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Leon Kaye headshot

Retailers Unite to Rethink Plastic Bags

Leading retail chains and nonprofits have joined forces to find a more responsible and sustainable solution to standard single-use plastic bags.
By Leon Kaye
Plastic Bags

Retailers sputtered for quite a while before they started implementing more uniform face mask policies, but they now appear to be unified in rethinking disposable, single-use plastic bags.

This week, leading retail chains including CVS, Target and Walmart joined forces with Closed Loop Partners to see if they can find a solution to a pesky problem that has long dogged them: a more responsible and sustainable solution to standard throwaway plastic bags.

They were joined in this effort by Kroger and Walgreens, the design consultancy Ideo, and the nonprofits Conservation International and the Ocean Conservancy.

The group, which calls itself the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag, has so far committed $15 million to reinvent the bags we receive at the checkout counter.

The effort is important, as estimates have suggested Americans alone consume 100 billion single-use plastics bags annually. Out of that total, less than 10 percent are recycled. Add the impacts of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and we’re in the early throes of a waste management crisis.

So far, the devil is in the details when it comes to envisioning the new plastic bags, or any containers we could receive at grocery and pharmacy checkout stalls in the future. Will they be compostable or readily biodegradable? Will they be made out of a uniform material, so that they can be recycled in just about every municipal waste stream? Could the result be some reusable, box-like contraption that would be far more seamless to lug around than those shapeless plastic bags?

Furthermore, despite the enthusiasm some states and cities shared for reusable shopping bags before the novel coronavirus reared its ugly head, some research has suggested their environmental footprint presented its own host of problems. The data suggest consumers have to use those cotton or recycled PET bags many times to justify their overall environmental impact.

A big problem plastic bags have, however, is one of optics. Supporters and opponents of single-use plastic bags can argue and go as far down a rabbit hole as they wish, but research the Ocean Conservancy took on in 2018 suggests that disposable plastic bags rank in the top 10 items found on beaches and in waterways across the globe. We love our plastic bags – until we see them in the natural environment.

The big challenge this Beyond the Bag coalition has, however, is delivering results in the long term. It’s going beyond reinventing what we put our items in after we swipe our debit cards and return home. Changing consumer behavior will be a huge part of this herculean effort, too.

Previous ambitious, scaled-up efforts can give us a hint of how this campaign may proceed.

The Gates Foundation, for example, launched an ambitious and well-funded effort seeking to reinvent a Victorian invention, the flush toilet, in the name of clean water and sanitation. The decade-long quest resulted in the debut of a $350 debut “tiger toilet,” powered by worms. While the innovation was lauded, widespread adoption has been another story.

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Image credit: Griffin Woodbridge/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye