Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Idea: Bag Vouchers

[Acknowledgment:  I got this idea while reading Suman's post - She Said No!]

There is no dearth of awareness, especially among the upwardly mobile youngsters, about the ill effect of plastics. One major use of plastic is in the form of plastic-bags also known as 'chimki', 'cover' or 'polythene bags'. Searching the Internet reveals mind numbing evidences concerning the hazards of plastics. Most urban people know it. However, they are helpless. There is no 'feasible' solution to the problem. Yes, there are a lot of alternatives to using plastic bags - like using cloth/jute bag and paper bag. But they have their own problems. Let's take a look at the reasons which make these eco-friendly bags 'unpopular' and then I'll try to find a solution addressing those problems.

Problem: The most favorable factor for the use of plastic bags is that it is cheap. So, any shopkeeper can give you a complementary plastic bag to carry the purchased item - be it Benarasi Paan or Benarasi Saaree. However, the cost of cloth/jute bag is prohibitively large huge compared to the actual price of the goods bought in case the goods cost less than Rs 100. Unless all the shopkeepers start to stop using plastic bags,  it is not possible for a few eco-conscious  shopkeepers to give cloth/jute bag. Paper bag, on the other hand, is moderately priced but it can bear only very light weight. Also, most of the shopping is done unplanned - so we don't necessarily  carry a cloth bag with us.

Solution: One easy solution to the problem is use of bag vouchers. These vouchers are basically a 'token' for the actual bag. It is similar to sodexho coupons in essence. Just as sodexho coupons can be redeemed for food, the bag vouchers can be redeemed for cloth/jute bags. So, if you go to buy vegetables, you can give the shop owner a bag voucher in exchange of the cloth bag he gives you to keep the vegetables in. The shop keeper can then redeem the coupon for more bags. In this way, the bags can change hands depending on who needs it.

Implementation: There could be many ways of implementing this idea. I would start with a completely private solution. An organization, I'll give it a fictitious name - Wriddhi, wants to implement this idea. It first gets "non-duplicable" vouchers printed. It then distributes cloth bags to different shops. Consumers can buy the vouchers from the Wriddhi office. Now, when they go out and do unplanned shopping, they can redeem the bag voucher, which they bought from Wriddhi and kept in their wallets along with credit card and sodexho coupon, for a cloth bag. If there is too much accumulation of cloth bags, they can exchange it for vouchers at the Wriddhi office. The shop keeper, on the other hand, can exchange the vouchers with bags at the Wriddhi office.

Details and Refinements: Instead of keeping a stock of bags at one place (Wriddhi office), Wriddhi can partner with several NGOs to use them as distribution points. The shopkeeper (and consumers - basically, anyone having a bag-voucher) can redeem the coupon for a bag or exchange bag for coupon or buy new/fresh coupons at these points. The bags could be of many types (or one type based on the implementation) - It could have corporate ads. It could be made from old but strong clothes - this would appeal to people with 'social' bent of mind. Or, it could be just a simple bag. Again, the coupon price could differ based on the size, strength and nature of the material used to make the bags. A designer bag could be more expensive than a jeans bag. Moreover, a bag could be claimed to have reached 'end of life' based on some predefined criteria. Also, the coupon/bag can also 'age' which would reduce its value/voucher. Say, a bag which is of value X can 'age' to a value of X/2 after 6 months' use. The criteria of aging could also be the condition of the bag. Also, Wriddhi could be an NGO, a private company, a govt body or a combination of them.

Challenges: There a lot of challenges in implementing this. The most important challenge is to get a buy-in of the junta. Why should they pay for something they are used to getting free? Why should they take the trouble of buying coupon? Why should the shopkeepers bother to stock the bags? Since the shopkeeper doesn't have to buy the plastic bags, it would reduce the costs - the benefit of which can be passed on, partly, to the customer and partly in maintaining the bags inventory. Since, the customer may get the benefit of reduced cost and get the impression of being "cool" by being eco-conscious, they would not mind to add a few vouchers to their monthly grocery items.

This is just one solution to the problem. There, of course, are huge challenges in implementing this idea.

PS: This is not a business plan. It's just an idea. Do pour in your inputs on it.


Krishna March 31, 2010 at 10:07 AM  

Prshant ji, nice idea,but implementation is very tough....
Before this voucher concept,awareness camp needs to be organised specially in the rural and semi urban areas..I guess the idea can be better implemented in the rural areas...

I dont think people in the Urban areas will really buy this idea considering the hectic life style,though they might well be knowing the hazards of using plastics....

Krishna March 31, 2010 at 10:15 AM  

also this "chalta hai" type attitude needs to be discarded...How many people really think of the environment ? 10%?

Sagar March 31, 2010 at 11:36 AM  

Nice post..

An amazing B-plan, though you clain it isnt :P

Just look at the marketing opportunities!!

