For decades, the single-use plastic bag reigned as the dominant design solution for one of the most common human activities: getting a purchase home. But that popularity comes at a great cost; almost all plastic bags end up in a landfill, are incinerated, or leak into the environment as trash. While in-store recycling is a leading way of recovering single-use plastic bags, lack of awareness, added responsibilities for the consumer and confusion about the recycling process result in less than 10% of all single-use plastic bags being recycled.
This project aims at providing a solution that eliminates single-use plastic bags and encourages recycling behaviors. It is made to participate in a design challenge, Beyond the Bag Challenge, launched by OpenIDEO.
Environment, Service, UX
August 5 to September 3, 2020
The project calls for innovative materials, reusable models and bagless solutions. Our team is made up of four designers with no material chemistry related experiences.
Our goals were to design a system or product that is:
- Relevant to the problem at hand.
- Easy to integrate into existing retail systems.
- Consider environmental consequences.
- Ready for implementation at scale.
I collaborated with three other designers from ArtCenter and SVA. My responsibilities include:
- Expectations and scope management
- Content strategy
- Visual design (UI + branding)
- UX design (user research, low-high fidelity prototypes)
Collaborators: Yuanyuan Gong, Baoqi Ding, Yining Qian.
At the start of the project, we didn’t have a clear mission or specific goals. Helpfully, the project brief comes with resources in exquisite detail, which became our start for the voyage. We read through the retail bag report, A New Way Home, and explored potential interventions.
We looked into the strengths and weaknesses of different materials, investigated design opportunities in check-out, pick-up, and goods delivery process. Key findings are as follows (From A New Way Home):
Plastic bags are easy to scale and cheap to make, which is the reason why they can't be easily replaced. A new solution should exceed the ability of plastic bags to be accepted by the public.
There are lots of challenges with recycling plastic bags. Asides from the challenges, there is no market in place to purchase collected, cleaned, and sorted plastic film, which means there is no good end-of-life solution for plastic bags.
An increasing number of consumers are buying online and then picking up in-store. An overlapping trend nested within is the rise of the option to return goods to stores, which provides new opportunities to design reusable bags and systems.
While in-store recycling is a leading way of recovering single-use plastic bags, lack of awareness added responsibilities for the consumer and confusion about the recycling process result in less than 10% of all single-use plastic bags being recycled.
While the open-ended scope of study has resulted in lack of focus and priorities, the next step would be narrowing down the key issues for in-depth research.
Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.
We came to this phase with basic knowledge about the plastic bag problem, and our heads were overwhelmed by how complicated the recycling process is. Therefore, instead of focusing on introducing a new product or workflow to the industry, we decided to emphasize on exerting current plastic bags' maximum value - Reusing means value added. Our initial ideas are:
1. Motivate the customers to keep using bags that they already have.
2. In the purchase process, provide an opportunity for the customers to share plastic bags.
The question we ask ourselves that leads to the next phase are:
1. How to sort and clean the collected used bags?
2. How to utilize the accessibility of mobile app?
3. How to integrate the idea of reusing bags into online shopping to better fit into the current retail environment?
4. How to make profit?
We have the following thoughts:
1. Empowerment of local communities. There is insufficient involvement of communities and local peoples regarding the reusage of plastic bags. Encourage communities interaction and community-driven activities.
2. Design an educational campaign addressing the importance of reusing plastic bags.
3. Draw on the idea of sharing economy.
4. Gamification elements, incentives and rewards.
5. Design an easy-to-use and close-looped system to reuse bags.
All the thoughts above were feasible and we would love to combine them in our final outcome. Here, our design goal is clear, and potential paths are clear. We just need the final piece of the puzzle: The concept of our service. How do we encourage people to reuse bags? What kind of service do we provide our users?
The sticker idea is from the Google internship design challenge. I didn't get the internship though :( The brief is as follows:
Your school wants to improve the upkeep of campus facilities by creating a new system for reporting any facilities that may need maintenance or repair. Design an experience that allows students to report building or equipment issues on campus. Consider the process of those filing the report and of those receiving and taking action on the issues.
I designed a system called Stick Scan and Go. Students take stickers from the nearest sticker holder and put the sticker on the broken equipment. Students scan QR codes on the stickers and fill in maintenance forms. The maintenance staff search for the equipment by looking for stickers. The key issue I try to solve is the difficulty in locating a certain facility. (Presentation Here)
The sticker idea immediately came to me when we were discussing the means to display the status of plastic bags. We had a few refinements regarding how to connect the stickers, bags, and user's ID. Our prime consideration is cost and feasibility.
