Single-use plastic bags are everywhere—from grocery and department stores to landfills, tree limbs, lakes and oceans. It’s probably because people use an estimated 100 billion of the bags per year in the United States alone. And less than 10% are recycled. The folks at New York investment firm Closed Loop Partners recently picked nine winners of a Beyond the Bag Challenge to find more sustainable solutions and models for carrying things.

Imagine that. We use 100 billion bags a year to basically carry stuff from our cars to our kitchens, using each bag for an average of 12 minutes. The nine winners range from reusable packaging systems, to technology that incentivizes better choices, to bags derived from seaweed or agricultural waste.

Each of these innovators will receive a share of $1 million and are eligible for additional financial support. A 13-member Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag will work closely with each Beyond the Bag Challenge winner throughout 2021, supporting design research, prototyping and mentoring to refine their solutions, says Kate Daly, managing director of the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners.

“Pilot programs will be in-market this year,” Daly says. “The mentorship and support provided by our founding consortium partners and others will help the winners to tailor their designs to retail systems, which is what paves the way for greater adoption and scale.

“With 13 retailer partners overall, together representing more than 50,000 stores in the U.S., the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag has the potential to have significant impact at scale.”

Reuse and Refill

According to the center, the winners fall into three categories, beginning with Reuse and Refill.

ChicoBag eliminates a common pain point for consumers: remembering your reusable bag. The service enables customers to borrow bags on-site as part of the sharing economy.

GOATOTE’s kiosk system allows consumers to access clean, reusable bags anywhere a kiosk is found.

Returnity designs and manufactures reusable shipping and delivery bags and boxes for products already on the market, and provides the supporting e-commerce and delivery packaging system that powers their use.

Enabling Technology

Under this category is SmartC, a solution co-created by 99Bridges and Envision Charlotte, and powered by the Internet of Things (IoT) to incentivize shoppers with rewards in a “fun and engaging way” every time they reuse their shopping bags.

Eon, a leader in IoT, created the CircularIDTM Protocol for the challenge. It helps with data-exchange across the circular economy, for a transparent tracking system to understand how bags are being used across the value chain.

Fill it Forward created a tag and app that connects to reusable bags that consumers already own, allowing them to track environmental impact, earn rewards and give back to charitable projects.

Innovative Materials

In the final category, Domtar is developing a new bio-based, recyclable material made of 100% cellulose fiber, with stretchable and more durable properties.

PlasticFri’s solution transforms agricultural waste, non-edible plants and other renewable resources into valuable bio-based products. Their Starch-Based Compostable Bag offers a new bag alternative for consumers, the center says.

Lastly, Sway replaces traditional plastic with a seaweed-derived material. Their bags are bio-based and designed to be carbon-negative.

About the Consortium

The Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag is “committed to reimagining the retail bag and creating a more circular delivery system,” the center says. Unveiled in July 2020, the group’s Beyond the Bag Initiative is three-year project that aims to identify and scale innovative alternatives to the single-use plastic retail bag.

The Consortium’s founding partners are CVS Health, Target and Walmart, which together committed $15 million to the project. Additional partners now include DICK’S Sporting Goods, Dollar General, The Kroger Co., The TJX Companies Inc., Ahold Delhaize USA Brands, Albertsons Companies, Hy-Vee, Meijer, Wakefern Food Corp. and Walgreens.

People, Planet and Business

Beyond benefits to people and the planet from developing sustainable alternatives, there’s a business aspect.

Daly points to information from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation: “… replacing just 20% of single-use plastic packaging with reusable alternatives globally offers an economic opportunity worth at least USD 10 billion, while saving about 6 million tonnes of material.”

There’s also an Accenture analysis that “identified a 4.5 trillion dollar value at stake by 2030 through a radical departure from traditional ‘take, make, waste’ production and consumption systems.”

One more stat: Globally, people use 1 trillion single-use plastic bags a year, or almost 2 million a minute.

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