Milan March 31, 2010 at 11:53 AM  

Really, a nice idea indeed...
But what will be the fate of the plastic product companies and their employees??They should be given alternatives...

phoebz March 31, 2010 at 3:18 PM  

hygiene??? how come that never came to ur mind... ichanging hands doesnot give me a sense of happy hygiene... one reason, I, as a consumer, would avoid using Wriddhi's products is that I fall in the category of people who would rather carry their own cloth/jute bags then share it with strangers.

One alternative that i can think of, and infact use is the compact bags. I m residing outside India, for some time and one gift i have purchased for all my friends and family is these reusable compact bags. The bags are made of - clothe-polyester/parachute. are foldable to a super comact size. come with a small pouch made of same material and once pouched fits in the palm of my hand. these pouches may also have hooks to attach them to your hand bags/jeans.
u can carry them all time in your back pocket like a handkerchief too...
i will try to find some pics of these bags and upload.

And in case I forgot to mention they aren't expensive come at a price of(dnt convert to INR, its not the same cost index) 1-3 dollars. And, ladies... they are colourful.. u can actually match them with ur dresses...

Prashant Mehta March 31, 2010 at 3:33 PM  

Krishna ji
Yep - Implementation is difficult. Awareness is, i think, the most important aspect for any social/behavioral change. I have not considered rural are is because i think they are more price sensitive than the urban. The higher price of the cloth bags may be a deterrent.

The chalta hai type attitude, as you rightly pointed out can be changed only by awareness and perhaps making it more popular. Also, we need the add the 'cool' factor in the whole thing - so that people have a more 'selfish' reason to go for it rather than just environment reasons.

Sagar ji
Thanks! Yeah... Marketing opportunities, financial model, nothing is mentioned. It's just an idea and not a B-plan ;)

Milan ji
That's a good question!
What would be the fate of the drug peddlers and narcotics drug companies if we are able to completely ban narcotics drugs? The plastic products companies and their employees would need to change. Remember those 'pagers'? They were there for a brief period of 2-3 years. Let's for once not treat plastic bags as 'heritage' despite the fact that the plastic would last much much longer than any heritage monument :)

phoebs ji
Oh yes. That's a very valid point. Perhaps Wriddhi should 'sterilize' the bags and make sure it's usable. That can be one of the criteria for determining if the bags can be reused or need recycling.

The whole idea of having bag-vouchers is because people either forget to carry their bag or the shopping is unplanned. Or it is such that carrying a bag is not feasible. Compact bags is a good idea - but again, this needs behavioral change. Just like we remember to carry our handkerchief regardless of whether we have cold or not, we should make it a habit to carry the compact bags regardless of whether or not we "plan" to go shopping.

Do share with us the pictures of the 'compact bags'

Sandeep March 31, 2010 at 4:16 PM  

nice take Prashant on this very serious environmental issue of which we are all contributors in ways more than one and that we will be the ones only to face the consequences of it few years down the line.
it sure is a great idea which can be converted to a business plan/model provided the audience i.e. 'us' finds it something more appealing to their selfish interests.

Suman Y March 31, 2010 at 9:52 PM  

hi Prashanth,

Even I thought of something similar to this ... if you remember, sometime back the milk was delivered in glass bottles.. the bottles used to get collected effectively. and they were reused.

I was thinking of such a system where I can get a bag in the store and I can return later ... or someone would collect them and return ... but like someone was saying there will be issues of hygiene.

First step towards such a plan would be what you said. I take the bag from your shop but when I return them, I want my money back.

Gomathi Reddy April 1, 2010 at 9:29 PM  


Why do we complicate life? Why do we need vouchers, exchanges, NGOs et al...for bags? Why can't we carry our own bags...simple. Thats exactly how we lived before all the tons of plastic started choking us! Why not pick up lessons from our erudite past?

Nice imaginative post, though.

Gomathi Reddy

Prashant Mehta April 4, 2010 at 1:30 AM  

Sandeep ji
Thanks! Do share with us any ideas you may have of making it 'appealing' and 'cool'

Suman ji
Great men think alike :)

Even the cola bottles are reused in that way. The concern of hygiene would be addressed if a Wriddhi take the responsibility of 'sterilizing' the bags.

Thanks for your original post, BTW.

Gomathi Reddy ji
I wish the world was utopia. The fact (and the statistics says it) is that most people don't carry their own bags. And, i believe, it would be very difficult to change this behavior without giving people any incentive - or at least make the change easy for them. Vouchers make the change a little easy for them - I mean, it's easy for them to redeem a voucher instead of being penalized for not bringing a bag or for that matter indulging in an unplanned shopping.

andu August 13, 2010 at 6:05 PM  

Unplanned shopping happens mostly at shopping mall during sale season :) where if we plan to buy 2 jeans we end up buying 2 t-shirts(the stripes one) also. And the value of the product bought is at least Rs 1000. Can't a person buying 1000+ Rs stuff afford to buy a biodegradable bag of Rs10?

For sabji marketing, shopping is mostly planned and people can bring there own bag from home.

Moreover there are hard core veggies out there. What is the guarantee that the bag was not used in carrying non-veg things?

"plastic-bags also known as 'chimki', 'cover' or 'polythene bags'".. it is also called 'chik kagoj' in rural bengal :).

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