility of further tests and the potential scalability of this solution. If the return rates are high enough, we will continue to model out the environmental impact and financial viability of the system to build a roadmap to scale."  

With that, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that these pilots continue to scale after completion. If they do, a returnable bag business model might just be available the next time my forgetfulness-induced panic sets in. 

Last but not least, the million-dollar question: What will it take for reuse (and the consistent use of the reusable bag) to become the American norm? 

Daly’s two cents: "We know that unprecedented collaboration is the key to success for reuse. Working together with stakeholders across the entire value chain — from retailers to manufacturers, innovators, trade organizations, municipalities, policymakers, customers and NGOs — and rigorously testing new solutions are the first steps to scaling accessible, convenient and environmentally responsible reuse solutions. 

"The Beyond the Bag pilots help create a data-informed foundation for what is possible, and we are exploring how this holistic approach can be expanded to new markets and new stakeholders to reach impact at scale." 

Check back in July when the pilots are concluded and (hopefully) the Beyond the Bag Consortium and I have more answers to dish out. Till then: Don’t forget to reuse.

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