Apart from unsightly litter, plastic bags are responsible for widespread environmental damage. They are difficult to recycle, do not degrade, can damage wildlife and can be washed up on remote islands. They must be one of humanity’s worst inventions! Products have been designed that allow used plastic shopping bags to be used as bin liners and as ‘stuffing’ for bean bags. It’s possible that a re-use strategy might be developed following this line of thinking. A key development in the plastics field is BioPlastic --the production of plastics from grown materials such as corn and potato starch, and perhaps these provide some possibilities. Further details of these products can be found at the following websites.


However, biopolymers may not be the way forward. Before the introduction of throwaway plastic shopping bags, there were many durable designs. Perhaps, it is the convenience of just being able to drop into a shop without taking a bulky bag with you, which is the key factor? If so, there are new strong, foldaway materials available like those used for travelling towels. Perhaps shopping bags could be fitted into key rings or mobile phone cases or something most people carry. Or, perhaps there’s a better solution … something that could be kept in the boot of a car? Is this really such a hard problem to solve?

Some issues that the design must address

• the design must be acceptable to the majority of shoppers so that it is an effective alternative to throwaway plastic bags
• the design must take account of the check-out process
• the design must be suitable for both carrying by hand and transporting in the boot of a car
• the design must be suitable for UK manufacture
• the lifetime cost of the design must be acceptable to shoppers
• the lifetime environmental damage associated with the product must be minimal


The following photographs illustrate the design problem. It is important that the students think about the plastic shopping bag’s whole life cycle beyond the checkout so the photographs begin this process by showing them in a shopping trolley, in the boot of a car and having been brought into the house. And then there is the question of where to next? Any effective design replacement must cover the whole shopping scenario, and not just one aspect of it.

They can be used as an introduction to the open-ended brief “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” or the specific recycling design context on ” Reusing products: shopping bags”

Plastic shopping bags in a trolley

Plastic shopping bags in the boot of a car

Plastic shopping bags, home with the shopping … but where next?

Loughborough subjects
Design Contexts
Developing design briefs
Images to stimulate students’ thinking (images still to come)
Advice on finding clients
Generic design contexts
Advice on specific design briefs
CAT specific design briefs
Loughborough University specific design briefs
ITDG specific design briefs
CAT support information
Loughborough University support information
ITDG support information