Natural Foods Merchandiser

When it's not paper or plastic

Fourteen billion plastic bags each year end up in landfills or littering the environment. Another way to look at it is that U.S. merchants give away 14 billion plastic bags annually. According to Lisa Foster, founder of 1 Bag At A Time, American retailers spend a total of about $4 billion on plastic bags every year. The cost to the environment is even greater. Plastic bags are made from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource; they do not biodegrade, and they cost cities millions of dollars to clean up.

OK. So switch to paper bags? Actually, it takes three times more energy to make a paper bag, and most of them never biodegrade in landfills.

This leads some retailers to look for an alternative to asking, "Paper or plastic?"

Americans are not unique in their overconsumption of disposable shopping bags, but they are lagging behind other countries in their efforts to curb the use of disposable bags. In 2002, the Irish government imposed the Plastic Bag Environmental Levy. Retailers were required to charge about 15 cents for every disposable bag the customer used. This expense was itemized on the receipt, and the money went toward environmental clean-up projects. Officials estimate that in the first year the Irish reduced their consumption of disposable bags by 95 percent. Other European countries charge for disposable bags on a voluntary basis. In some African countries, plastic bags are jokingly referred to as the National Flower because they "bloom" everywhere. South Africa, Rwanda, Republic of Somaliland and several Indian states have completely banned certain thin plastic bags. Foster got the idea for reusable polypropylene fiber bags from a stay in Australia, where the inexpensive, square-bottomed bags with handles were as ubiquitous as shrimp on the barbie.

"I've been an environmentalist for a long time, and I was at the point where I really wanted to do something. And when I saw these bags I thought that this could be my one thing," says Foster. Foster says that most retailers are interested in her bags on principle, but as General Electric Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Immelt is fond of saying, "Green is green." Stores can reduce the amount of bags that they give away, and profit on a reusable bag instead.

Many stores offer canvas bags, which last longer but are usually somewhat pricey. The suggested retail price of a 1 Bag at a Time polypropylene bag is less than $2, and the bags are easier to pack, Foster says, because they can stand on the counter without squishing food.

Cronig's Market of Martha's Vineyard, Mass., is perhaps a bit ahead of the game because living on an island tends to make folks more aware of limited resources. For years, Cronig's offered only paper bags at the checkout and canvas bags for purchase. Now it carries square-bottomed polypropylene fiber bags. Cronig's keeps the bags at the head of every register and has displays near both the entrance and exit.

"Already we see people coming back in with the bags. We have a program where people can exchange 25 paper bags, and we give them a reusable one. People are into that too," says Sarah McKay, general manager of Cronig's. "The biggest motivation is to try and reduce waste, but since we carry only paper bags with handles, and those are expensive, we are hoping that we will see a reduction in the number of bags that we have to give away."

Other stores encourage customers to reuse bags by offering a five-cent refund for every bag customers reuse. Wild Oats has a Wooden Nickel program where customers may choose one of three local charities to which they would like to donate their five cents. New Leaf Markets in Santa Cruz, Calif., has a similar program, and it allows customers a chance to vote on which three local charities they would like to support every year.

"American consumers are used to getting free bags," says Sonja Tuitele, senior director of corporate communications for Wild Oats, who adds that Wild Oats is considering offering polypropylene fiber bags in a Bag for Life program. A customer would pay one dollar for the fiber bags, and then if it ever broke or tore they could turn it in for a new one. "We are looking at whether or not the American consumer would be willing to put in the initial cost of a bag," Tuitele says.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in New York City, if each person used one less grocery bag a year, it would prevent 5 million pounds of waste and $250,000 in disposal costs.
The problem with rewarding customers for reusing bags is that it only reaches people who are already conscious about reusing. Foster, taking her lead from Australia, has high hopes to change that. "Instead of asking 'Do you want paper or plastic,' I want checkers to ask, 'Do you want a bag?'" Foster says. "My vision is for an America where nobody assumes that you need a bag." She says that when she did market research for her product she found that many customers seemed embarrassed by how many bags they had, and more than half would misrepresent the number of disposable bags they had used. Retailers can train their employees to "strive for five," that is to try to put at least five items in every bag. Also, if retailers stock reusable bags by the checkout line, employees can offer them as an alternative. Montana Harvest of Bozeman and Billings, Mont., offer a free reusable polypropylene bag every time a customer spends $100 or more.

According to the San Francisco Department of the Environment, the city spends about 17 cents per plastic bag to remove plastic bags from recycling streams, collect and dispose of bags, remove bags from city streets and process bags in city landfills. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in New York City, if each person used one less grocery bag a year, it would prevent 5 million pounds of waste and $250,000 in disposal costs. Starting with retailers, all of those costs could be reduced, one bag at a time.

Hope Bentley is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 9/p. 22, 25

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