Beyond the Plastic Bag: Sparking a Seachange for Reuse

Closed Loop Partners’ Center for the Circular Economy, in partnership with the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag, has released a new resource entitled, “Beyond the Plastic Bag: Sparking a Seachange for Reuse.” It shares key insights gathered from reusable bag pilot programs conducted in select CVS Health, Target and Walmart locations—and Is meant to help retailers initiate their own effective reusable bag models.

In the foreword, Managing Director of the Center for the Circular Economy, Kate Daly, acknowledges that, “It will take unprecedented collaboration to address the scale of our global plastic waste challenge.” But, “bringing together the nation’s largest retailers to test and pilot sustainable packaging solutions is a critical step toward this collective goal.”

During summer 2021, select CVS Health, Target and Walmart locations in Northern California participated in a 10-week pilot program where customers could “’borrow’ a bag and use it multiple times before returning it at the same or a different brand’s store to be washed, redistributed and reused by other customers.” Learnings from the pilots, as noted by Daly, “demonstrated firsthand what resonated with customers, retailers and other critical stakeholders to help further shape solutions.” And, they 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.”

One of the first questions the researchers and report asks is, “How do we approach eliminating the single-use plastic bag?” There is not a one-size-fits-all solution. For instance, “community and individual needs are not uniform. A model that works well in a suburban area where the majority of customers use a car is very different from a model that works for someone based in an urban area that must carry purchases on foot or on public transportation.” In other words, “We need to think about how, where and when consumers shop, ensuring that solutions are convenient, accessible and inclusive.”

The researchers then seek to address the role of retailers in advancing reuse and assert that they “play a critical role in increasing the visibility and accessibility of innovative sustainable solutions to the public,” as well as offering “fertile testing grounds” for new solutions. The pilot program yielded many insights in this area, highlighted below.

Key takeaways regarding the customer-facing journey for reusable bag services:

  • Effective storytelling is foundational for building awareness
  • Convenience is imperative when it comes to adoption and sign-up
  • Customers are looking for a clear and easy reason to help them reuse
  • Accessible drop-off points and quick confirmation of return help build trust in the reuse system

Key takeaways regarding behind-the-scenes action enabling reusable bag services:

  • Partnering with the right stakeholders matters
  • Impact must be measured at every stage
  • Further scaling reuse systems will help catalyze efficiencies

The report details the process of the pilot itself and identifies critical “moments universally applicable” across reuse services:

  • Awareness: Customer awareness is a process worth investing in, because the success of the rest of the journey hinges on this first step; it also must be well-timed
  • Adoption and signup: signup needs to be easy, and the price reasonable
  • Use/reuse: Reuse services are more convenient when offered in more than one location and with more than one brand; it is also imperative to reduce friction for customers, know that aesthetics matter, and understand that different shoppers respond to different incentives
  • Return: Providing quick confirmation and rewards encourages returns, and again it needs to be frictionless

As observed by Amanda Nusz, Senior Vice President of Corporate Responsibility for Target and President of the Target Foundation, “We’re grateful for the insights these pilots have provided, and we’re applying what we learned to identify bag options that are best for our guests, propelling more circular systems throughout retail.”

The report acknowledges that reuse is not “the sole answer to material environmental challenges, and must complement multiple waste reduction strategies.” Because, after all, “every reusable must be recycled at some point when it is past viable use.” So, the success of reuse models “depends on the right partnerships, contexts, sustainable material sourcing, displacement of existing single-use packaging systems and sustained follow-through behavior by the operator, retailer and customer.

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. In the meantime, says Daly, “We hope that this report serves as inspiration for forward-thinking organizations looking to bring reuse to the next level.”

View the full report here.