IDEO wants designers to develop the plastic bag of the future

The international consultancy has teamed up with Closed Loop and several US retailers to offer innovators a share of $1 million (£794,000) in funding for their ideas.

International design consultancy IDEO is launching an innovation competition in a bid to find solutions to the world’s dependence on single-use plastic bags.

For decades, the single-use plastic bag has been the “dominant design solution for getting a purchase home”, explains the consultancy, but this convenience has come at a significant cost to the environment. In the US, it is estimated some 100 billion plastic bags are used each year, with less than 10 per cent being recycled.

Usage of a single-use plastic bag typically lasts just 12 minutes, but the lifespan of the product can be as long as 400 years. In launching this competition, which is supported by circular economy-focused investment firm Closed Loop and US retailers like Walmart, CVS, Target and Kroger, IDEO hopes to find a range of new solutions which can be developed and supported.

Replicating the “functional value” of plastic

As IDEO points out, the two main problems with today’s plastic bags stem from raw material usage – that is, that most are made from fossil fuel-derived virgin plastic – and material recovery after use. While technically recyclable with other flexible film plastics, bags generally tend to end up in landfill, in the wrong recycling stream or, worse still, in the natural environment.

But while it’s likely universally accepted that single-use plastic is poor for the environment in most cases, there’s no denying its convenience. For this reason, applicants to the competition will need to work hard to deliver a solution that replicates the “functional value” of a plastic bag, just without its negative impact.

Opportunity areas

In the challenge brief, IDEO sets out three “opportunity areas”, which designers may want to consider. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, is the development of innovative materials that can replace single-use plastic.

Other areas for innovation highlighted by the consultancy are reusable models and bagless solutions. The former could take the form of closed loop delivery systems or container exchanges. The latter could see applicants go as far as drone delivery services or autonomous vehicles, IDEO says.

Something IDEO wants entrants to keep in mind is the “customer interaction points” that each idea will need to be designed for. Point of sale checkouts is one example, and for this the consultancy wants entrants to ask themselves how things like automation could give way to opportunities for efficiency.

But other examples could include in-store pick up kiosks or local delivery from retailers. In these contexts, IDEO asks things like how digital experiences might be able to incentivise transactions free from plastic bags, or how couriers could be used in the maintenance of a closed-loop system.

A “variety of solutions”

Successful entrants to the competition will be identified across multiple stages of development. Emerging innovators with early stage concepts will be awarded up to $50,000 USD (~£40,000); mid-stage innovators with growth-stage concepts up to $100,000 USD (~£79,000); and advanced solutions will be considered for financial and in-kind support for testing and piloting.

Additionally, up to six of what the organisers deem to be the “most promising” early- and mid-stage winners will be invited to join the Beyond the Bag Circular Accelerator. This will offer further assistance in scaling ideas.

The challenge posed by IDEO and its partners is a big one with many possible solutions. As such, the consultancy says it anticipates “a variety of solutions at different stages of development” – all of which could be applicable in different contexts and geographies.

All entrants however, will need to make sure their ideas meet certain performance standards. These include being “workload neutral or positive for staff” (meaning that it does not create ergonomic problems), being durable and water-resistant, and able to carry a retailer’s logo.

Entries for the competition open on 3 August. For more information, head to the Open IDEO website.

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