The moment you pick up a plastic bag, you’re gifted with a sliver of eternity — you can use it all you want, until it’s ripped to shreds and smelly and damp; you can use it as poop-scooper, a hair cover, or a trash bag, over and over and over. It’ll never really go away, even when you want it to. Not even if it’s torn to shreds and thrown out. Not even if it gets eaten by an animal. A million sea birds die each year from plastic entanglement and consumption. The bags also clog sewers and cause floods during storms.
Plastic bags start as crude oil or another petrochemical derivative. It takes about 12 million barrels of petroleum oil, or other fuel equivalents, to produce 100 billion plastic bags, which only accounts for a year’s worth of bags in the US alone. All this plastic takes about 1,000 years to biodegrade, which is approximately 1000% environmentally unsustainable.
So what are we supposed to use instead? The best alternatives either last the user a long time, so they don’t need to be thrown away, or they biodegrade within a few years. The options must be considered carefully: banning plastic bags can backfire, and materials like cotton can cause their own environmental problems. With this in mind, we’ve made a list of four design solutions for the plastic bag problem.
1. The Frusack, a bag that biodegrades (like the fruit you carry inside it)
Hana Němcová, a medical student from the Czech Republic, told Hyperallergic in an email, “Appealing design in hand is a powerful tool to attract those who primarily don’t care about ecology.” Three years ago, she and her friend Tereza Dvořáková developed Infiberry, a startup dedicated to the design of environmentally safe food storage — without any potentially harmful materials. In 2015, with their friend Adam Ondráček, they released a video for the Czech Republic’s Social Impact Award, for which they were finalists. Two humans dressed as dolphins say, “We come in peace — for now. Your plastic bags are killing us, one by one.”
Infiberry’s first product is the very cute and compact Frusack, a shopping bag for fruits and vegetables made of polylactic acid, which itself is made from the fermentation of starch. It’s waterproof, fairly sturdy (it carries three pounds of fruit), and will last around two years. After that, it’s fully biodegradable. It’s easy to carry and — considering its shelf life — cheap enough to warrant purchasing, whether you’re concerned about your environmental footprint or not.
2. EnviGreen, nearly as edible as its contents
EnviGreen, a company based in Bangalore, India, claims to produce the country’s first totally biodegradable substitutes for plastics — and the results are novel. Unlike Infiberry, its products are not on the market until later this year, but the process is well-documented on their website. For several years, EnviGreen has built products from starch, as well as vegetable derivatives and waste: totes, trash bags, packaging films, even aprons. Their fresh, neon-colored bags look nice, and surprisingly, you can eat them — it’s not exactly recommended, but if a hungry turtle gets a hold of one, they’ll live. In an interview, EnviGreen founder Ashwath Hegde boiled the material, then chewed it, smiling. The bags degrade after 180 days.
3. BAGGU, the little bag that could
What about something more permanent — a product customers don’t have to re-purchase? BAGGU makes a tote that comes in a rainbow of colors, looks like a beach satchel, and — despite its ability to fold into your pocket — functions like a laundry bag: it holds up to 50 pounds, and costs less than half that ($10). “Good design creates a product you actually enjoy using, so you use it more,” Emily Sugihara, a Parsons School of Design grad who designed the product with her mother, told Hyperallergic. “You remember to bring your Baggu to the store because you prefer the experience to plastic bags, it’s cool, it carries more stuff more comfortably, it makes you look good!”
4. Public participation for designs that haven’t been dreamed up yet
Getting the public involved in the design process makes the issue of environmental sustainability more widespread and results in a new product. In Morocco, where plastic bags were banned in 2015, a UN-affiliated regional partnership is working to help the country transition from plastic bags.
First, there’s a campaign to make visible the benefits of alternatives to single-use bags, including their economic viability. Then, “a women cooperative” (as described by the European Union) will produce carrier bags utilizing textiles like canvas.
Similarly, in Bendigo, Australia, supermarket Coles, who are looking to get rid of single-use plastic bags by July 1, asked elementary and middle school students to send in designs for their reusable bags, as reported in local outlet, the Bendigo Advertiser. Proceeds from the purchase of these bags will also go SecondBite, an Australian organization that provides nutritious food for people in need.
There’s a novel quality to all of these options — and the hope, of course, is that one day an edible (or at least non-toxic, biodegradable, and environmentally sustainable) bag will be available for every customer. Maybe plastic bags will one day be the novelty, as rare and inaccessible as Céline’s $590 plastic bags, designed by Phoebe Philo. Until they’re gone for good, eons from now, what to do with all that plastic? Maybe a recently-discovered mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic bottles will consume it. And a few projects by creative designers can be found here — among them shoes, lanterns, and of course bags.