Retailers including CVS Health and Kroger pledge to reinvent single-use bags

Solutions to replace current bags must be convenient, accessible, inclusive and environmentally sound

Each year, more than 4 million tons of plastic bags, sacks and wrap are generated in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Less than 10 percent is recycled, relegating more than 3 million tons of plastic items to landfills, where many take hundreds of years to decompose.

To combat the waste and pollution generated by single-use plastic bags, a consortium of retailers including CVS Health, Target, Walmart, Kroger and Walgreens has joined forces with the Center for the Circular Economy at investment firm Closed Loop Partners. The consortium partners have pledged $15 million to launch the Beyond the Bag initiative with the goal of reinventing the single-use plastic bag.

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“The Beyond the Bag Initiative is harnessing design, innovation and the power of collaboration to create a better retail bag,” says Kate Daly, managing director of the Center for the Circular Economy. She says solutions to replace current bags must be convenient, accessible, inclusive and environmentally sound.

The consortium represents a shift — retailers historically have tried to address the challenge on their own. However, current plastic bag alternatives lack industry-wide support or widespread use by the public.

How we got here

Although often maligned, plastic bags are ubiquitous for a reason. “They’re lightweight and strong compared with their thickness or mass,” says Carson Meredith, executive director with the Renewable Bioproducts Institute at Georgia Institute of Technology. As a result, plastic bags are relatively inexpensive and easy to transport. In addition, many bags are made of polyolefins like ethylene and propylene, which are inexpensive byproducts of oil refining.

That convenience comes at a price: While the bags technically can be recycled, many conventional recycling operations won’t accept them, Meredith says, because they tend to jam the equipment. Some retailers host drop-off spots where consumers can leave their bags for recycling, but getting the bags back to a store requires an extra step by consumers.

As a result, the wide majority of plastic bags wind up in landfills, where they remain for the hundreds of years they require to degrade. As the bags deteriorate, they can break into “microplastics,” which can find their way to rivers, lakes and oceans where aquatic animals might ingest them, Meredith says.

Options

One way to reduce the pollution single-use plastic bags generate is to chemically recycle the plastics within the bags into other useful chemicals — a form of “upcycling,” Meredith says. Some processes for this exist, but they tend to be focused on the internal recycling of components within refineries or chemical plants, he says, and aren’t widely used for processing waste plastic.

Another research focus is developing bacteria that can essentially eat the plastic, which could make composting bags feasible.

Some researchers are exploring the use of source materials other than those derived from petroleum, such as bio-based plastics. Bio-based polymers are recyclable, and would be available in vast quantities, Meredith says. He foresees more of these alternatives becoming available within the next five years, as more retailers and other companies demand bio-based or other solutions.

The Beyond the Bag initiative will explore a mix of potential solutions, including bio-based materials. Members also will evaluate reusable models — essentially, high-quality packaging that functions like single-use bags, but can remain in circulation for multiple uses. Researchers will evaluate how reusable systems can improve, optimize and scale; Daly says the reusable systems will have to meet or exceed all relevant health and safety standards.

Bagless solutions are also being considered. These could include tech-driven models that deliver the functionality of a bag without actually using one, such as zero-waste stores and drone delivery.

While any of these options might prove viable, an immediate solution is unlikely. “There is no immediate or quick fix to solving a global waste challenge, and scaling systems change takes time and commitment,” Daly says. The Beyond the Bag Initiative has set a three-year horizon to include innovation, establishing a recovery infrastructure, and engaging customers and communities.

Research picks up

Along with the Beyond the Bag initiative, other research and sustainability efforts are underway. “There’s more research and development than I’ve seen in a long time,” Meredith says, with much of it coming from public feedback that’s pushing governments and companies to invest in initiatives to build more sustainable solutions.

Earlier this year, U.S. plastic bag manufacturers and recyclers formed the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance and signed a sustainability commitment. Its goal is to get 95 percent of plastic retail bags to be reused or recycled by 2025.

“Collectively, organizations can send a unified signal to the market and world at large, demonstrating their commitment to change and incentivizing the value chain, from manufacturers to recyclers, to adopt more sustainable practices,” Daly says.

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