America's biggest retailers are holding a design competition to kill the plastic bag once and for all — and winners can receive up to $100,000 for their solutions

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  • Retailers, from Walmart to Walgreens, are holding a design competition with the goal of replacing an environmental scourge: the plastic bag.
  • Over 100 billion single-use plastic bags are used in the U.S. every year, and less than 10% of those are recycled.
  • Winners can receive up to $US100,000 for their solutions, which can vary from new ideas for materials to bagless strategies using drone drop-offs.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Paper or plastic? Or maybe, neither?

Target, Walmart, CVS, and other retailers kicked off a design competition on Tuesday to find an environmentally friendly alternative to the single-use plastic bag. The Beyond the Bag Challenge will award 10-12 winners payouts of up to $US100,000 each for their solutions.

Up to six applicants will also be invited to join a business accelerator to develop their ideas further, with the goal of transforming the way that customers bring home goods. Solutions can range anywhere from new bag materials to drone drop-offs.

Over 100 billion single-use plastic bags are used in the U.S. every year, and less than 10% of those are recycled, according to the journal Waste Management and the EPA. This waste doesn’t only accumulate in landfills, plastic retail bags are among the top 10 items found on shorelines, according to Ocean Conservancy.

Some major retailers, like Whole Foods, have already eliminated single-use plastic bags from their stores. State governments, such as California, Connecticut, Delaware, and New York, have also initiated bans on single-use plastic bags.

But adoption of these laws has been piecemeal, and some retailers like CVS moved to provide multi-ply plastic bags as their reusable alternative. In addition, places like San Francisco and Maine and have rolled back or delayed their bans on single-use plastic bags, citing concerns about cleanliness amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s no silver bullet. We are looking to rethink how we get our goods from store to destination,” said Kate Daly, managing director of the Centre for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop, an investment firm organising the initiative. “How do we get foods home without a bag in the first place? Can we leverage technologies or artificial intelligence to ensure material flow happens in another way?”

In recent years, consumers have clamored for retailers to make a change. Last year, about half a million people signed a petition asking Target to eliminate plastic bags.

Corporate partners Target, Walmart, and CVS collectively donated $US15 million to start the project. Since then, Kroger and Walgreens have joined with the hopes of also implementing the solutions across their stores.

Kroger is the first of the group to set a deadline for eliminating plastic bags. In 2018, the grocery company announced that it plans to stop offering single-use bags completely by 2025.

Daly explains that the solutions will be honed and vetted over the next three years, before hitting stores. Her organisation started a similar project with Starbucks and McDonald’s to reinvent their coffee cups back in 2018. They piloted the cups in February.

Daly had advice for designers hoping to make a difference.

“We have amazing entrepreneurs and innovators, but a lot of them have never visited a material recovery facility. They have never really thought about what happens to their product after it leaves somebody’s hands,” said Daly in an interview with Business Insider. “In addition to thinking about sourcing the materials, where do you imagine that this design ends up after the user is done with it? Have that inform your design all the way through.”

Designs are due September 10 and winners will be announced by November 24. Applications can be submitted here.

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