The debate on paper versus plastic bags to carry your items from the store to home has gone on for decades. Reusable cloth bags have been touted as an environmentally friendly alternative.
Paper bags are extolled as coming from renewable resources, and being biodegradable. However, they consume more energy in the production process than plastic bags.
Plastic bags consume less energy in production, but are not biodegradable. Moreover, much has been made recently about plastic pollution, especially in our oceans. Incredibly, the United States of America is using over 100 billion bags per years, with approximately 1% of these bags being recycled. California and New York have banned single use plastic bags.
Reusable cloth totes require more energy to produce because they are typically heavier and stronger. To justify their use, they need to be used around 7,100 times to equal a plastic bag’s energy usage. Unfortunately, most reusable totes never hit this target. Additionally, reusable bags tend to harbor germs. During the pandemic, many stores banned their use to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
So, there doesn’t appear to be a clear winner among today’s choices of paper, plastic and cloth totes.
As a result, several retailers, including Walmart, Target, and CVS, have created the “Beyond the Bag Initiative.” This initiative, offered through the “Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag,” aims to find replacements to the single-use plastic bag while still maintaining customer ease of use, and lowering the impact on the environment.
Nine winners were recently announced. One winner, SmartC, uses an ethically sourced reusable bag with a digital platform. The bag is scanned when at checkout using an RFID tag or QR code. This tracks the bag through an app, much like an Apple Watch tracks your daily activity.
Another winner, the Goatote, uses a digital kiosk at stores that allows you to grab a reusable tote as needed. There would be a monthly fee for this service. The totes are returned in 30 days, and then laundered for reuse.
Other winners used a variety of material in creating bags, including seaweed and agricultural wastes.
Surprisingly, one of the winners was a paper bag made from 100% cellulose. The bag is stretchy and more puncture resistant, but only half the weight of a normal paper bag.
- New York Bans Single-Use Plastic Bags, Here’s What You Need to Know | One Small Step (Mar 1, 2020, NowThis Earth)
This post is based on the Fast Company article, The Plastic Bag Is Doomed. Here Are Better Alternatives Backed by Walmart And Target, by Mark Wilson, February 18, 2021; the 2021 Closed Loop Partners post, Reinventing the Retail Bag; and the YouTube video in the Spotlight. Image source: Graphixmind.com/Shutterstock
1. Why use a competition to find the replacement for current bag solutions?
Guidance: The industry appears to have been stuck with the same alternatives for many years. Although improvements have been made to each approach (paper bag, plastic bag, reusable bag), the outcomes have not reached the desired level of success. A potentially radical approach is needed to achieve a significant reduction in environmental impact. Competition is one way to potentially break away from incremental improvements by existing products.
2. What criteria would you use to evaluate the winners?
Guidance: The obvious criteria should be the total impact on the environment. This should run from cradle to grave and includes tracing the impact of producing the product, the impact of reusing the product if appropriate, and then its final disposal. A Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of the products would be one approach. But potentially, there are various goals, including minimizing the carbon footprint, or reducing plastic pollution in waterways.
3. Which of the winners is your favorite? Why?
Guidance: There is no one right answer. Many winners will continue their development in an incubator at the Center for the Circular Economy. There are various tradeoffs among the solutions, so your answer will depend on your goal. It may also take multiple solutions to replace the single-use plastic bag.