5 lessons from Closed Loop Partners’ challenge to reinvent bags

5 lessons from Closed Loop Partners’ challenge to reinvent bags

The single-use plastic bag is a highly visible symbol of our existing linear, take-make-waste system: these bags are used for an average of 12 minutes before ending up in landfills and waterways for hundreds of years. Transitioning this entrenched product to a circular system requires a concerted effort – one driven by unprecedented industry collaboration. That’s where Closed Loop Partners’ Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag comes in – working with some of the biggest players in retail, accelerating some of the most forward-thinking innovators to start moving the needle.

In 2020, the consortium launched the Beyond the Bag Challenge, a critical part of its broader Beyond the Bag Initiative, to identify long-term solutions that reimagine how to get goods home from an in-store purchase, from curbside pickup and in-home delivery. More than 450 innovators from around the world submitted their ideas on how to reinvent the shopping bag. In February 2021, the consortium announced the nine winners of the Beyond the Bag Challenge: 99Bridges; ChicoBag; Judges; EON; Fill it further; GOAT; PlasticFree; return; and Sway.

As seen in the range of solutions chosen as challenge winners, different approaches must be used to create a circular system for retail. All solutions play a role in replacing single-use plastic bags, either via innovative reusable bags, enabling technologies or by designing with alternative materials. Since the end of the Beyond the Bag Challenge, significant progress has been made to promote a circular system for the retail bag, and the winning innovations have helped pave the way. Let’s take a look at the progress that has been made in over a year, driven by five key trends:

1. More retailers are looking to test and pilot reusable bag solutions

The Beyond the Bag challenge accelerated GOAT in its mission to bring reuse to the forefront of retail. Since being selected as the winner of the Beyond the Bag Challenge, the reusable bag company has not only started new pilots in New Jersey with some partners in the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag, but also has plans to launch more pilots in 2022 and 2023 with more dealers, and has expanded its solution to the Canadian market. Recently, GOATOTE was nominated as one of the most innovative recycling companies in the Consumer Packaged Goods category for The Reusies, the first awards ceremony celebrating pioneers in the recycling space.

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Person using a GOATOTE kiosk for a reusable bag

To Fill it further, being among the winners of the Beyond the Bag Challenge represented an opportunity to learn and test their technology in the retail environment, helping to amplify the impact of reuse through charitable giving. The insight led to the development of the Fill it Forward Web App, which allows customers to unlock the charitable contribution with each reuse without downloading an app, and integrates the Fill it Forward code directly into reusable grocery bags. Earlier this year, the company partnered with Target and ran a new pilot with the Fill it Forward Bag Tag and accompanying Web App experience. The company is also in discussions with other retail partners in the consortium and is working to be in stores by spring with the Fill it Forward Reusable Grocery Bag, which helps customers track their impact and donate to local charities every time they reuse.

Return helping to displace the use of over 20 million single-use bags and boxes with their reusable shipping and delivery packaging systems. The company has expanded its relationships with new clients, such as Zalando, while cementing long-term contracts with existing clients, including Rent the Runway, Happy Returns and The Rounds. Returnity continues to advance its growth plan centered on distribution center-to-store logistics, as well as grocery delivery – two high-volume, focused applications that are more amenable to reusable packaging integration. In line with its growth, the company continues to expand its team, including hiring Jeff Schwartz, formerly head of logistics partnerships at Feather, as its first director of operations.

Across the value chain, innovators, retailers and other stakeholders are embracing new solutions and exploring various innovations that can enable a zero-waste future for retail.

2. New insights refine bag design to better meet the market’s needs

Since the Beyond the Bag challenge, ChicoBag has been working on the next iteration of its award-winning ChicoBag Original. The new bag, called ChicoBag Infinity, is a high-quality, commercially machine-washable, durable and long-lasting closed-loop product that is made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic bottles. At the end of its life, this bag can be more easily re-sanded and remanufactured into a new bag, through ChicoBag’s long-standing, extended manufacturer responsibility take-back program. The ChicoBag Infinity comes in two sizes (large and small) to fit specific retailer needs.

