Another dopey contest

An article from this morning’s New York Times gives me the inspiration for a new design contest, that of recreating the humble reusable grocery bag. I know my contests are dopey and tend toward the functional, perhaps it’s in protest to the public’s over fascination with all things fashion. Despite the name of this blog, our focus is sewn products since those producers are holding up more than half our sky. Anyway, as it happened yesterday, the city of San Francisco voted to ban some plastic bags.

The ordinance, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, will remove standard plastic bags from supermarkets and pharmacies with sales of more than $2 million a year, said its author, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who said his city was simply following a worldwide trend toward greener grocers.

“Scores of nations have already gone through this,” said Mr. Mirkarimi, citing similar laws in places including South Africa and Taiwan. “It’s really astounding the United States would be so late in the game to come online to do something that should be common sense.”

The ordinance, which takes effect for grocers in six months, will allow food stores and pharmacies to use biodegradable plastic bags. But opponents say that those bags, which cost more to produce and buy, would simply increase costs for grocers, who already operate on a thin profit margin.

To revisit the topic of the lack of sustainability of paper bags, an entry from Davis Co-op reads

Of course, the trail of paper bags starts in our forests. In 1999, 14 million trees were cut to produce the 10 billion paper grocery bags used by Americans. It’s not surprising that most people prefer paper, believing it is the more responsible choice. Yet, like plastic, paper puts a heavy burden on the environment in terms of production, consumption and disposal.

Manufacturing paper bags requires virgin timber (for greater strength and elasticity), which is processed into heat-treated wood chips. This creates numerous byproducts that pollute waterways and produce greenhouse gases, which are consequently absorbed by fewer trees. In fact, according to the Film and Bag Federation, a trade group within the Society of the Plastics Industry based in Washington, D.C., paper bag production requires more energy, generates more solid waste, produces more atmospheric emissions and releases more waterborne wastes compared to plastic grocery bags.

As far as making the production of reusable grocery bags a viable enterprise, I’m curious about a couple of things. Durability concerns aside, how important is styling and color? How important is price? How many bags does the average consumer use on their heaviest shopping day? I’ve been counting our usage over the past couple of weeks since I’m wondering how many we’d need to buy. How important are additional features such as inside pockets? How about inside labels where consumers could note their contact information in the event the bags are lost? Then, I also think reusable bags could be a marketing opportunity for grocery stores. They could license someone to manufacture bags with their store name and logo. I wonder how many will be proactive and consider the option? Similarly, how many entrepreneurs will consider approaching a local owned grocery to propose an agreement?

As far as design considerations go -something to consider for your entry in the contest- beyond obvious issues such as construction integrity, how will your bags be shaped? I’m rather partial to this one ($9.95) which is shaped like the current ubiquitous plastic bag because it can be used on existing bag loading frames. One reviewer of this bag says they wish the bags were larger and I also think sales might be better for this item if they showed the red, yellow or blue bags rather than the industrial black. Black rarely photographs well.

There are also the traditional bag options that are shaped like paper bags but with handles. I don’t think those would have the structural integrity of the bags above and I also wonder how difficult it’d be to manage several bags in each hand.

Anyway, if you’re interested in participating in my newest dopey contest, I’d think the first step would be to survey the current range of options in the market to include design integrity, usability, styling and price. If our winner got geared up for it, we could make the prize a little more interesting this time (other than a free book or free consulting), say a free ad for their product in the sidebar? I have an open purchase order for twelve bags for the winner…

I’ve included three short polls to help participants hit the market. If I left out any questions I should be asking, let me know. Also, feel free to cross post this contest to your blog. I’d think the crafty bloggies might find this a fun project, anyone can enter. The more the merrier.

[edit] Joan mentions I neglected to set a deadline. Let’s make it June 1st. However, I prefer to get submissions as you complete them. I post them on the blog as they come in case you’re new to these parts. Sometimes I batch them, a couple of entries to one post. You can be anonymous if you like but include your contact info and phone number. If you have a website, mention whether I can link to you or not.

This must be a product you designed. It can’t be a product that you are retailing, made by another party. Now, the other party can submit an entry subject to the conditions below.

Generally the stuff you submit are photos of the finished product and a mini pattern. You can also include process details and photos of the product in process. Since this is a teaching and learning exercise, intellectual generosity is what’s most appreciated. I mean, that’s the whole goal of the contest so that everybody wins.

Edit 11/23/12
Vizu polls have closed down. Below is a screen capture of the poll results.

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  1. WEndy says:

    Ha! I’ve tried talking to several different ones at Trader Joe’s corporate and is a hush-hush secret because it’s their trademark. The red bags have big flowers on them, I’m just looking for one the same size – 16″ x 12″ x 12″ with a nice 7″ gusett. The fabric is sort of a shiny looking, almost a plastic-coated look to it. It will stand up alone since it has a larage gusett at the bottom.

  2. Carol says:

    Decade(s?) ago I made a number of bags that are still going strong. They’re the size of the standard plastic grocery bags, with a packcloth bottom and strong sportsmesh sides. The webbing handles which wrap around the bottom take the stress, and that they’re mostly mesh means they take little space when not in use. The “alpha” ones have extra pockets to squish the others (and flimsy produce sacks) into.

    My other innovation was to buy a couple of kite string reels. Think of a hollow toroid sliced in two perpendicular to its radius (I’ll post reference shots on the forum if anyone wants), large enough to comfortably fit over my forearm, and also the right size to slip into the strap(s), which would otherwise cut into hands.

    Despite a routine for getting these back to the vehicle, we still accumulate plastic bags at an alarming rate – opening a shipment and seeing it cushioned with these, for example. I love the idea of making a cushy mat out of them. Not upscale on the decorator front, but in front of my cutting table, who cares?

  3. i admit i haven’t read all the comments, so someone may have mentioned this:

    to me, the most important thing is a design that makes it really easy for me to stash a great number of bags in pockets, bags, purses. etc.
    I’m constantly forgetting to bring the re-usable bags I have; I need to trick myself into always having one handy!

  4. Jenny Hughes says:

    I am so happy to hear the wonderful support for re-usable bags. Plastic bags are littering our planet and we can all make a difference by BYOB’ing. My company, Bring Your Own Bag, offers natural and organic cotton totes with fresh designs. We also have a BYOB artist series. A portion of net profits from every bag sold is being donated to the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

  5. Amber says:

    I am a 12 year old Youth Entrepreneur. I sell only one product, stat-of-the-art, reusable, insulated multi-function bags made in the USA with space age technology. I have lots of helpful hints on my website to help answer lots of the questions and problems people are talking about.

    I hope you will check it out at

    I think you will like the neat stuff on my website.

  6. anne says:

    I love my big plastic mesh shopping baskets. i bought them in europe. they can old a really full shopping cart, and are strong. I also the colors. I hate dark,gloomy colors. I also like a insulated bag I received as a freebee, made by (“shop n fold insulated bag”) I just wish it was a lot bigger. at least 15 by 17 by 8 would be great. weight doesn’t matter that much.they go straight from a shopping cart in the car, where i live,. it just holds it all together.
    Now I’m looking to buy bags for our school auction, and can’t seem to find these bags any bigger anywhere. Someone ought to make these.

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