Plastic Bag Ban – Semi Reusable Bag Kiosks a Better Solution?

I an in favor of people generating less trash, and have been amazed that where I live (southern California), people have taken a “plastic bag ban” so well in stride. It felt like one of those things where we couldn’t live without it, but it turns out we can quite easily. Maybe there’s a lesson there, but that’s not the point of this post so I’ll get back to it (;

Where I live, you can BUY plastic bags for use from the grocery store for about 10 cents each, which is cost prohibitive enough that people tend to bring their own bags.

Now let me tell you, I’m no dummy. I am pretty sure those re-usable plastic bags everyone has gotten use far more resources to make and create more pollution in the process so seem like they will take some usage before they hit a break even point compared to the disposable bags. Google seems to give mixed results, saying that some bags are better than others: Google: are reusable bags better for the environment.

I think that the sentiment of what’s going on is good for sure though, and I’m hoping it’s a net positive (?), and I think that there is some winning to be had here environmentally – if done right.

However, let’s put the environmental concerns on the back burner for a second.

Grocery store baggers now get handed all sorts of differently shaped bags of various capacity, and folks often want their stuff bagged specific ways to make sure it all fits in however many they brought. It’s also very common for people to forget their bags at home, leave them in the car, etc. This makes things a bit awkward and definitely not as fast and smooth as it used to be with disposable bags.

My idea to address these issues is this:

  • When you check out from the store, there are semi-reusable bags in bails similar to how disposable bags are in bails now. You pay to use the bags, but the cost is mostly a refundable deposit.
  • You take the bags home, unload, etc like normal, but ideally you do not throw the bags away.
  • The next time you come to the store, you feed your empty bags into a kiosk at the front of the store (similar to the coin to cash machines many currently have) and it prints you out a voucher saying how many bags you returned.
  • The machine bails the bags back up for use by the store employees at the register, or perhaps some off site service does this and washes the bags, gets rid of damaged ones etc.
  • You shop as normal, but when you check out, you give them your bag voucher. If the voucher is for fewer bags than you need for this trip, you can pay for some extra ones. If your voucher is for more than you need this time, you get the deposit refunded on the ones you don’t need.

The idea here is that at the end of the day…

  • The baggers have a uniform type of bag to work with, which makes their job easier and allows them to bag more quickly (like the old days!).
  • The bags are ideally as environmentally friendly made as possible (heck, they could be made from corn, hemp, burlap, whatever).
  • It isn’t a big deal if you forgot your bags at home or in the car – you pay a little extra to use new bags, but when you return them, you get most of that back.

There are some obvious issues to work through, including:

  • Getting those kiosks into the stores, and ideally having all stores use compatible bags.
  • Dealing with damaged or dirty bags. It would be nice if the machine or whatever process bails them is able to detect and segregate them somehow, and ideally have some washing / minimal recycling process off site to make new ones (like pulp and re-form?)
  • The plastic bags are a profit center for grocery stores now. They would need sufficient incentive, or pressure from customers to make it happen.

So, that’s my idea. Environmentally friendly semi-reusable bags – but with the convenience we all have come to enjoy from disposable bags. The best of both worlds.

As a video game programmer this is far outside of my interest and ability, so please take this business idea if you have the desire and the means. Let’s make it happen!