In 2018, McDonald’s and Starbucks teamed up to create an eco-friendly alternative to the single-use soft drink cup. Coordinated by the investment firm Closed Loop Partners with support from the design studio Ideo, it was an unprecedented, joint effort between rivals to fix the ecological impact at the core of their business. Several of the resulting winners were piloted in stores earlier this year. Now, the retail industry is following suit. Walmart, Target, and CVS Health are announcing the Beyond the Bag Initiative, a plan to reinvent single-use plastic bags. The three companies are leading the new initiative with Closed Loop; Kroger and Walgreens have signed up as well. With $15 million in promised investments, the partners are inviting entrepreneurs and inventors to pitch new ideas to replace the 100 billion plastic bags still used in the United States every year.
“We have to approach this as an industry,” says Kathleen McLaughlin, executive vice president and chief sustainability officer at Walmart. “Walmart’s not going to figure that out on their own, nor is Target, nor is Kroger.” The best ideas will enter a product accelerator with Closed Loop Partners, knowing that those businesses will have a market of the world’s biggest retailers eager to not just fund their efforts, but buy their bags—and any other new product delivery system they might imagine.
“What is needed is a way to transport items,” says Amanda Nusz, vice president of corporate responsibility at Target and president of the Target Foundation, Target’s philanthropic arm. “Hopefully, we’ll have a whole portfolio of ideas, some iterative on the bag, and some being more bold to bring a totally new concept on how we continue to offer a convenient way to transport items that’s simple, easy, joyful, and inclusive.”
All three founding partner retailers have experimented with alternatives to the plastic bag, but none have landed on the perfect solution. Replacing single-use plastic bags is particularly tricky. Most are still made from virgin plastics, produced as a byproduct of refining oil. They’re cheap, plentiful, and in essence, made from waste left behind by fossil fuels. But they can last for 20 years before breaking down, and they have a propensity to end up in our waterways. Meanwhile, most recycling facilities across the United States don’t accept them because plastic bags are difficult to sort and tend to clog machines.