Will Walmart, Target, Kroger and other chains fix America’s plastic bag problem?

Discussion
Photo: Getty Images/Cn0ra
Jul 22, 2020
George Anderson

America has a plastic bag waste problem. Less than 10 percent of the estimated 100 billion plastic bags used in the country are recycled. What’s left is often found on the sides of roads, in waterways and in landfills. The problem is so big that even the nation’s largest retailers do not feel individually up to the task of solving it. That’s why erstwhile rivals CVS, Kroger, Target, Walgreens and Walmart have joined together in a consortium focused on finding a better, more eco-friendly solution.

The retailers announced yesterday that they had joined the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag in partnership with Closed Loop Partners’ Center for the Circular Economy.

Closed Loop is an innovation center focused on finding solutions whereby materials are shared, reused and continuously recycled. It has been working with McDonald’s, Starbucks and others since 2018 on the NextGen Consortium, a multiyear initiative to invent a sustainable alternative to single-use hot and cold cups used in restaurants.

“The status quo has been shaken, presenting a unique opportunity to build back better and reimagine a more resilient and sustainable way of doing business,” said Kate Daly, managing director of the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop, in a statement. “During challenging times, unexpected and unprecedented collaboration is required and we’re excited to work with leading retailers like CVS Health, Target, Walmart and others — along with the entire industry — to take effective action.”

The founding members are joining together in helping to finance a three-year program — Beyond the Bag — that will enlist the help of inventors in coming up with viable alternatives to bags on the market today. The retailers, which have together pledged at least $15 million to the effort, have called on others in the industry to join them.

“By coming together to tackle the problem, we aim to accelerate the pace of innovation and the commercialization of sustainable solutions,” said Kathleen McLaughlin, executive vice president and chief sustainability officer for Walmart. “Through efforts like the Innovation Challenge and the Circular Accelerator, we hope the Beyond the Bag Initiative will surface affordable, practical solutions that meet the needs of customers and reduce plastic waste.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you think a consortium such as this can be successful in finding a sustainable alternative to plastic bag use? Do you expect other national and regional retail chain operators to kick in to support the effort?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Retailers have been pushed into using the stick (bag fees). It’s time to start thinking about carrots for the future."
"This is a step in the right direction. As an industry, retailers need to come together to solve the plastic problem — no one else is going to do it for them."
"Although sustainability has tumbled down the list of strategic priorities since March, these retail leaders know environmental concerns will boomerang back."

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22 Comments on "Will Walmart, Target, Kroger and other chains fix America’s plastic bag problem?"


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Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

I think this is a very worthy initiative and I like that the focus is on reinvention rather than simply on banning plastic bags or taxing them. I think more retailers will get involved with this and hopefully it will yield some solutions.

David Naumann
BrainTrust

It is noble that some of the big retailers are taking the plastic bag issue seriously. The Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag’s three-year Beyond the Bag will hopefully come up with some innovative options to replace the traditional plastic bag. I wish there was a simple solution, like requiring all consumers to bring your own bag (BYOB). Other national and regional chains should probably help fund it and maybe all retailers could invest a small percentage of their annual sales.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

We have been talking about eliminating plastic bags for 20+ years. Some cities and municipalities have passed ordinances to ban plastic bag use, only to be eventually overturned.

Many people were using the alternative bags (made of recycled product, etc.) but now with the fear that COVID-19 may stay on the bags, those are being discouraged as well. I don’t think there is a clear consensus on options and that lack of clarity has delayed a unified plan to be considered and enacted across all retailers in the US.

Nikki Baird
BrainTrust

I really thought we were making great progress here — until the pandemic. I like that the consortium is launching now instead of waiting for things to “get back to normal,” to try to get ahead of when consumers (and retailers) can feel comfortable moving away from single-use plastic once again.

I tried to go plastic-free in retail a couple of years ago, and it was nearly impossible. Consumers can make some gains on their own, and more determined consumers can make bigger gains, but it won’t be until retailers design stores to support the elimination of single-use plastic, most especially produce and checkout bags, before any changes can really stick.

The pandemic has necessitated a return to plastic, but it’s just not sustainable — literally and figuratively. Retailers have been pushed into using the stick (bag fees). It’s time to start thinking about carrots for the future.

