Closed Loop Partners: Beyond the Plastic Bag

The Need: It’s estimated that we use 100 billion plastic bags per year in the U.S. alone. While the convenience of the plastic retail bag can’t be disputed, its negative impact – considering its short use (12 minutes, on average) and long lifespan (500-1000 years) – have led to rising consumer concern, advocacy campaigns, and regulatory bans and fees. This is a challenge that is top-of-mind for communities and consumers who are concerned about the impact of single-use plastics on our environment and for brands who are seeking more sustainable solutions. Current alternatives can be costly and inconvenient, often trading one environmental issue for another. The retail bag needs reinventing, and we need an array of solutions to move the needle.

The Solution: To address the challenge of single-use plastic bag waste, Closed Loop Partners’ Center for the Circular Economy launched the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag with Founding Partners CVS Health, Target and Walmart.

The Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag focuses its efforts across three core, interconnected workstreams to ensure a holistic approach to addressing a systemic waste challenge:

Within reuse, the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag launched Beyond the Bag Pilots in 2021 to test reusable bag models across select CVS Health, Target and Walmart stores in Northern California, and help advance sustainable alternatives to the single-use plastic bag. Learnings from the pilots demonstrated firsthand what resonated with customers, retailers and other critical stakeholders to help further shape solutions. These multi-retailer pilots showed how both reuse start-ups and large corporations can collaborate to build systems that are easy and convenient for customers and businesses to use, while shifting away from our reliance on single-use plastics.

Following these pilots, Closed Loop Partners’ Center for the Circular Economy and the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag published a new resource to help guide retailers looking to adopt reusable bag service models. The report, Beyond the Plastic Bag,[GS1]  shares key insights and analysis gathered from the collaborative reusable bag pilots conducted in Northern California.

The learnings from the reusable bag pilots extend far beyond this one product, and can help guide key stakeholders toward a future in which reusing valuable materials and products in our economy becomes the commonsense norm. Looking ahead, reuse models will play an important role in displacing single-use plastic in certain contexts, knowing that collaboration is key in accelerating their widespread implementation and adoption. The transition from linear to circular systems will not happen overnight. It is critical to design and implement every aspect of the new systems thoughtfully to meet the needs of customers and retailers, and ensure a measurable environmental benefit. Iterative testing and data-driven decision-making can help avoid unintended consequences, like insufficient recapture of “reusables” or the one-to-one replacement of single-use plastics with reusables.

Which of the Pact’s 4 Targets does your work help achieve? TARGET 2: 100% of plastic packaging will be reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025

What makes it particularly smart or circular? In today’s world, we create, buy, use and then ultimately dispose of a lot of stuff. This wastes energy, money and precious limited natural resources. Reuse and refill models play a critical role in extending the lifespan of valuable materials, moving away from linear material flows to circular flows that capture the long-term value of resources.

We’re seeing multiple factors driving reuse: the urgency of the climate crisis and pressure from environmentally conscious consumers; growing regulatory pressures in the U.S., including single-use plastic bans in California, New York and Hawaii; business incentives as the economic case for resource efficiency becomes increasingly clear; and emerging technological developments enabling the tracking of reuse.

Across Closed Loop Partners and our Center for the Circular Economy, we test, pilot and invest in reuse models in order to accelerate their pathway to scale, as part of our work to advance the circular economy. We see reuse as a means to address the mounting single-use plastics waste challenge, reducing the need for virgin plastic extraction and keeping valuable materials in play.

The Beyond the Bag Pilots were first-of-a-kind multi-retailer pilots with CVS Health, Target and Walmart banding together to test reuse across nine stores. The interplay among leading retailers’ stores sets an exciting precedent where customers could borrow a reusable bag from one store and drop it off at another retailer. Ultimately, collaboration is the key to unlock pathways to scale reuse systems, and transition from our wasteful linear system to a future built upon circular systems that are affordable, convenient and protect the environment we share

Results, Benefits, and Outcomes to Date: A number of key learnings emerged from the pilots. Across the customer journey for reusable bag services — from the moment of awareness, to adoption, reuse & return, and continued participation — there are multiple logistical and emotional factors that contribute to success. As such, there are touchpoints throughout a customer’s entire retail experience that serve as critical opportunities to make a compelling case for participation. At the same time, when retailers begin testing and implementing reusable bag services, the fundamental journey of the packaging starts to look quite different, and retailers need to look for opportunities to optimize the experience every step of the way. Our Beyond the Bag Pilots unearthed key insights across the customer journey and behind the scenes — the reverse logistics and management — to determine what helps the long term social, environmental and financial viability of reuse models.

Customer-facing journey for reusable bag services

Behind the scenes action enabling reusable bag services

How are you communicating your success?

Internally, with consumers, suppliers, users of your innovation, etc.

What’s Next? Building a more sustainable future for the retail industry won’t happen overnight. These pilots are a critical step to further develop innovative solutions that can help address complex waste challenges, and will provide the necessary groundwork and insights for our next phase of work. Over the next year, the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag will continue to conduct extensive research and in-market testing of designs and innovative bag solutions that can reduce single-use plastic bag waste. These aim to inform the viability of solutions in different contexts, as well as the full potential of solutions to more sustainably, accessibly and effectively get goods home. 

Quote: “Successfully implementing reuse models on the ground, and accelerating their growth, takes unprecedented collaboration. Since 2018, the Center for the Circular Economy has been convening competitors to address complex material challenges and advance circular solutions, including reuse. This collaboration with the nation’s largest retailers to test and pilot reusable bag solutions across multiple stores is a critical step toward reducing single-use plastic bag waste. Iterative testing and data-driven decision-making of reuse systems can help avoid unintended consequences, like insufficient recapture of reusable packaging or the one-to-one replacement of single-use plastics with ‘reusables.’ We hope that this report on the Beyond the Bag initiative serves as inspiration for forward-thinking organizations looking to bring reuse to the next level. The learnings from our pilots can help guide us toward a future in which reusing valuable materials and products in our economy becomes the commonsense norm.” – Kate Daly, Managing Director of the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners

Company/Organization Information: Closed Loop Partners was founded in 2014 and is based in New York. The Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag, managed by Closed Loop Partners’ Center for the Circular Economy, was launched in 2020.

Learn More:

Beyond the Bag Overview: 

Beyond the Plastic Bag Report: 

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