Despite a rising interest in sustainability, the American economy still produces a lot of plastic waste—around 46 million tons each year, scientists say. Less than 10% of that gets recycled, meaning that Katy Perry’s plastic bag, floating through the wind, has very little chance of starting again. It’s more likely destined for a landfill or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Given that bleak reality, the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag is attempting to find new ways for people to get groceries and other purchases from the checkout counter to their homes without harming the environment.
Launched in July 2020 by sustainability-focused investment firm Closed Loop Partners and a combined $15 million from founding partners CVS, Target and Walmart, the consortium started by calling for submissions from inventors, innovators and supply chain and packaging experts around the world for innovative alternatives to single-use plastic bags. It received 450 submissions.
In February 2021, the group announced nine winning ideas in three categories: reuse and refill, enabling technology and innovative materials. The winners then moved into the “accelerator” phase of the project, where they worked with design firm IDEO to test and refine those solutions.
The consortium is starting a six-week pilot program to test four of the winning solutions at nine CVS, Target and Walmart stores in Northern California. That’ll include a kiosk with clean, reusable, ready-to-use totes inside the store, an app-based program that rewards people for reusing bags they already own, a bag sharing program for those who forget to bring a bag and a tracking and rewards system powered by the Internet of Things.
In addition to the in-store pilots, Walmart will also be testing two solutions through its delivery service: reusable shipping and packaging containers and a data-exchange program that tracks how consumers are using bags and containers across the value chain. The other three winners, all of which offer material alternatives to plastic, will undergo further testing to make sure they both work well for the retailer and consumer, and match specifications of existing recycling and composting infrastructure.
“We’re really still in a phase of experimentation with these types of technologies and solutions,” Kate Daly, managing director of the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners, told Adweek. “This is an opportunity for these innovators—the Beyond the Bag challenge winners—to iterate their solutions, and really align with what we’re seeing as a more sustainable future for retail at scale.”
In addition to the founding partners, close to a dozen other retail brands have signed on to support the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag. Dick’s Sporting Goods, Dollar General, Kroger and TJX are each category leads in their respective industries, and Ahold Delhaize USA Brands, Albertsons Companies, Hy-Vee, Meijer, Wakefern Food Corp. and Walgreens are supporting partners. Conservation International and Ocean Conservancy are environmental advisory partners to the project.
The diversity of solutions is critical for ensuring that different consumer needs are met, Daly said. For example, the kiosk program has set up its incentives to ensure anyone can participate, regardless of income level—there’s no cost to pick up one of the bags. A consumer is charged only if they don’t bring the bag back after a certain number of days.
The program also relieves the customer of the responsibility of ownership—something that Closed Loop heard throughout their consumer research was a frustration for many.
“Not only is it an issue, sometimes, with [shoppers] forgetting their own bag, or their own bag not necessarily being the right size for the kind of shopping they’re doing at any given moment, but then they have a proliferation of bags. They have a closet with a tote bag filled with tote bags, and they don’t necessarily want to have the responsibility of maintaining that,” Daly explained.
“Convenience for the customer is definitely a driving principle behind these types of innovations in their design, in addition to, of course, reducing environmental impact and displacing single use plastic bags.”