Reinventing the retail bag to address plastic bag waste

View Project in Action

OpenIDEO releases a series of challenges to the public to collect solutions and encourage people from different backgrounds to work together. One challenge of the year 2020 is to find out how might we transport goods from retailer to destination in a way that is compatible with diverse retail systems, delivers ease and convenience for customers, and reduces environmental impact. In total, 455 teams share ideas from 60 countries across three opportunity areas including reusable design, innovative material, and enabling technology. I led a team of three (plus one friendship participant) and we were selected as one of the forty-five solutions on the shortlist by IDEO.


202008 - 202012


Design Thinking | Strategy | User Research | UI Design | Project Management


Jeff Lin (Material Engineer) | Mengxin Yu (UX Design) | Julia Sakalus (Hardware)


Figma | Fast Prototyping | CAD


There are so many recycle solutions, but it doesn't change consumer behavior effectively

Big Picture

For decades, the single-use plastic bag reigned as the dominant design solution for getting a purchase home. But that popularity comes at a great cost. It’s estimated that we use 100 billion single-use plastic bags per year in the U.S. alone and less than 10 percent of these are recycled. While the convenience of the plastic retail bag can’t be disputed, the negative impact – considering its short use (12 minutes, on average) and long lifespan (400+ years by some estimates) – have led to rising consumer concern, advocacy campaigns, and regulatory bans and fees.

- Resource: IDEO

Redefine the Problem

There are multiple counterpoints of the whole user journey starting from planning for grocery shopping all the way to take the grocery home. After a few rounds of quick brainstorming, combining with our personal experience and a few field visits to Target and CVS. We decided to narrow down the problem to the reality that customers often forget to bring recycled bags. We will create a solution named BagBank provides a way for customers to get the recycled bags whenever they need them in retail environments. If we can increase the reuse turnover of one bag, we reduce the waste coming from one unit of the material.


We approach the problem from both customer and retailer’s end

The experience of grocery shopping is an ecosystem with two main players: retailer and customer. Customers will be our direct users and our solution is aiming to change their behaviors. However, we can’t ignore the retailers because they provide an environment of shopping. We interviewed five participants from big retailer cashiers to small corner store owners to understand their work flow and here are what we find out:

  • Stocking staff cares about how frequent they will need to restock the bag
  • Cashier propose to integrate the bag deposit system with the checkout POS system to increase the efficiency of checkout process
  • They think checkout counter will be the most ideal place for customer to obtain the bag because it can be integrated with the checkout process

From the customer side, we are changing their behavior. Thus we want to make the interaction as frictionless as possible and as satisfying as possible. We interviewed 5 customers and we found out:

  • Most of the customers have at least purchased once the reusable bags, however, they forgot to re-use it and make the reusable bag an expensive single use bag
  • Customer propose to have a reminder system to remind them to bring their reusable bag
  • Customer mentioned they utilize the retailer app/website for promotion information, and they would check it relatively frequent
  • Customer motivate to engage with the reusable bag because they feel their need to contribute to environment got fulfilled

Introduce the BagBank system

After we redefined the problem statement, we quickly came up as much as solutions by brainstorming. A few examples after combining some ideas include: to create a bag charm that can be easily compressed and deployed while easy to carry, to create a deposit model installed within the retail system so the user doesn’t need to bring bag, to incorporate a sensor to the bag to send reminder to smart phone while not be brought to the grocery shopping.  
You can see a detailed feature list of each solution here.

The original model

After evaluating the feasibility and developing the deposit idea further, we decide to create a bag deposit system with:

  • A machine placed at checkout counter which the customer can deposit and return bags by scanning QR code
  • An app that stores customers information, collect bag deposit, and reward user by reusing the bag
  • (optional) integration with retailer’s existing app to connect reward to retailer’s promotional coupons


Testing out if a multi-functional machine is feasible

The hardware

After we shape the idea, we use the fast prototyping tool. For the bag deposit machine, we use cardboard to create a semi-same size with the main functional module built out:

  • Bag deposit module
  • Bag collect module
  • Bag sort module

The customer faced mobile app and interface

We also utilized Figma to design the interface of the machine console and customer end’s mobile app.

The material

We ended up leveraging a new-emerging technology that utilized seaweed substrate to create a biodegradable and durable material as our bag material.


The grocery store owners are happy about the solution

Once we finished the prototype, we took it to both the big retailer and neighborhood grocery shops to see how it works in native environment.In total, we interviewed 5 grocery shop staffs and owners. You can find the testing scripts here.
We also utilized the feedback session with IDEO’s Thomas Overthun and Target’s Meredith Ries to conduct SME (subject matter expert) research, you can see the interview notes here.

During the testing, we confirmed that the placement of the machine at the checkout counter is a success. Meanwhile, we also found those issues below that need more consideration.

Cleaning issue

Are these bags are totally cleaned between the users? Are the Cleaning and Vending system set in one machine or separately?
How to show that the bags have been cleaned? How could you show the cleaning process? (e.g., the bags are opened up and cleaned from the outside to the inside / the bags are needed to be dried after the spray)

Feasibility issue

Checkout counter is really tight for a machine with so much complex functions including cleaning and folding.


What I learned

What’s next

We followed the IDEO’s design thinking process to form and develop our ideas. After months of effort, we are glad to see how we processed from a rough idea to a prototype that we brought into testing. However, the project is still under the conceptualization phase and there will still be a long way to bring it into real life. Meanwhile, we see other similar ideas from the shortlist who have been selected under IDEO’s pilot program and have been implemented at some of the sponsor stores. That include Goatote who is a kiosk system that customers can use to borrow clean, reusable bags anywhere a kiosk is found and Fill it forward who provide a tag that rewards the customer and  tracks environmental impact every single time the user reuses the bag.


Our journey of this event ended, but the endeavour of removing plastic pollution didn’t. Here are my thoughts at this moment after being involved in this wonderful event.  
It’s always exciting to see and to participate in a movement  knowing that our solutions are making a small difference to solve one of the biggest problems, which aligns with my belief that design should be a tool to find solutions.
The best solution is not always the most complicated one, it could also be the easiest one.
Good ideas will merge eventually and then it becomes a game of execution.

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