Slam #1: An end to the plastic grocery bag.

An end to the plastic grocery bag.

Project Statement

They are everywhere: white, brown and blue; covered in logos: stop & shop, shaw’s, star market, whole foods. The cupboard under my sink is full of them, there could be hundreds in there, thousands even. They are of course the ever-present plastic grocery bags. The plastic grocery bag or PGB is an icon of disposable convenience and worldwide environmental degradation.

1977, The plastic grocery bag is introduced to the supermarket industry as a cheap, durable alternative to paper sacks. Cheap as in, takes less than 1 cent to produce, and durable as in, takes hundreds or thousands of years before a bag breaks down… into tiny toxic bits which seep into soils, lakes, rivers and oceans.

Since then, according to the American Plastics Council, they have captured at least 80 percent of the grocery and convenience store market. Data from the United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that somewhere between 500 billion and 1 trillion PGBs are consumed worldwide each year (around 1 million per minute).

They are literally everywhere: they carry your groceries home, you stuff them all in one and hang it from the pantry door, you shove them all into a cabinet under the sink, they line your bathroom trash bins, they carry your clothes to the gym, they carry your lunch to work. What’s more unfortunate is that they also: clutter landfills, flap from trees, float in the breeze, clog roadside drains, drift in the oceans, get mistaken for food and kill wildlife.

There are a number of proposed solutions to the PGB problem being implemented in various parts of the world: in Ireland plastic bags are taxed by .20, which has led to a 95% reduction in use, and a few savvy PGB manufacturers are beginning to manufacture a bio-degradable alternative.

Here in the U.S., in Boston specifically, my girlfriend and I have been trying everything to moderate our use of PGBs. We reuse them for as much as possible of course, but more importantly, we bring plastic bags (and book bags) back to the store for reuse. (Whole Foods gives a nickel for every bag reused.) I’ve noticed a considerable drop in our PGB use, and the number of bags floating around our apartment has dropped considerably. But there are still those times when you are out and you stop for some groceries, and before you know it you have 3 bags, 8 bags, 12 bags.

What I’d like to explore is a deposit scheme for getting and returning grocery bags. I’ll focus on a more durable, reusable bag and the system surrounding its reuse. I’m thinking of a check-in, check-out method for managing the reuse or return of a store-branded bag. Consumers needing bags must forfeit a small deposit (added to their grocery bill) for each bag, to check them out. When the customer returns he or she may reuse the bags at no charge or return them and have his or her deposit refunded.

And… go. (Any and all feedback is appreciated)

(thank you:, national geographic news,


Both Korea and Taiwan have turned away from plastic bags by putting a charge to plastic bags at stores. So people use fabric bags that cost a few bucks but long lasting. I’m sure you will find something if you search their government websites.

I think that one of the keys here is addressing the idea of carrying the empty bag to the store at the start of the shopping trip. If it’s thin, light and tiny, then it seems “convenient” to carry it in your purse/pocket. If it’s a thick, durable canvas bag, not so much so. The other consideration is what audience you’re going to address. Moms who mega-shop once a week in cars (carrying out 8 bags of groceries) are different from urban pedestrians picking up 5 items (one bag) four times a week. This is a great topic. There will be much to explore.

Those shopping bags in Taiwan can be folded to a size smaller than most regular wallet. They are indeed light and durable.

I have one in my trunk that has wheels. I just jump my week worth of grocery into it and drag it to my apartment from the lot. It can be folded to letter size flat.

It costs abt US$8.

when I left Russia in about 80% of the stores you did have to pay for bags, plastic or paper.
But in the Soviet Union there was no such thing as a plastic grocerie bag, those babies came with perestroyka wind…everybody used to use fishnet-like woven bags.
'nyway…here’s something fun for you to docrochet a shopping bag from recycled plastic bag yarn.

Great Topic!

I attended a seminar once where the inventor of the common PGB spoke. He addressed many of the issues surrounding the PGB.

The demand for the PGB is driven not so much by consumers, but by the stores who use them. Wen PGB’s were first introduced, the consumer was generally more in favor of paper bags, and stores for some while were forced to offer both. This is why cashiers thoughout the late '70s and early '80s usually asked the question, “Paper or plastic?” As it is now starkly apparent, stores eventually weaned the public off of paper bags.