Rebag integrates users, retailers, and recyclers to improve the experience of reusing bags by providing incentives for users, including shopping discounts and personal eco-friendly achievements.
Rebag incentivizes bag reuse behavior with rewards. Rebag distributes physical stickers with unique IDs to connect bags to personal accounts, in which customers accumulate virtual achievements and can redeem shopping discounts. The platform benefits retailers and recyclers by enhancing customer loyalty, building brand image and leadership, and facilitating an easier and cleaner recycling process.
The stickers are distributed to the new users during registration. Users sign up online and will receive mails with registrition code (which is also their member IDs). They finish the registration process by fill in the ID.
The process is similar to Nextdoor.com’s registration postcards.
The stickers’ QR codes and membership IDs are used in check-out process. Points will be automatically accumulated to the user’s accounts after the cashier scan the QR codes. The QR code is also accessible in the mobile app.
The sticker works as promotion ads. New users can scan the QR codes to learn about Rebag and sign up new accounts.
The sticker is also a way to show personal attitude. Check it out. I bring my own bag!
Nowadays, almost all single-use plastic bags end up in the landfill, in the natural environment, or in the wrong recycling stream. How can Rebag change this?
For users, practicing the 3Rs of reducing, reusing, and recycling in daily life will no longer be difficult to adhere to. Users share the environmental value, and will also gain real discounts.
For business partners, Rebag offers customer loyalty, benefits brand image, and demonstrates leadership. Meanwhile, it is not designed only for large companies - Smaller retailers can join and gain more exposure and visibility to the customers on Rebag, where all the brands are presented equally.
For recycling partners, Rebag contributes to an easier and cleaner recycling stream. With Rebag, the collected plastic bags are preliminarily sorted by the retailers, which will be easier for the recyclers to take over. Also, Rebag reduces the chance for plastic bags to enter recycling process directly, and prevent them from contaminating the recycling stream.
The data tracked by Rebag could be used for further commercial decisions for both retailers and bag manufacturers when measuring packaging recyclability.
In the frontline of environmental protection, it is every choice we make that contributes to the greater whole. We don't have to wait for a better recycling mechanism, a more advanced biodegradable material, or wait for others to move first. Instead, individuals can make a difference with things we already have. In this case, is making the best use of plastic bags we own. Reusing means value added. Reusing means living green.
Reusing plastic bags is just a beginning. It is foreseeable that users’ behaviors, habits and awareness may begin to change and will potentially impact similar eco-friendly practices on their own initiative.
Three primary questions informed our design strategy:
Starting from registration, we looked into the registration processes of existing websites. The early members of the Quora are chosen by invitation and each member can invite up to ten new members. After registration opened to the public, Quora introduced Top Writers Program, which is a social acknowledgment for the remarkable users. The idea is to make active users feel privileged.
To join Nextdoor, users have to receive a registration postcard to their homes. The process ensures the authenticity of users' addresses. Similarly, Google Business sends verification PINs by mail. We borrowed this idea to Rebag - Users receive mail with stickers and codes to finish the registration. When signing up is finished, the app will remind the users to put stickers on the plastic bags, which completes the whole registration process.
Regarding the stickers, we had a detour. Our early idea is to design different stickers for different membership levels. We hoped to encourage users to make collections, just like Pokemon Go. However, the problem is obvious: the incentives should be something that considers all the abilities, ages, and motivations. In the end, we decided to make the stickers more pragmatic rather than symbolized.
In general, I think it is an innovation. It is not a SpaceX level innovation, but I do believe it provides a solution to the plastic bag issue.
I look at the current reusable models and bagless solutions and find they share a common problem: They add to the learning cost to both the retailers and the customers. For example, some solutions ask the users to mail the reusable package back or drop off at specific locations. Some require customers to purchase special bags with RFID to accumulate points at the check-out process. Some even build a new store with complementary amenities. Comparing to current solutions, Rebag decreases friction, and the whole process is more intuitive.
The downside is business feasibility. We are still unclear about some questions: How to set the levels and corresponding discounts for users? How to build strategic partnerships and effective marketing strategies? The assumption that Rebag can benefit all the parties is quite empirical. For a self-initiated service design project, I think Rebag is over. We’ve done a nice job within one month. Meanwhile, I am aware that it is incomplete. I would love to conduct some testing to gather more information if there is any opportunities.
I would like to thank my collaborators, Baoqi Ding, Yuanyuan Gong, and Yining Qian. We collaborated 100% online in different time zones but everything went easy and smooth. We are a team of listeners, problem-solvers, and each other’s supporters.