What Comes After Single-Use Retail Bags?

Innovators are finding new ways to effectively eliminate the single-use plastic bag.

The Center for Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners (led by CVS Health, Target and Walmart) announced winners of the “Beyond the Bag” Innovation Challenge on Tuesday. Announced last July, The Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag is a pre-competitive collaboration committed to “reimagining the retail bag” to create a circular delivery system. Founding partners aside, partners include Dick’s Sporting goods, Dollar General, Kroger and Walgreens among others.

“The single-use plastic bag is an urgent challenge that impacts all of us,” said Katy Daly, managing director of the Center for Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners. “There is a demand from consumers and the market alike. We have seen a rise in legislation directed at this challenge, from the New York City ban on single-use plastic bags to the European Union’s 2019 Single-Use Plastics Directive. The demand and urgency is something all our partners recognized and we are thrilled that they are using their platforms to pioneer innovation and systemic change.”

Winners spanned three broad categories and included innovations from Domtar, PlasticFri and Sway (innovative materials), Eon, SmartC and Fill it Forward (enabling tech) and ChicoBag, Goatote and Returnity (reusable and refillable).

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This is just one of many steps in bringing innovative bag solutions to market. Reigning as the dominant form of retail bag, some 100 billion single-use plastic bags are used each year in the U.S. according to the U.S. International Trade Commission.

Jane Ewing, senior vice president sustainability at Walmart (one of the Consortium’s founding partners) similarly expressed excitement for the challenge. “The Beyond the Bag Challenge winners inspire us to reimagine a more sustainable future, showcasing the breadth and tangibility of innovative solutions and we look forward to supporting them in their development.”

With the majority of single-use plastic bags made from low-cost, fossil fuel-derived virgin plastic, raw material usage and material recovery after-use are the main considerations when rethinking solutions. Already, cities like San Francisco, New York and Montreal have plastic bag bans in place. Citing adverse consumer and regulatory reactions against single-use plastic bags, the Center for Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners hopes to find a solution.

“As an organization, and for The Beyond the Bag Initiative, we look at everything through the lens of impact: how will each design affect people, businesses and the planet,” Daly said.

The three broad categories of reusable and refillable designs (including bags-as-a-service and shared-bag models), innovative materials (nature-derived materials like algae, seaweed and the like) and enabling technology (like RFID and QR tech already seen in use by retailers) are meant to align with the changing — and more sustainability-centric — retail environment.

With the guidance of global design firm IDEO, the judges, considered subject matter experts, narrowed down the winners from over international 450 submissions, shortlisting 58 submissions. In the evaluation criteria, entrants were required to submit a life cycle assessment, detailing the innovation’s environmental impact across the value chain and product life cycle, as well as detailed business plan and prototype information.

Calling the judging process “data-driven and deliberate,” Daly said “in the next phase of the initiative, the winners will begin working closely with the Consortium to prototype, refine and test the viability of their designs to scale as long-term solutions.”

Winners will receive a portion of $1 million in prize money and are eligible for additional financial support to support testing, piloting and scaling efforts. Depending on the solution, innovations can move on to the Circular Accelerator mentorship program to further hone their solutions or begin product testing. Daly said the Consortium will work closely with the winning solutions throughout 2021, supporting design research, testing, prototyping, mentoring and iterative developments. From there, select solutions will be piloted in market.

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