Some of the reasons stores are so in love with PGB’s are (not neccessarily in order of importance): 1. More bags can be stored in less space. This is particularly important for under the counter storage. 2. PGB’s are more than just a bag. They are part of a system that is much more efficient than using paper bags, enabling cashiers to service far more customers in less time. The savings in labor costs are typically much greater than the cost of the bags. 3. PGB’s are not susceptible to moisture damage like paper bags are. 4. PGB’s cost less. 5. Consumers now prefer plastic because they are more sturdy, easier to carry and allow the consumer to carry more groceries at a time.

I suspect that any viable alternative will have to address the efficency issue, or be legally mandated. I am excited to see what ideas turn up! :smiley:

It is an admirable task.

One thing I would strongly consider how to have the design apeal to the customer but also to the business.

A consumer, myself included will not stand for additional costs when free viable alternatives are readlly avalible. A simplistic but elegant design incorprating brand destinction with overt logo use could lead to a new trend in fashion for the material conscious shopper. It would stop being simply a way to transport purchaces but a decleration of distinction on where the individual shops as they begin to use to it carry lunches or sports equipment … etc.

3 reusable bags.

I’ve been researching different types of reusable bags and seems to be the internet authority. Founded by Vincent Cobb, carries a huge variety of alternatives to plastic grocery bags. I dig this quote from Cobb and it seems relevant to the design slam theme: “Is the plastic bag the worst thing adversely affecting our environment? Probably not. However it is very important because of its ubiquitous nature. Nearly all of us use them – all the time. Pervasive and out of control, it is a powerful symbol of consumerism gone wild. By raising awareness of this issue we hope to make the act of mindlessly consuming bags uncool.”

I grabbed a cross-section of the types of bags offered on the site. The timeless string shopping bag, a light nylon version of the t-shirt bag, and a heavy-duty nylon tote. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

String bag: This bag is completely lightweight yet able to carry a lot of groceries. The best thing about it is its ability to stretch, so just when you think you’ve fit all that you can you can still throw in that last eggplant. I think the problem with the string bag is its lack of structure when loading and also the perception that it could be unsanitary. Americans seem obsessed with the perceived cleanliness of a virgin plastic bag, especially when it comes to food. That aside I still wouldn’t want to load this bag up with produce and then set it on the floor of the subway.

Lightweight Nylon: The cool thing about this alternative is that it fits in with the current system for bagging groceries at the check-out counter. It is a literal translation of the disposable PGB into a more durable but still lightweight material. It also folds into a small pocket which is attached at the bottom making it incredibly small. But again it lacks structure when loading (except at the check-out counter, and I guess that’s where it counts).

Heavy Duty Nylon: Finally the work-horse, this bag is made to last a lifetime. It resembles a traditional paper grocery bag with some added handles; it stands nicely on its own for easy packing. However with that durability and quality of materials come a not-so-compact package. It folds similarly to a paper grocery bag.

Each of these bags has the potential to save thousands of throw away PGBs.

Ideally (and what I’m gathering from your helpful feedback) the solution should be a bag that is: (1) easily folded flat, both for storage at the checkout counter and for refolding for the return journey; (2) relatively inexpensive to produce, (it might be nice to actually estimate how many throw away plastic grocery bags a reusable durable bag would displace and put a dollar figure on that amount to get a somewhat realistic standard cost); (3) made of durable, sustainable materials that give the bag structure but also keep it lightweight; (4) easy to carry, possibly in different configurations (traditional handles, over the shoulder, etc); (5) incorporated into a comprehensive system that encourages return and reuse as a rule; and (6) has an appropriate strategy for end-of-life disposal when it is finally properly disposed of after a lifetime of good use : ).

Great point.

Without a doubt these bags must embody the lifestyle choices that lead to their use. I think a great way to do this is through effective graphics. I think the bags need to communicate and symbolize the customer’s commitment to both the store, and more importantly to the environment. It should be a sign easily interpreted by other consumers.

This symbol reflects nicely on both the user and the grocery store, both are clearly making positive choices. Also think about it as advertisement: when you carry your medium brown bag down the street, you are a walking advertisement for both your great taste in clothing and for Bloomingdale’s itself, the same needs to be true with these inexpensive, reusable shopping bags.

I’d like to walk a fine line in the bag’s design between a bag that the customer returns over and over again, and a bag that the customer desires as a cool style item. Think bowling shoes: for a while they were the perfect example. You go to the bowling alley, get the shoes, use them and give them back, time after time; until you realize it’d be cool to use them in the outside world and suddenly you are walking briskly out the double doors with some quirky shoes under your shirt.

