Just leave it to a forward-thinking student designer armed with a hair straightener, a clothes iron and a spool of thread to breathe new life into the ban-worthy blight on the environment otherwise known as the plastic shopping bag.

And I’m not just talking a single recycled shopping bag but around 60 or 70 of them, fused together with organic cotton canvas to create an insulated backpack-cum-briefcase — a “conscientious tech bag” in the words of the designer — that can be deconstructed and recycled/composted at the end of its life.

Conceived in response to the plastic waste that clogs our oceans, pollutes our beaches and harms marine wildlife while also doubling as a spot to stash tech gear while on-the-go, Onward Bag was recently named winner of the Cradle to Cradle Product Design Challenge in the Best Student Design category. The student designer behind Onward Bag — a design “capable of reducing overall plastic waste and reducing C02 waste by taking advantage of the embodied energy in the already once processed plastic bags" — is Gabriella Jacobson, a senior at Virginia Tech.

At the conclusion of last year’s inaugural Cradle to Cradle Product Design Challenge, the top prize in the Best Student Design category also went to a bag: Tjitte de Wolff's Venlo Bag, a “glue-less, self-assembling bag that is 100 percent biodegradable." And interesting enough, last year's winning design in the Best Use of Autodesk Fusion 360 category (3-D engineering software giant Autodesk is a presenter of the Challenge in partnership with the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute) was a water-conserving public restroom faucet concept from Virginia Tech student Cole Smith.

Plastic bag floating in oceanOnward Bag was designed in reaction to the staggering number of discarded plastic shopping bags polluting the world's oceans and waterways. (Photo: Andrew/flickr)

Funny how that works out.

As for Onward Bag, it’s a utilitarian and straightforward-looking tech accessory designed to accommodate a couple of laptops along with books, documents and whatnot. As mentioned, Jacobson designed Onward Bag so it can easily be deconstructed at the end of its useful life: The bag’s organic cotton components are compostable while the high density polyethylene (HDPE) padding made from a few dozen compressed plastic shopping bags is, of course, meant to be recycled at a grocery store plastic bag drop-off or another location. The bag’s owner just to needs follow a set of basic directions — and own a pair of scissors — to separate the two fabrics (the HDPE and the cotton canvas) and take it apart for recycling/composting.

It’s a neat and tidy closed-loop cycle in which nothing goes to the landfill. As Jacobson notes in her proposal, the bag, which is also made with biodegradable mineral-based dyes, sports a Reutilization Score of 100 making it eligible for C2C certification.

In addition to boasting serious zero-waste cred, the design of Onward Bag subtly reflects its sea trash-banishing mission. Jacobson explains:

While deciding the overall design and size of the bag I thought about how I was going to include the story of sustainability into the bag in a meaningful manner. I discovered that a pattern pressed into the recycled plastic bags was the best, and most energy efficient, way. The pattern used in this design is based on ocean waves, creating a connection between the user and natural elements.

What’s more, Jacobson, who is currently developing a prototype Onward Bag, envisions all manufacturing and material sourcing to be confined to the United States to minimize the product’s unavoidable carbon footprint. Packaging, naturally, would be on the minimal side and while assembly would ideally take place at a facility supporting workers with disabilities.

Onward Bag, Gabriella Jacobson
Unfussy and durable, Onward comes complete with a carrying strap and wave-like pattern. (Illustration: Cradle to Cradle Product Design Challenge

As for Jacobson’s overall business model, it’s nothing short of solid:

The Onward bag adds value to the market in several ways. Consumers can benefit from enhancing their green image. Through design the bag will connect consumers to elements of sustainability, and teach them how easily product disassembly and recycling can be. The bag will also function as a regular tech bag: protecting the consumer’s electronics from falls, hard surfaces, and extreme weather. The interesting design will generate profit from sales through stores and online distributors. The use of recycled material, and reduced manufacturing means the bag will be cheaper to produce and can be priced and sold more competitively than other tech bags. This product will raise overall market demand for recycled bags, which will lead to an increase in recycling programs. Overall this will lead to less plastic waste in our oceans and waterways, and a healthier planet.

In terms of production challenges, Jacobson notes that “the largest challenge I see is that the current recycling system is unable to meet the demands of the public for more sustainable/recyclable materials. We need to create more established and creative recycling channels so that the materials of plastic bottles, plastic bags, etc., can stay within the recycling systems time and time again. There is also a problem of perception: already social media and the Internet is educating the population on the importance of recycling, but we need to begin to look at sustainability not just as a consumers choice but as something we must do to protect our futures.”

She adds: "I see my design education as my secret superpower, in which I am able to enact real positive change in the world around me... It is not enough anymore to 'just design a computer bag'. One must ask, 'why should this computer bag exist?' and 'where in our product system does the life of this computer bag fit?'"

With the goal of “eliminating the concept of ‘waste’ by designing products with materials that may be perpetually cycled to retain their value as nutrients to fuel growing global economies,” this year’s Cradle to Cradle Product Design Challenge attracted submissions from students and young design professionals hailing from 18 countries.

In addition to Onward Bag taking top spot in the Best Student Design category, other winning designs include a cork-lined unisex cycling helmet specifically designed for bike share programs (Best Professional Design); a nifty broom with a detachable bristle head (Best Use of Autodesk Fusion 360); and a public transportation seat made from recycled aluminum, recycled plastic and recycled bamboo plywood (Best Use of Aluminum).

Each of the Challenge's four winners received a $2,000 cash prize. Submissions for the next Cradle to Cradle Product Design Challenge are now being accepted. Have any planet-improving ideas?

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.