While it’s easy to understand that single-use plastic bags are detrimental to the environment, it’s also true that so far, we haven’t developed an alternative that can compete with low-density polyethylene bags when it comes to convenience and price—two of the strongest motivators for retailers and consumers alike.
With that in mind, a new consortium of major retailers is hoping to incentivize the invention of a better alternative. The founding partners—CVS, Target and Walmart—have collectively committed $15 million to the project. Kroger and Walgreens have also signed on, and the group’s hoping to garner the support of more major retailers.
The goal of the “Beyond the Bag” initiative is to identify, test and implement “viable design solutions and models that more sustainably serve the purpose of the current retail bag,” according to Closed Loop Partners, a sustainability-focused investment firm that’s leading the three-year project.
From Aug. 3 through Sept. 10, the initiative will be accepting submissions from inventors, innovators and supply chain and packaging experts for alternatives to single-use plastic bags. After the group selects its winners, up to six submissions will move on to the “accelerator” beginning in January, where innovators will be able to build out their solutions with guidance and funding from the consortium with the help of global design firm IDEO. Submissions that are immediately ready for piloting may receive additional funding or in-kind support from the consortium as well.
But all this effort begs the question: why not just ban single-use plastic bags if retailers want to make a difference? After all, eight U.S. states currently have a ban in place, according to the National Council of State Legislators, joining 127 countries worldwide that have regulated single-use plastic bags, according to the United Nations. Several retailers, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Sprouts, have taken it upon themselves to eliminate single-use plastic bags from the checkout through companywide policy changes.
The consortium takes a different approach, acknowledging that even when plastic bags are banned, there’s still a need for a single-use solution.
“Even in those places where customers are really committed to use reusable bags, you always will have a percent of customers that do unplanned shopping trips,” said Walmart’s sustainability director, Anna Vinogradova. Those customers still need a way to transport their purchases home, and the consortium hopes to come up with better, more sustainable choices for shoppers.
Through the innovation challenge, Vinogradova said she hopes the consortium will uncover ideas that “we cannot even imagine” right now and that will consider what retail will look like in five or 10 years. For example, the solutions should accommodate what looks like a long-term shift toward self-checkout and grocery delivery, she said.
Participation in the consortium is just one piece of Walmart’s broader sustainability initiatives. The retailer has committed to achieving zero waste operations in the U.S., Canada, Japan and China by 2025, and so far, it has diverted 82% of its waste from landfills and incinerators, Vinogradova said. A lot of that was accomplished by partnering with organizations that can accept its products as donations, especially when it comes to food waste.
Walmart is also looking for more ways to eliminate unnecessary plastic from packaging for its brands and increase recyclability. For some packages, it’s a simple fix like removing the glue or other adhesive that prevents recycling or taking out the little plastic window in a pasta box, Vinogradova said.
Still, progress toward zero waste requires juggling a complex set of priorities. Often, Vinogradova noted, “packaging is there to extend the shelf life of food.” If changing a package to make it more easily recyclable also makes the food go bad more quickly, the solution is just creating another problem.