Stephen Rector
BrainTrust

Yes, I think this is a good start on a problem that needs to be fixed. It is about innovation versus condemnation of the bags that needs to be addressed for the future. A national initiative on this would prove beneficial as well, versus one-offs throughout the country.

Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

Let’s be clear: as an industry, it’s on us to solve this serious problem. We simply have to solve it. Living in a city that long ago banned plastic bags, it was striking to see how quickly local retailers were able to revert to plastic when the pandemic unfolded. They struggled to keep many essential items of their assortments in stock, but the dreaded plastic bags were plentiful. I applaud the consortium, hope they are successful — and fast — and I strongly encourage other chains to participate. The planet can not endure much more.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

Agree completely. Fresh thinking is required here and we shouldn’t let this opportunity pass us by.

Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

Let’s hope this is one of the silver linings to emerge from this mess, Cathy….

Lisa Goller
BrainTrust

This collaborative (vs. competitive) approach is the only path toward meaningful change. Although sustainability has tumbled down the list of strategic priorities since March, these retail leaders know environmental concerns will boomerang back.

Directly addressing a decade of vocal demand for responsible sustainability stewardship can help consortium players earn consumer respect and loyalty. That’s why more chains will want in: being part of the solution can yield a competitive edge.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Prior to COVID-19, retailers were incentivizing consumers to use their reusable bags, vs plastic or paper bags. In fact, New York went so far earlier this year to officially ban plastic bag usage across the entire state, and the surrounding states have followed suit.

While it will be a socially responsible move for major retailers to reduce plastic bag usage, unless it is a state or federal government mandated movement, it will be challenging to consistently regulate the plastic bag usage. The reusable bags are a good alternative, and also provide retailers an opportunity to monetize and capitalize on marketing their brand and create some goodwill in the process.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

Retailers helped to create the plastic bag problem and it’s great to see they working to resolve it. We are fortunate to live in an area where there are retailers who will accept plastic bags for recycling. The issue is getting customers to be willing to bring them back to the store.

People prefer plastic primarily for one reason: the bags have handles making them easy to carry. Retailers like them because the are inexpensive to buy. Today, several of the stores we shop have paper bags with handles. I expect they are more expensive to buy, but they do address the plastic bag issue.

storewanderer
Guest
24 days 2 hours ago

How many bags could they reduce by simply asking every customer, “Do you want a bag with that?” Many, I suspect.

Perry Kramer
BrainTrust

This is absolutely the right approach. I feel confident that over time, collaborative thinking by these major retailers and their leading innovation centers will come up with a solution that will be accepted by consumers. The timing seams right as disruption is a constant right now and consumers in general continue to migrate to sustainable solutions, even if the change creates a small amount of increased friction. As we recently saw with many of these retailers shifting to requiring masks to protect their employees, the broader general public collaboration carries a lot of weight in the industry. This will lead to consumer acceptance, which will be the key to success.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

This is a step in the right direction. As an industry, retailers need to come together to solve the plastic problem — no one else is going to do it for them. The more retailers that support this initiative the better the odds that the consortium will be able to find an alternative. In the meantime, perhaps more retailers need to consider the paper bag options available to them in place of plastic until a better option becomes available.

storewanderer
Guest
24 days 2 hours ago

There is a national shortage on paper bags due to the demand spikes from the states in the Eastern United States that implemented plastic bag bans this year (most of which never even got started — the NY one is held up due to a lawsuit and others got delayed due to COVID-19).

There is a key difference in the California plastic bag ban only impacts stores with a liquor license (so grocery, drug, basically) and no other retail stores–so the mall stores, home improvement stores, etc. in California all still dispense thin plastic bags at no charge to the consumer like before.

These plastic bag bans being passed in other states impact ALL retail (and in some cases restaurants too). So the result has been a paper bag shortage. The plastic bag ban passed in Washington State included money for the paper bag industry to build more plants.

Chuck Ehredt
Guest

This problem should have been addressed 5 years ago — as it largely has been in Europe. This appears to be partly an “American” problem where individuals feel they are entitled to waste resources for their own comfort, but it remains a problem because of lack of leadership.

