How Do We Spark a Seachange for Reuse?

By Kate Daly

October 06, 2022

It will take unprecedented collaboration to address the scale of our global plastic waste challenge. Bringing together the nation’s largest retailers to test and pilot sustainable packaging solutions that operate across each other’s stores is a critical step toward this collective goal. 

If you visualize the current journey of most products and packaging in our economy, it looks like a straight line that starts with extracting finite raw materials and ends at the landfill. After decades of relying on this seemingly convenient linear system, its long-hidden economic costs and environmental consequences have become clear, bringing us to a tipping point that necessitates a better way forward — one that considers these materials as resources, not waste.

Consider the iconic single-use plastic bag. In the United States, it’s estimated that we use 100 billion plastic bags per year – and fewer than 10 percent of these are recycled. Most bags wind up in the landfill, in the environment, or in the wrong recycling stream, tangling recycling equipment and leading to costly shutdowns. Today, depending on where we live, our local stores may charge a fee to use a plastic or paper bag or may have banned single-use bags. More and more, customers are demanding convenient options that reduce environmental impact while helping us get our goods home. Reusable bags that we can borrow rather than own are one part of the solution, alongside bag reduction and building the habit of using the bags we already own. We’ve all had moments when we’ve forgotten our reusable bag or taken an unplanned shopping trip, which is where borrowing a reusable bag fits in.

Earlier this month, the Center for the Circular Economy released Beyond the Plastic Bag: Sparking a Seachange for Reuse – a report of our learnings from conducting first-of-a-kind reusable bag pilots at CVS Health, Target and Walmart stores in Northern California last summer.  The report is specific to the testing of reusable bag systems where customers who didn’t bring their own bag 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.

The Beyond the Bag Pilots, launched by the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag and conducted in partnership with global design firm IDEO, unearthed key insights across the customer journey and in behind the scenes operational logistics to determine what needs to be true for reuse models to be successful.

 What We Learned

  • For customers to pay attention to this new approach to carrying goods home, punchy, impact-oriented storytelling, with a clear description of the rewards and benefits of participating is essential
  • For customers to participate in reuse systems, signing up to borrow a bag must be just as convenient, inclusive and accessible as using a single-use bag
  • Accessible drop-off points and quick confirmation of the return of reusables are must-haves for customers to engage fully in a reuse system
  • Impact must be measured at every stage of the system, including percentage of reusable bags recovered, water and energy usage, and bag damage or loss rates. Return rates and repeat participation are critical measurements that require long-term testing and engagement to accurately gauge
  • As reuse grows, so do opportunities for increased efficiencies in shared infrastructure and other collaborations that increase the density and availability of drop-off points and help optimize and scale the system

We need 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.

The learnings from our reusable bag pilots extend far beyond this one application and help bring additional data to the conversation on reuse, but we still have a long way to go. Experimentation, iteration, and collaboration will continue to be key. Additional tests and measurements of reuse systems over longer periods will be necessary to gauge the shift from initial adoption of a reusable product to the active return and repeat engagement in a truly circular reuse system. Through collaborations like the Beyond the Bag partnership we hope to accelerate toward a future in which reusing valuable materials and products in our economy becomes the commonsense norm. Explore the full learnings from our pilots here.

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