Single-use plastic shopping bags are a real problem. They take decades to break down but nearly 100 billion of them are used in the United States every year to cart away goods from retailers. Fewer than 10 percent of those are recycled — often winding up in landfills and waterways because many recyclers don’t accept them.
Now, Closed Loop Partners’ Center for the Circular Economy is partnering with Walmart, CVS Health and Target to address that problem. Their $15 million joint Beyond the Bag Initiative — similar to a previous collaboration focused on redesigning cups — will focus on creating solutions that reinvent shopping bags and that more effectively divert single-use plastic bags from landfills.
"By coming together to tackle the problem, we aim to accelerate the pace of innovation and the commercialization of sustainable solutions," said Kathleen McLaughlin, executive vice president and chief sustainability officer for Walmart, in a statement. "We hope the Beyond the Bag Initiative will surface affordable, practical solutions that meet the needs of customers and reduce plastic waste."
Together these companies and others — Kroger and Walgreens, along with Conservation International and Ocean Conservancy as environmental advisory partners — make up the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag.
By coming together to tackle the problem, we aim to accelerate the pace of innovation and the commercialization of sustainable solutions.
"A main focus of what we do at the center is bring together corporations, nonprofits, industry groups, and others to create unexpected partnerships of competitors, to bring them together to collaborate on challenges that really no one organization can solve in isolation," said Kate Daly, managing director of the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners.
The consortium’s goals include diverting single-use plastic bags from landfills and scaling solutions that would serve the same function and replace the retail bag, through this three-year partnership. It plans multiple approaches. The first approach, which Daly named as a backbone of the initiative, centers on reimagining the design through an Innovation Challenge with OpenIDEO.
That effort, which will begin accepting applications Aug. 3, will seek innovative ways to "reinvent" the retail bag. It's open to all sorts of solutions from students, scientists and companies of all sizes, because Daly acknowledges that there will be no one silver bullet solution that will solve the plastic retail bag problem.
"Some of those [solutions] might be new material, others might be entirely new approaches to transporting what we purchase from stores to our home," Daly said. "There might be tech-enabled or AI-enabled solutions that we haven't learned about yet."
Once the search ends, the group will select about a dozen winners to join the Beyond the Bag Circular Business Accelerator, which will involve mentoring, capital investment, testing and piloting.
Whichever solutions win and become scalable, Daly said, "It's really important that these options be accessible and inclusive to all the different communities across the United States."
The retail partners, which have locations across the United States, should be able to make that happen.
Back in 2018, the center — along with founding partners McDonalds and Starbucks — launched its NextGen Cup Challenge, which had the goal to reduce disposable coffee cup waste. Daly said the center is taking lessons learned from that effort into this new challenge.
One of those learnings was that extensive testing is critical. For the NextGen Challenge, Daly said the group asked questions such as, "Does [the cup] hold liquids up to a certain temperature Fahrenheit? Can you comfortably hold the cup? Does the lid work with the cup? Does the coating stay on the cup? Does the coffee leak through the bottom?"
For the bag reinvention, it will ask similar questions centered on identifying potential performance issues, such as: "Does the bag break?" And if it’s a new, bagless way of transporting goods, "Does it effectively prevent any sort of breakage or leaks?"
It's really important that these options be accessible and inclusive to all the different communities across the United States.
In addition to performance, the consortium plans to do environmental testing on the types of materials being used across all applications, ensuring that the materials used for a given solution — even if it’s reusable — can be recovered through recycling infrastructure.
That brings us to another approach the consortium is exploring with the Beyond the Bag initiative: investments in recovery infrastructure. Daly said the group wants to ensure that the solutions — no matter which form they take — align with the recovery options at their end of life.
In addition to the design and infrastructure approaches, the consortium already has started learning more about consumer behavior when it comes to plastic bags — this is another of its four approaches. It's been asking customers about their pain points and preferences when getting their goods from a store to their homes.
"We know how important it is to bring our customers along on our sustainability journey, keeping in mind that most are looking for convenience with minimal environmental impact," said Eileen Howard Boone, senior vice president for corporate social responsibility and philanthropy and chief sustainability officer at CVS Health, in a statement.
As they continue their journey, the consortium partners share a sense of urgency in addressing the issue of plastic bag waste — that’s why these unlikely collaborators are working together and acting as a collective.
"We see the importance of sending a unified market signal as being really critical if you're going to have systems-level change, and address long-standing environmental challenges," Daly said. "The nature of bringing competitors together can help reframe the issue beyond short-term fixes and alternatives to long-lasting, systemic solutions that really take a holistic approach from production to use to reuse to recovery."