I find this strangely appropriate, bag+shoe=solebag, from

you know those rain macs that have their own built in stuff sack as part of the garment? I try to keep an old carrier bag in the side pocket of my rucksac in case i need it, but maybe would be more inclined to keep one in a coat pocket if it was a little neater than this

or at best this

not sure how/if this would work in practice tho.

As part of my bike tool kit, I keep a removeable shoulder strap from one of my nylon bags. When I need to carry a few PGBs from the store, I clip them to the handles and throw the whole thing over my shoulder. Works great. When used with a couple of bungy cords, the strap works for other stuff as well, like lumber, brooms, FedEx boxes, etc.


User Profile - Julie

Julie lives just west, and works just south of Boston. Her grocery shopping habits are at best spontaneous. She’ll get groceries on her lunch break, stop at the market on the way home from work, or completely restock the fridge on a Sunday night. Because she has varied tastes in food and her shopping trips are so spur-of-the-moment she often goes to many different stores to get what she wants. She admits to being very concerned about the environment and is always up for an eco-friendly alternative. Here is her typical grocery shopping experience:

Monday - Noon rolls around; after eating a quick lunch Julie wants to grab a few things at the Whole Foods Market around the corner from her office. She likes to get all her produce at Whole Foods because she can find all the organic fruits and vegetables she wants; then she can keep them in the office fridge till quitting time.

When she gets to the checkout counter the clerk ask her if she’d like paper, plastic or reusable? Reusable? The clerk goes on to tell Julie about the harmful effects of plastic bags: as a single use disposable form of packaging, plastic bags are typically used for a short period of time but take hundreds of years to break down, and the production of plastic bags accounts for some 37,000 tons of plastic polymer which is derived from non-renewable resources.

He then explains Whole Food’s new policy of offering an alternative to disposable grocery bags in the form of a reusable canvas bag. Each canvas bag can be obtained by a deposit of one dollar which will be refunded when the bag is returned. Julie looks interested but hesitates. The clerk continues: Plastic bags are considered to be a ‘free’ commodity but the cost to households of $10 to $15 per year is added to the price of goods that they purchase; and each high quality reusable shopping bag you use has the potential to eliminate hundreds, if not thousands, of plastic bags over its lifetime.

Julie is sold, she always wants to do her part to protect the environment, plus she only needs one bag, that’s one dollar she’ll get back next time she shops during her lunch break. The cashier takes out a reusable bag, unfolds it, scans the barcode marked “deposit” which adds the one dollar deposit to the bill and then loads the produce. Julie likes the idea of Whole Food’s new policy, she also likes the design of the bag: easier to carry and more stylish than an unsightly disposable plastic bag. She especially likes that her effort will be noticed, on the bag it reads: saving the environment one bag at time.

To be continued… :smiley:

(In the meantime: let me know how you shop, for example: number of trips per week, who do you go with, where do you shop, how do you get there, items per trip, bags per trip, anything you else you can think of. Thanks!)

User Profile - Julie

Wednesday – On her way home from work Julie remembers she’s out of paper towels and decides to stop at the local convenience store for a few essentials. Before going in she remembers the Whole Foods reusable bag in the car. She grabs it. Why not put it to use for all her shopping. She gets a few things, paper towels, soap, shampoo, a box of cereal.

At the checkout the cashier asks Julie if she’d like a bag. Julie replies: she already has one, unfolds the reusable bag and loads her purchases. Another disposable plastic bag avoided. The bag is useful at more places than just Whole Foods.

Thursday – Julie is planning to make dinner for her friends on Friday, so once again it’s back to Whole Foods on her lunch break. This time however, she has plenty to buy: drinks, vegetables, bread, meat, dessert, etc, etc.

Julie recognizes she’ll need more than the one bag she brought back to the store to carry all this food back to work. At the register she doesn’t even wait for the words paper or plastic, she immediately requests to check-out two more reusable bags, and a two dollar deposit is added to her bill. Carrying the three bags back to work is a snap, thanks to the shoulder strap and the comfortable handles; she carries one bag on her back and one in each hand.

