Returnable – A Circular System for Reusable Grocery Bags

During the last decade, the steep demand for grocery delivery services has resulted in a skyrocketing use of plastic and paper bags – bags that are rarely reused or recycled. To address this issue, Axfoundation and Chalmers Industriteknik has gathered Sweden’s key actors in the grocery sector. Companies normally competing, such as Axfood, Coop, ICA, Lidl and Mathem, are now collaborating to explore what an industry-wide circular solution for reusable grocery bags could look like. The aim is to create a road map that promotes the reuse of delivery packaging and inspires more circular models - contributing to a reduced carbon footprint.

The Issue

In 2019, a total of 4.8 billion carrier bags were sold in Sweden. Around 2.2 billion of these were single-use paper bags that are often only used once, contributing to a great waste of resources. The paper bags come to a great extent from online grocery deliveries, where the abundance of delivery bags often leads to customer dissatisfaction. Today, actions to solve the packaging issue are mostly focusing on recycling these materials. However, more and more actors are switching from recycling to reuse, to ease the pressure on the extraction of raw materials. For example, in 2020, the Swedish government adopted a milestone target to increase the share of reusable packaging on the market by at least 20% from 2022 to 2026, and by at least 30% from 2022 to 2030.

Our Solution

The project Returnable aims to contribute to an industry-wide solution for a sustainable circular system of reusable grocery bags. The solution includes reusable delivery bags that are shared among industry partners and used countless times by consumers. Axfoundation has brought together, among others, Sweden’s biggest actors in the grocery sector: Axfood, Coop, ICA, Lidl and Mathem. The ambition is to develop a joint circular system for a “borrow bag” that comes with a deposit  to help customers move from a linear to a circular flow.

Through this broad collaboration, the hope is to develop an implementable solution that works regardless of operator. In addition to solving customers’ frustration with disposable bags, a reusable grocery bag can pave the way and facilitate circular flows on a larger scale for other industries.

– Amelie Silfverstople, Project Manager Future Materials

Our Work

Axfoundation has, together with partners, investigated the current system for disposable packaging at the macro level. A solid environmental analysis has been carried out while mapping the needs of both the industry and the customers.

The project will investigate what a reusable grocery bag could look like and develop a prototype for the same. An overall concept proposal will be developed that shows how reverse logistics should work in practice based on today’s existing flows. This includes a deposit system for the bag, a system for cleaning and a common logistics solution – making sure that the packaging can be recycled and used repeatedly.

The 3 Stages of the Project

  1. A concept has been developed for deposit on bags, return logistics and industry-wide operation of the system. This step has been financed by Vinnova.
  2. A prototype for the reusable grocery bag itself and the traceability solution that needs to be linked to the deposit bags will be investigated and developed. Funding for this step is provided by RE:source. Practical pilot projects have also been initiated by two of the project partners with the aim of increasing customer understanding.
  3. A third step will be to deepen customer insights on circular models with additional funding from Vinnova. The ambition is also to conduct an evaluation of the business and environmental potential of the Returnable solution.


From January to March 2024, the Returnable group conducted tests with reusable bags made of different materials to examine how they function in e-commerce processes. Bags made of extra strong paper, as well as bags made of PP plastic, were dispatched to customers shopping at Coop in Sörböle and Hemköp Djurgårdsstaden in Stockholm. Soft bags made of recycled bedsheet fabric were tested alongside ICA in Hammarby Sjöstad. The test also encompassed the evaluation of traceability solutions such as QR codes and RFID for measuring turnaround times. Concurrently, various cleaning methods were explored to ascertain the durability of the different bags.

The initial response from customers was highly positive. Many appreciate it as an industry-wide solution, relieving customers from an unnecessary pile of single-use bags at home. The tests have generated valuable insights regarding the composition, appearance, and design of the bag, which form the basis for the next version of the bag prototype to be tested in the future.

Lessons Learned and Actions Going Forward

During the first phase of the project, several lessons have been learned about what a sustainable circular system for reusable grocery bags could look like. Four key components have been identified as crucial to find a solution:

The bag: Based on the project’s industry and customer needs analysis, the “borrow bag” needs to be similar to the current paper bag in size and shape and have a material that can withstand multiple cleaning cycles. The bag should also be relatively inexpensive to produce and easy to recycle when it fails to complete more rotations. Based on the previous needs analysis, the material and design of the packaging will be investigated further in 2024, collaborating with Chalmers Industriteknik, the product design agency Boid, as well as several experts.

Deposit system: The project proposes a non-individual deposit per bag, for example based on how Sweden’s efficient deposit system for cans works. The deposit should be activated at the time of purchase and be linked to the bag’s unique ID. This should be deactivated and refunded to the customer once the bag is returned.

Cleaning: Based on lessons learned from currently available logistics solutions, a cleaning system for the bag is also proposed. This can be done using either wet or dry methods. The choice of method is guided by an overall assessment of the level of cleanliness needed, cost and environmental impact.

Logistics solution: For the solution to be successful and sustainable over time, it must be easy and convenient for the customer to reuse the bags. It’s vital that the bags can be returned easily to all actors in the system, regardless of which grocery chain the customers buy their food from. An efficient logistics solution could therefore involve an industry-wide organization responsible for managing the bag system, purchasing, depositing, cleaning and redistribution of reusable bags.


The Returnable project is led by Axfoundation in collaboration with Chalmers Industriteknik and brings together partners from Coop, ICA, Mathem, Lidl, Dagab, Stockholm Consumer Cooperative Society, The Swedish Food Retailers Federation, and Svenska Retursystem. It is carried out in cooperation with the service design and UX agency Antrop, the design agency Boid, Stena Circular Consulting, GS1 Sweden, and TRAKK Telematics.


Projects within Future Materials