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To Judges – a large US company that manufactures and markets wood fiber based paper and wood pulp products – being among the winners of the Beyond the Bag Challenge has provided additional exposure and opportunity to connect with retailers and brand owners. This enabled a deeper understanding of product performance, operational and customer needs, unlocking insights to help design a commercial bag material made for superior performance at lower weights. Domtar’s stretchable, bio-based, recyclable material made from 100 percent cellulose fiber can be recycled with paper and is compostable.

Right: Domtar's stretchable, bio-based, recyclable material;  Left: Domtar's shopping bag

3. Certifications show the potential for material circularity

Plastic Free, which designs, develops and manufactures plant-based alternatives to conventional plastics, has achieved several major milestones since being selected as the winner of the Beyond the Bag Challenge. The company received eight additional certifications and successfully passed field testing conducted by the Compost Manufacturing Alliance (CMA), as well as compliance with ASTM D6400, conducted by Organic Waste Systems (OWS). It signed several major customer contracts, including a distribution agreement with one of the largest packaging companies in the Nordics, and Sweden’s largest online pharmacy. PlasticFri has also collected an external funding round and is raising the next round.

4. Innovators form partnerships, strengthening the circular shopping bag ecosystem

99 Bridges — the company behind Mosaic, an operating system that powers the distribution and lifecycle tracking of reusable items — has partnered with fellow Beyond the Bag Challenge winners GOATOATE and ChicoBag. Both companies use Mosaic as the platform to power their reusable bag systems. 99Bridges has also recently developed a new look for its Mosaic platform, as well as new apps such as Mosaic Control Center and Mosaic Logistics Management, to help partners better manage their reusable bags.

5. Capital is poured into new innovations, which increase market awareness

At the start of 2022, EON announced an initial close of a $10 million Series A led by IMAGINARY. Alongside support from investors such as Natalie Massenet, co-founder and co-managing partner of IMAGINARY, and new customers such as Mulberry, the company has seen an increased interest in Digital ID which has led to EON taking center stage both at events and in media as a leader for smart, connected products. EON’s founder and CEO, Natasha Franck, has taken center stage at The Business of Fashion Professional Summit and The Global Fashion Summit in 2022 to discuss the necessity of connected systems. These events took place as EON was also included in a full feature on Vogue Business and in an article for Fast Company covering the possibilities of Digital ID.

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EON QR code inside the bag

Return also closed a funding round in early 2022, raising $3.1 million from Brand Foundry Ventures with additional funding from XRC Labs and others. The company aims to use the funding to expand its presence, continuing to work with global brands such as Estée Lauder, New Balance, Rent the Runway, Walmart and others to expand its business.

This month, Sway, which innovates pliers alternatives to plastic, closed a $2.5 million Seed round, led by Valor Siren Ventures and joined by Conservation International Ventures, Alante Capital and several other mission-aligned investors. This enabled the company to expand its team, with new hires across product and business development. Sway also continues to be recognized for its innovation, having recently been named a finalist in the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize. The company is preparing to pilot their packaging with fashion and home brands in the coming months.

What’s next for the shopping bag?

The progress these innovative challenge winners have made so far points to a near future where a circular retail system is possible. Across the value chain, innovators, retailers and other stakeholders are embracing new solutions and exploring various innovations that can enable a zero-waste future for retail. Moving forward, the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag continues to be at the forefront of the work needed to advance a circular future for retail – accelerating innovation, partnering with retailers, opening discussions with value chain stakeholders and sharing insights that can help guide more broadly. ecosystem towards a future where waste is eliminated. As innovation empowers customers to adopt new ways to bring goods home, we look forward to continued collaboration with industry to help bring this change to scale.

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