Sunday – Sunday afternoon Julie wants to pick up some food so she can pack her lunch during the week. She remembers the three Whole Foods bags and decides: she’ll go there, pick up some groceries, and return the bags. She folds up the bags and leaves for the store. During this trip Julie only spots four items, requiring just one bag. At checkout Julie returns two of the folded reusable bags and unfolds one to bring her things home. The cashier scans the barcode marked “return” on each bag. She receives a two dollar credit (two dollars off her bill) for returning the two bags.

In one week Julie avoids using somewhere between 10 and 15 disposable plastic shopping bags. At that pace she will pass up close to 800 disposable bags per year. She used an environmentally responsible alternative that was better designed, easier to carry, and made no impact on her shopping routine whatsoever, thanks to the comprehensive system surrounding the reusable bags.

Check out the Australian government’s plastic bag challenge:
Bag yourself a better environment.

I particularly like step 3. Remember. It adds a dimension to the design of the reusable bag/bag recovery system. How can the design of the bag remind the user to bring it along? I think the check-in check-out policy works well in this case, you can always grab another bag for a dollar, but the idea is to either reuse or return the bags you already have.

I think one logical minor “reuse” of grocerry store plastic bags would be to make them convert into bathroom garbage bags properly. I seem to notice that almost EVERYONE takes those and uses them as a bathroom garbage bag. You could integrate a draw string to it around the edge maybe, and make it a size that fits standard bathroom garbage cans.

It doesn’t solve the issue of reducing plastic bag usage, but atleast it performs a secondary role instead of being thrown directly in the garbage after the grocerries are put away at home.

Could you make this bag a fashion object as well as a political statement? Disposable bags form many trendy stores are very fashionable. e.g. Puma store, apple store, diesel, adidas, lucky, ect…

what’s the history of the grocery bag? why plastic? why paper? why any bag? what are the functional requirements of these things? and do they really satisfy them? should there be more? could there?

i like the idea of buying a bag, and being able to return it for a refund. however, i think that the buy back price (the price that the store pays you for your old bag) should be less than the price of a new bag - this will encourage re-use of the bag.
at some stores in the UK, you can buy a heavy duty, reusable plastic bag, called a bag for life … when the bag is damaged, it can be taken back to the store, and they will give you a new bag, for your old bag… rather than a monetary refund.

This may be stupid, but what if there was some sort of standardized bag and drop boxes or collection for their return/reuse? Like bottles, only…bags.
Like I say, it is probably a bit of a stretch, but even people who forget to bring bags back to the store (which honestly is probably most people) wouldn’t have much trouble remembering to put them in another colored recycling bin.

This is a great issue, and definitely worth some design discussion. But an important thing to remember is that the previously mentioned “Julie” profile is most likely already eco-conscious, and definitely not the largest contributor to the problem. In fact, she may already participate in voluntary bring-back programs for PGBs.

Instead, Allow me to present Marie and her family:

While they aren’t really opposed to safeguarding the environment, with 5 people’s worth of groceries (two full carts!) to lug home solo every week, Marie is hardly going to consider anything which might add hassle to the prospect.

However, Marie is very sensitive to style, and keeping up with what the new “suburban mom item” is, particularly those items she sees on shows like Oprah, and Desperate Housewives (Oh come on, you know you watch it :slight_smile: What if we could make something cool enough to replace bags that it would make “Oprah’s Favorite Things”?

What if designers stopped trying to “Explain first, convert later” and used the power of mad consumption to our advantage? What if we weren’t making a bag that was “Just reusable” (And probably would get misplaced before it could really make an impact – if you throw away a sturdy woven plastic bag, or even a cotton one, that’s a lot of energy you wasted compared to a plastic cheapie)

What if we were making a new system for getting groceries home

For example:

RFID all groceries (OK, this is big, but stick with me). Now, just pile all groceries into the cart – which is a tub now, not a mesh basket. Now just walk out the door with everything – it’s paid for. Now, you walk to your car, and dock the tub in the back. An automatic mechanical system slides an empty tub out of the car, and the full tub inside. The empty is then replaced in the cart, and the cart returned.

This is VERY blue sky, and will probably never happen, but remember that the big problems and big solutions come from big changes. Paper bags were already a waste generator before plastic – the real waste problem came when society changed it’s mind and saw bags as something not valuable enough to re-use.

So now, we need an equally huge idea – like that change of mind – to make bags completely irrelevant. No bags, no waste. There’s no reason to think small in a contest like this.