A $15 million effort started last year by CVS Health, Target and Walmart to find alternatives to the plastic bag has announced nine firms it will work with to further develop their ideas and scale them as potential long-term solutions.
The Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag said Feb. 16 that the nine winners include firms working on improved reusable bags, systems to encourage reuse and recycling, new materials like seaweed and apps and other digital technology to support bag sustainability.
"There is no one-size-fits-all solution to tackle a problem as complex as our reliance on single-use plastic bags," said Kate Daly, managing director of the Center for the Circular Economy at the social investment firm Closed Loop Partners, which is coordinating the effort.
"The diversity of our winners underscores how businesses and consumers alike need to employ a range of solutions to fit different geographic, social and economic contexts," she said. "We're thrilled to announce these companies entering the next phase of the initiative, as we continue to support their growth and begin to implement select pilot programs."
The group held a design challenge, called Beyond the Bag, and said more than 450 groups submitted entries. It said it shortlisted 58 ideas before announcing the nine winners.
They will share a portion of $1 million in prize money and can receive additional financial support for piloting and scaling up their proposals, the consortium said.
It said the winners needed to maintain the same convenience of single-use plastic bags, while providing "long-term value for retailers" and reducing environmental and social harm.
The consortium said that fewer than 10 percent of plastic bags are recycled in the U.S. and that single-use plastic bags are regularly among the top 10 items found along beaches and waterways.
The winners included Eon, a company that uses digital technology to reward shoppers for bringing reusable bags to the store, and Fill It Forward, an app that let shoppers track the environmental impact of reusable bags they currently own.
Other winners combined digital technology with brick and mortar.
Goatote proposed in-store kiosks with reusable bags that customers can access with an app and then return to a kiosk, where the company cleans it before returning it to circulation. Returnity won for reusable packaging used for online shopping.
And some firms won for proposing bags with renewable materials.
Domtar won for a recyclable cellulosic fiber bag, PlastiFri won for a proposal to use agricultural waste and non-edible plants to make bags and Sway was recognized for a proposal to use seaweed to make bags that it said are compostable and carbon negative.
The funders of the effort said they see it as using a data-driven approach to develop solutions they can test in their stores.
"It is exciting to see the potential of our efforts to reimagine the single-use bag in action," said Eileen Howard Boone, senior vice president of corporate social responsibility and philanthropy at CVS Health. "We look forward to exploring opportunities to pilot these solutions at CVS Pharmacy locations."
Ocean Conservancy, an environmental adviser to the project, said it wanted to monitor the alternatives for their environmental impact and said it was important to also keep them from becoming litter or water pollution.
"We need to take a holistic approach that accounts for environmental impacts before, during and after the useful life of any alternative materials or models," said Chever Voltmer, plastics initiative director at Ocean Conservancy. "Sea creatures don't discriminate between a fossil fuel-based bag and one made of other plastics, for example, so ensuring proper waste collection and investment in circular systems remains critical for the health of our ocean."
The project began with the three large retail chains but picked up others. Members now include Dick's Sporting Goods, Dollar General, TJX, Albertson's, Meijer and Walgreens.