5 simple steps to starting a reusable bag share program - Green Indy Blog

5 simple steps to starting a reusable bag share program

Starting a reusable bag share program may sound intimidating, but in fact it’s pretty simple – and I did it for free! (Seriously!) People seem mystified by this on Instagram each time I talk about it, but the concept is very simple.

I have a small booth at the local farmers market. If people forget to bring their bags to the farmers market, they can take one or two of ours and bring it back next week. I also have an email sign-up sheet so people will get a reminder the day before to return the bag. It’s really that simple.

Here’s the infographic I created to share before the program began:

A few initial thoughts before we get started:

  • don’t expect to get any of the bags back. I’m hoping for a slightly better return rate than 0%, but my expectations are low. As I talk about more below, I did this all for exactly $0, so my investment is pretty negligible. Still, this is a program that requires trust and mutual respect; for any number of reasons, this trust may be broken. That’s OK, just expect it.
  • people will be initially mistrustful. May I suggest shouting “it’s really free!” at people like I did so they’d stop by? People are so indoctrinated to buy-buy-buy that even the concept of ‘borrowing’ seems to come with a price tag. Just keep talking it up – and telling people to share – and it’ll become more normalized!
  • helpers are… helpful… but not necessary. If you have any sort of sewing skills, you can whip up quite a few of these bags in just a little bit of free time. Having people to help is awesome (more on that below), but if you can’t find anyone you can totally get going all by yourself!

OK, now we can really get started on how to create a reusable bag share program in your community!

1. identify the shop/organization you want to work with

Questions to ask yourself: what groups of people are you trying to target with this program? Where do those people usually shop? What local organizations or businesses show some commitment to green living?

One of the most critical bits to starting this whole program is deciding what sort of an audience you want to reach out to. I ended up choosing the local farmers market for a few reasons:

  1. It’s a reoccuring event that people are likely to come back to;
  2. Many different parts of the community attend and take part;
  3. It’s a soft intro for the program in a spot where people are likely already interested in this stuff.

If you can do a farmers market, that would be optimal for a first try, but other ideas include health food stores or locally-owned grocery stores. (Basically, don’t get involved with a big chain at first. Too much work going through the bureaucracy and they’re not big on outside programs.)

Here’s the exact email I sent to the local farmers market:

Hello,

I’m Polly Barks and I run Green Indy, a site dedicated to making zero waste life more accessible to everyone. I’d love to talk about the opportunity to partner together for the markets, specifically in the form of reusable bags.

I’d love to start a program similar to ‘Boomerang Bags’ where reusable bags are provided free of change – and hopefully returned the next week! (Thus, the boomerang effect.) Not only will it allow people who forgot their bags to have access, but it will also provide a gentle nudge to those who many not yet reject single-use plastic bags.

I’m happy to furnish the bags and would love to talk further about the initiative.

2. decide if you want to work within a program or go independent

Questions to ask yourself: do you want to work within the framework of an existing organization? Or do you want the freedom to DIY with more planning involved?

I chose to go my own way on this one for a few reasons. First, I liked being able to tout it as a Zero Waste Lafayette/Green Indy project and fit it within pre-existing branding. Second, I love Boomerang Bags (a worldwide program) but knew I didn’t have the resources to do it their way 100%. They have great materials but it didn’t fit within the way I’d been in the community already. Plus, I didn’t plan for the money/resources needed to create their fully-branded bags and I didn’t want to steal their ideas.

If you have a website or organization already running, it may be enough to piggyback off of them. If not, going through a bag share organization like Boomerang Bags can help you look a lot more professional.

5 simple steps to starting a reusable bag share program - Green Indy Blog

3. figure out how to make the bags

Questions to ask yourself: how much of a budget do you have? Who will actually source materials and sew the bags? How many bags will you need?

Full disclosure I did this on a budget of exactly zero dollars. (Biggest expense was the discount sewing machine I got from Amazon Warehouse, which I also use for other projects.) I used thread and fabric (and free labor) I had or was given to me. Most of the bags we handed out was from a large sheet that I had once used as a curtain! This project doesn’t – and probably shouldn’t – cost anything. At least at the very beginning.

If you’ve created a local zero waste group, you should have a pool of people to draw from already. Ask for materials and skills and go! Get a few folks together and spend a few hours sewing bags. 10-20 bags is a good initial number that is do-able, but not overwhelming.

If you won’t be working within the framework of an existing organization, you’ll need to find a pattern. Here are a few tote patterns I like, though I’d suggest making them larger than the pattern suggests:

4. table at your first event

Once the connections are forged and bags made, it’s time to actually get them out there! Whether you plan to man an event or leave them in a space in the store, it’s helpful to have people physically at the booth for a while. This is likely a new concept for people, so someone there to explain the ropes is super helpful!Here’s what I had on my table:

  • the bags. Duh, have the bags out and clearly visible. You may want to only offer a small amount the first time – so you have bags to offer/display in later events without needing bags returned by others.
  • an infographic. I posted the one I created above. Make sure to have a clear sign that tells your audience what the program is and how they can take part.
  • information about plastic bags (optional). I have another simple graphic page (laminated for durability) that gives a few facts about how many plastic bags are used every year. For those who need a little more convincing, this is helpful. Plus, you have an instant talking point.
  • a sign-up sheet (optional). If you’re doing this on a weekly basis (ie. not ongoing in a store), a sign-up sheet can be helpful. I added one to my table as a way to send out reminders before the next market took place.
5. get feedback & adjust your strategy
Questions to ask yourself: what worked well? What was awkward? What will I/we need to do to keep this program sustainable?
 
After the first round of borrowing, you should have a pretty clear idea of what works and what doesn’t. In fact, you might even know on the first day, like I did! (Bigger bags – people only took the smaller bags when the big ones were all gone.)
 
After a few rounds of borrowing, you should see whether the program is sustainable or not. I have high hopes for my program as we’re a small community where many people know each other – that provides accountability. In a larger city, you might never see those bags again.
 
And that’s OK! This might work for you – it might not – but it’s important to try. Experiences like creating a bag share program, leading zero waste workshops, or hosting a zero waste meetup are all great ways to bring your community together and share the wisdom of zero waste practices!
Would you consider starting a bag share in your community? What barriers/difficulties do you foresee? Let’s brainstorm together and make a plan!

4 comments

  1. Hi Polly! Austin went plastic bag-free about 5 years ago. (Although mom and pop shops can still use them, I believe) So the next thing I’d like to tackle is produce bags. That seems like a whole different strategy. What do you think?

    1. I’m not sure what you mean?

      I’m sure you could do a similar program with cloth produce bags, or are you speaking more to banning produce bags?

      1. Oh, I just mean that while everyone in Austin is carrying around their reusable bags, in the produce aisle they still put their veg in plastic bags. I’m not sure if banning produce bags right away would be the answer, (although I plan on using that issue for one of my boxes, eventually). I feel like people are more resistant to using cloth bags for produce, for some reason.
        But maybe I’ll take your advice and try it out at the Farmer’s Market soon. They sadly use a lot of plastic…

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