The Need: The convenience of today’s take-make-waste economy has come with massive environmental and social consequences. Many products and packaging are created to be used just one time, before they are disposed of, and too often these then end up in landfills and the natural environment, where they contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and the growing climate crisis. The mounting waste challenge is complex––and solving it is larger than any one organization. If we are to advance systems change and build a sustainable and profitable circular economy, where no valuable resources are wasted, collaboration is critical.
Change is created through collaboration with multiple stakeholders in the value chain– from multinational corporations to cities and municipalities and governments, to your local retailer. At Closed Loop Partners, we do this on a large scale by bringing together competitors across sectors to create systemic change. One example of this is the industry consortia led by our Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners.
For example, our Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag aims to address the challenge of the traditional single-use plastic retail bag. The seemingly simple plastic bag poses a complex design challenge. For decades, the single-use plastic bag reigned as the dominant design solution for one of the most common human activities: getting a purchase home. But that popularity comes at a great cost. The majority of plastic bags end up in landfills, are incinerated, or leak into the environment. Still, the single-use plastic bag has been widely adopted around the world, serving many purposes in different retail environments.
The Solution: The Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners launches industry Consortia to unite competitors and key industry stakeholders to tackle complex material challenges and implement systemic change that advances the circular economy. The Center’s first consortium, the NextGen Consortium, was launched in 2018 to address single-use foodservice packaging waste by advancing the design, commercialization and recovery of packaging alternatives. The Consortium works across the value chain––with brands, municipalities, material recovery facilities and manufacturers––to ensure we provide viable market solutions that scale throughout the supply chain and bring value to recovery systems. In 2020, the Center launched its second consortium, the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag, to identify, test and implement innovative new design solutions that serve the function of today’s single-use plastic retail bag, delivering ease and convenience for consumers while striving to lessen the impact on the environment. These Consortia are critical parts of Closed Loop Partners’ broader work to accelerate the transition to a circular economy, one in which valuable resources, including plastics, never go to waste.
What makes it particularly smart or circular? The Center for the Circular Economy’s industry consortia follow an Innovate, Test and Scale framework to advance circular solutions for shared material challenges––including the single-use plastic bag and single-use foodservice packaging, such as the fiber to-go cup. Innovate, to explore a wide range of new circular solutions, beyond the boundaries of status quo and business as usual. Test, to pilot circular solutions in-market and test with recyclers, composters, and material test labs to evaluate the performance, recyclability and recoverability of solutions. Solutions range from innovative designs that reduce material use; new materials that lessen environmental impact and improve recyclability and recoverability; reuse models that keep materials in play for longer; and enabling technologies that help provide transparency across the lifecycle of products and packaging and can help incentivize and gamify the customer experience. Lastly, Scale, to drive impact on an industry level, engage a wide array of partners and create long-term change. Understanding that packaging waste constitutes a systems challenge, the Consortia takes a holistic approach to advancing a range of solutions––knowing that there is no silver bullet to addressing plastic waste.