The solution is part carrot and part stick — unless a retailer has the nerve to simply stop using plastic. I do believe that customers should be offered choices, but incentives need to be deployed to make the wrong choice more painful for customers. Having seen how successful the elimination of plastic bags has been in Europe, I strongly recommend providing/selling sturdy reusable bags that customers bring with them on each shopping trip, paper bags where the cost is passed on to customers, and loyalty incentives to encourage desired behavior.

storewanderer
Guest
24 days 2 hours ago
To be clear here: how this problem was “addressed” in Europe was in most cases, the thin bags still exist, and a tax imposed by the government was put onto the bags. It helps, at the very least, to discourage bag waste. The thin bags are still there. Now, however, you have a regressive tax. You penalize the customer who “buys more.” And then there is the whole issue of sanitation of reusable bags which has come up due to COVID-19 (it was always an issue, that those promoting reusable bags kept ignoring). That is not what is going on here. These US retailers are trying to get ahead of being regulated by the federal government into a solution and come up with a solution on their own. A number of states (CA, OR, WA, HI by default county laws, NY, CT, and a few others) are already regulating plastic bags banning the thin ones and assessing a fee on the paper bags, and it is pretty clear the retailers want to get control of… Read more »
storewanderer
Guest
24 days 2 hours ago
These retailers need to look beyond just the bags and examine the use of thin plastic film throughout their organizations. Those of you who have ordered anything from Walmart or Target in the past few months, notice all of that plastic air in the boxes? That is thin plastic film, the exact same stuff as the thin plastic bags, and has little to no reuse at all (I’ve tried to cut them open and use them like a glove/sleeve when using a gas pump or other similar activities which sort of works). And then to take it and recycle it, you have to pop all of it. Not a huge deal, but still a slight hassle. At least in the case of the thin plastic bags, they have a re-use for household trash, lunch, laundry if you’re traveling, pet waste, etc. Bags with small holes can be used for lighter trash (bathroom trash, laundry if traveling, etc.). I never throw a single use bag away after taking it from the store until reusing it for… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Something seems to be missing here … oh, yes, the consumer. Let’s be honest: bags, whether disposable or not, don’t end up on the side of the road on their own, or due to the actions (or lack thereof) of retailers. They end up there because people are too sloppy or unmotivated to either recycle them or dispose of them properly. And of course the pandemic has curbed whatever trivial efforts that were already in place. My hopes lie not so much with anything I’ve seen, as the fact that mankind survived for 99+% of its history without them — and probably could again — remains.

storewanderer
Guest
24 days 1 hour ago

The problem is that same consumer who is too sloppy or unmotivated to recycle or properly dispose of the thin plastic bag is the same consumer who is also too sloppy or unmotivated to properly clean and sanitize their reusable bag (or cup, or whatever). So they bring a filthy reusable bag, cup, etc. into a store or other place of business, and that creates a contamination risk. And that consumer is why reusables got banned during COVID.

storewanderer
Guest
23 days 21 hours ago
Another thing to expand on my previous comment of thinking beyond the bag: given the low 10% recycling rates on single use plastic bags (how many are reused and used in lieu of garbage bags (a giant percentage, but I digress), how much could retailers in their stores collect the thin plastic film used throughout their operation (they use the same thin plastic film that is used to make plastic bags to wrap pallets and various items that come into the stores are also shrink wrapped in that same thin plastic film) and then put it into the plastic bag recycling chain so more recycled thin plastic film is available and therefore increase the percentage of recycled content in the bags? This would directly reduce how much plastic goes into the waste stream. I see some talk of having the plastic bags made of 40% post consumer recycled content, but why is that only 40%? Why can’t it be 100%? Right now oil is cheap and that is probably part of the problem (cheaper to… Read more »
Xavier Lederer
BrainTrust

This is a great initiative! I was running a small food retailer in New York City right before the plastic bag ban was going to be enforced (pre-COVID), and alternatives to plastic bags (i.e inexpensive, practical, and branded) are not obvious. Hopefully more eco-friendly alternatives will be available to smaller retailers in the future, thanks to initiatives like these.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Retailers have been pushed into using the stick (bag fees). It’s time to start thinking about carrots for the future."
"This is a step in the right direction. As an industry, retailers need to come together to solve the plastic problem — no one else is going to do it for them."
"Although sustainability has tumbled down the list of strategic priorities since March, these retail leaders know environmental concerns will boomerang back."

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