For those of us who own dozens of reusable tote bags and then forget them at home every single freaking time they go shopping, a brighter future might be on the horizon. Last week a group of retailers including Walmart, Kroger, and Target announced the creation of the Beyond the Bag initiative, a jointly funded effort that seeks to reinvent single-use bags. The initiative is seeking entrepreneurs and inventors to pitch new ideas to replace the billions of plastic bags Americans use every year, and the partners have a collective $15 million in investments to make it happen.
“We have to approach this as an industry,” said Kathleen McLaughlin, executive vice president and chief sustainability officer at Walmart, to reporters at Fast Company. “Walmart’s not going to figure that out on their own, nor is Target, nor is Kroger.”
Once the field of pitches is narrowed down, selected entrepreneurs will enter a product accelerator with Closed Loop Partners, which will allow them to scale their ideas at warp speed since every retailer in the country is in desperate need of these bags. Many U.S. cities have passed full bans on single-use plastic bags, a policy that more cities are likely to adopt as climate change continues to upend the planet. Single-use plastic bags, made from waste produced by refining crude oil, can last for hundreds of years before they fully break down and have been responsible for significant ecological damage. Though many plastics are recyclable, single-use plastic bags are not, as they have the tendency to clog up recycling machinery.
McLaughlin pointed out that even reusable bags are extremely problematic: reusable plastic bags need to be used 37 times to match the footprint of a disposable plastic bag, and a cotton bag needs to be used anywhere from hundreds to thousands of times.
The companies involved in the Beyond the Bag initiative are not being too specific about what they are looking for, saying that they are open to any and all ideas.
“I imagine a suite of solutions, some with single-use bags, some with no bags at all,” said McLaughlin. “There could be different delivery models to get these to people. It’s not just [a challenge of] ‘please redesign this bag,’ but getting things from point A to point B. That’s why it’s a classic design challenge.”
Selected ideas will be developed and tested over the next three years. Once a better plastic bag exists, Walmart, Target, CVS, Kroger, and Walgreens will be rolling them out in stores, presumably expecting the rest of the retail industry to follow suit. Until then, let’s all try to remember to take our reusable bags with us the next time we go shopping.