For decades, the single-use plastic bag reigned as the dominant design solution for getting a purchase home. But that popularity comes at a great cost. It’s estimated that we use 100 billion single-use plastic bags per year in the U.S. alone and less than 10 percent of these are recycled. While the convenience of the plastic retail bag can’t be disputed, the negative impact – considering its short use (12 minutes, on average) and long lifespan (400+ years by some estimates) – have led to rising consumer concern, advocacy campaigns, and regulatory bans and fees.
The two main challenges with today’s bags stem from raw material usage and material recovery after-use. Today, the majority of single-use plastic bags are made from low-cost, fossil fuel-derived virgin plastic. They are not compostable and although technically recyclable in a separated waste stream with other flexible film plastics, bags generally wind up in the landfill, in the natural environment, or in the wrong recycling stream. Additionally, many customers are unsure of the most sustainable choice, as alternatives made from paper or reusable bags made from thicker plastic (usually polyethylene), cotton, woven polypropylene, polyester, or bioplastic often have a higher environmental footprint.
Change is coming. The retail experience is rapidly evolving with new technologies and consumer preferences–many consumers are now shopping online, and interacting with autonomous systems—all of which open up opportunities for design innovation. The world needs alternatives to meet this change, and many in the retail industry have been working toward a more sustainable bag for years. Ultimately, however, no current retail bag option truly solves for delivering convenience to customers while delivering on expectations for sustainability.
The Beyond the Bag Initiative, launched by the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag, is calling on Innovators, suppliers, designers, and problem-solvers to join our Beyond the Bag Challenge and reinvent the timeless experience of getting goods home. To begin, participants are encouraged to read our retail bag report, “A New Way Home” to learn more about the problem today, how we got here, and what opportunities for design interventions exist tomorrow.