Results, Benefits, and Outcomes to Date: Since 2018, the NextGen Consortium has made significant headway in advancing sustainable packaging innovation and recycling infrastructure to help end foodservice packaging waste, with an initial focus on redesigning the single-use hot and cold fiber cup. The Consortium’s NextGen Cup Challenge sourced 480 solutions globally to redesign the cup, selecting 12 winning solutions across three areas: innovative cup & cup liners, new materials, and reusable cup service models. Following the Challenge, the Consortium has continued to advance the development of innovative cup and cup liner innovations, and the Consortium’s Circular Business Accelerator supported six early-stage teams to help test and refine their solutions. In 2019 and 2020, Accelerator teams executed on-the-ground tests at a large tech company’s campus with four solutions, including two reusable systems, moving to the pilot phase across 14 local, independent cafes in the San Francisco Bay area. Drawing on insights from those pilots, the NextGen Consortium released a first-of-its-kind report, Bringing Reusable Packaging Systems to Life, sharing a blueprint and open-source resource to encourage collaboration and the growth of reuse models. The Consortium also continued its work across the broader foodservice packaging value chain, conducting dozens of lab and commercial-scale tests with recyclers, material test labs and paper mills to evaluate the performance, recyclability and recoverability of the fiber cup solutions. As part of this work, the NextGen Consortium collaborates with paper mills, recycling facilities and municipalities to expand recycling access and recovery of fiber cups as well as NextGen cups. Most recently, the NextGen Consortium announced an additional $10 million+ commitment from its Partners to expand its efforts, including and beyond the fiber cup, to strengthen the sustainable packaging ecosystem. The Consortium will deepen its customer research and testing of reusable packaging systems, explore the circularity of additional packaging materials such as polypropylene (PP), and accelerate the development of more widely recyclable and compostable fiber-based packaging solutions, as well as the infrastructure pathways needed for their recovery. On the other hand, the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag, following its Beyond the Bag Challenge, selected 9 winning sustainable solutions from 450+ ideas across 60 countries: ChicoBag, Domtar, Eon, Fill it Forward, GOATOTE, PlasticFri, Returnity, SmartC and Sway. In 2021, the Consortium launched a series of tests and first-of-a-kind multi-retailer pilots with select winning solutions to advance sustainable alternatives to the single-use plastic bag and accelerate their potential to scale. These pilots helped refine select winning solutions from the Consortium’s global Beyond the Bag Challenge, evaluating multiple factors, from technical feasibility to desirability, and ran over a six-week+ period. Beyond the Bag Challenge winners ChicoBag, Fill it Forward, GOATOTE and 99Bridges piloted across a total of nine stores of the Consortium’s Founding Partners––CVS Health, Target and Walmart––in Northern California. The solutions tested included multiple reusable bag models, alongside enabling technologies, which help serve customers’ needs, extend the useful life of retail bags and provide visibility into the full lifecycle of a bag. In addition to the in-store pilots, other winning solutions from the Beyond the Bag Challenge were piloted and tested in different contexts. Returnity and Eon piloted through Walmart delivery in select markets. This pilot tested a different part of the retail system, knowing that people shop in various ways––ranging from at home to in store. Domtar, PlasticFri and Sway––companies developing innovative, alternative materials to single-use plastic––will undergo rigorous material performance and recovery testing to optimize their designs to meet the needs of retailers and customers, and match the specifications of recycling and composting facilities. The tests and pilots are just one part of the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag’s complementary workstreams, which span innovation, advancing materials recovery through infrastructure investments, identifying best practices for policy and engaging consumers––all underpinned by work with key stakeholders across the entire bag value chain.
Which of the Pact’s 4 Targets does your work help achieve? Target 1, 2, 3, and 4
Quotes: “To permanently eliminate the 100 billion single-use plastic bags currently used every year in the U.S., we are working collaboratively to build retail solutions that better meet customer needs while lessening the impact on the environment. By testing new bag innovations in-store, we gain valuable insights that allow us to iterate quickly and expand to more communities,” says Kate Daly, Managing Director of the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners. “Knowing that systems change does not happen overnight, these pilots are an essential step to test, incorporate customer and retailer feedback, and improve new solutions, exploring pathways to scale.”
“Through NextGen, we’ve made great progress in growing more sustainable packaging solutions, and there is a lot more work to be done. Faced with increasing climate risks, eco-conscious customers and a resource-constrained world, the foodservice industry must double down on its efforts and band together to strategically tackle the mounting waste challenge,” said Kate Daly, Managing Director of the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners. “Starbucks, McDonald’s and other partners in the Consortium make clear their commitment to collaboratively accelerate more circular foodservice packaging solutions, and we encourage stakeholders––from packaging manufacturers to recyclers to designers––to join us in advancing NextGen solutions.”