A group of large retailers is pledging $15 million for a three-year effort to rethink the plastic bag, finding alternatives they say will have the convenience of the bag without the environmental downsides.
CVS Health, Target, Walmart and others announced July 21 that they're partnering on the effort — dubbed the "Beyond the Bag Initiative" — with Closed Loop Partners.
The goal, they say, is to "reinvent the single-use plastic bag" by finding replacements that are both popular with consumers and more sustainable.
The effort will include an innovation challenge managed by design firm IDEO and an accelerator program managed by Closed Loop to pilot potential solutions and make infrastructure investments.
"By coming together to tackle the problem, we aim to accelerate the pace of innovation and the commercialization of sustainable solutions," said Kathleen McLaughlin, executive vice president and chief sustainability officer for Walmart. "We hope the Beyond the Bag Initiative will surface affordable, practical solutions that meet the needs of customers and reduce plastic waste."
In its announcement, the group suggested it knows that may not be easy, noting that current alternatives to the plastic bag either don't have industrywide support or are not popular with the public, and many also have their own environmental challenges.
But they also noted significant waste issues around plastic bags, like a recycling rate of less than 10 percent for the 100 billion bags used in the U.S. annually, and regular appearances by bags on lists of the top 10 littered items found on beaches and waterways around the world.
"We know how important it is to bring our customers along on our sustainability journey, keeping in mind that most are looking for convenience with minimal environmental impact," said Eileen Howard Boone, senior vice president of corporate social responsibility and chief sustainability officer for CVS.
The industry's trade group, the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, said life cycle assessments favor plastic bags.
"The industry always welcomes additional efforts of innovation around bag sustainability," ARPBA said. "To date, every life cycle assessment has shown that the traditional plastic bag is the best option at the checkout counter in terms of sustainability and resource efficiency. ARPBA members will continue to work with their customers to increase recovery, reuse and recycling rates and remain committed to their sustainability goals announced earlier this year."
In January, ARPBA announced that its members were committing to 20 percent recycled content in plastic bags by 2025, along with having 95 percent of bags reused or recycled by 2025.
The announcement from the retailers doesn't offer any real specifics on what they think the replacements could be. But a more detailed report released with the launch say it wants to take a broad look at how factors like online shopping and home delivery could change how consumers get products home.
The report, "A New Way Home," said it does not expect a single solution to emerge and would be looking both at the bag itself and the behaviors of people in using them.
"The truth is, there is no silver bullet among existing bag choices today," the report said. "Instead, there are trade-offs."
The retailers said they want to cast a wide net with the research, including new materials, bagless solutions like drone delivery, as well as reverse vending machines, zero waste stores and reusable bags and other packaging.
The report acknowledged confusing choices for consumers. One bag may be more environmentally friendly to make but far more harmful to dispose of, while another may be the inverse of that.
As well, it said the much maligned plastic bag can be more environmentally friendly in the manufacturing process than paper bags. Plastic bag making uses 70 percent less energy and produces 50 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than paper bag production.
But plastic bags are problematic at the end of their life, the report said.
The "real environmental harm of plastic bags takes place after use," from litter, breaking down into microplastics, poor recycling rates, clogging sewers, being accidentally eaten by animals and releasing toxic fumes when burned, it said.
Their low cost, about a penny to make, also complicates recycling because they can be cheaper to make from virgin plastic than recycled materials, it said. A paper bag, by comparison, costs 4-5 cents to make.
The group said plastic bags are a problem for the existing waste collection system. Only 4 percent of the 367 recycling processing plants in the U.S. can handle plastic bags, with New York City spending $12.5 million a year cleaning them up, the report said. It argued that markets for recycled bags are not strong enough.
The retailers also said environmental groups Conservation International and Ocean Conservancy would be advisory partners.
"Putting an end to the plastic retail bag would be a game changer for the health of our planet, and it is essential that any alternative can be easily adopted by a wide range of retailers," said Bambi Semroc, vice president of sustainable markets and strategy for Conservation International.
Greenpeace, which is not a partner in the effort, said the retailers should move to reusable packaging models and take broader looks at their plastics use beyond bags, including packaging for products on store shelves.
The Surfrider Foundation argued that fees and bans are the best way to reduce consumption, with either a fee on all plastic and paper bags, or bans on plastic bags and fees on paper bags.
“We have seen that these laws lead to significant increases in customers bringing their own bags to the store and dramatic reductions in carryout bag consumption and resulting litter,” said Jennie Romer, a lawyer with the group. “We will be interested to see the results of the Beyond the Bag Initiative, particularly the parts that look beyond the design of carryout bags and focus on reimaging new systems, including reuse systems, for transporting goods home."
The plastic bag initiative is the second major partnership formed by Closed Loop Partners to look at packaging research. Its NextGen Consortium is currently piloting 12 designs of recyclable, reusable or compostable cups.