Time To Ban The Bag?

by Zo? Saint-Paul

You’ve heard the question a thousand times while standing in the checkout line at your local grocery store. But you may not hear it much longer.

Concerns about litter and ecological damage triggered the debate. Paper bags take far more resources and energy to create, and the process from tree to store is long and environmentally taxing. But they can be re-used and recycled, and when they do end up in a landfill, they eventually decompose.

Plastic bags are a different story. They’re made from polyethylene, a flexible, watertight and UV resistant material derived from petroleum. It takes less energy and environmental wear and tear to produce a plastic bag, but once it hits the landfill, the real problems begin. It takes over 1000 years for a plastic bag to break down, often much longer. Plastic bags are clogging waterways, killing marine life, and preventing waste from composting in landfills. 

Opinions vary about which bags are ultimately worse for the environment—paper or plastic. But some supermarkets and local grocery stores have made up their own minds.

In January, Whole Foods Market became the first national supermarket chain to announce that all of its stores would be plastic bag free by Earth Day 2008 (April 22). “We’re passionate about the environment, and we’re taking a step in the right direction,” said Alex Torres, a manager at Whole Foods Harbor East. “Our overall goal is to push reusable bags and to offer 100% recycled paper bags as an alternative.”

For over two years, Whole Foods Harbor East has been distributing and selling reusable bags. Costing just 99 cents, their design changes with the seasons—the latest features a hip, retro print of an old advertisement for oysters. Customers receive five cents off their grocery bill each time they return and bring their reusable bag.

Torres says the reaction to eliminating plastic bags has been overwhelmingly positive. “The only push back we had was when people needed plastic bags for recycling,” says Torres. “Now that the city has gone to a single streaming system, customers don’t have to worry about that.”     

Roots Market, an independently owned grocery with two locations in Clarksville and Olney has gone in the same direction. Roots sells polyfiber reusable mesh bags for $1.99 and offers a 10-cent per bag reduction in grocery costs. The Olney store now uses only recycled paper bags, and the Clarksville location will be phasing out plastic soon. 

Although he acknowledges the pros and cons of both paper and plastic, Troy Laur, Manager of Roots Market, says the decision to discontinue plastic bags made sense. “Frankly, I think we were all just tired of seeing plastic bags in the trees, in the ocean, and all over the place.” 

Jerry Gordon is offering a reusable, recycled plastic tote bag with a good-looking tree logo on the front, at Eddie’s Market in Charles Village.

 But not everyone is saying goodbye to plastic. Super Fresh, on N. Charles Street, only offers plastic bags. But their reusable “Haub” bag, named for the Elizabeth Haub Foundation, is popular. Customers receive two cents off their grocery bill for using it, and all proceeds from the 99-cent bag go directly to the Foundation, which is dedicated to environmental law and policy. Front-end store manager John Kellum says the store’s encouragement of the Haub bag is paying off—he estimates almost 45 per cent of their customers now bring them along when they come back to shop.  

Large supermarket chains like GiantFood and Wegmans have no plans to eliminate plastic bags either. Both stores do recycle plastic and sell reusable bags. Giant offers reusable bags for 99 cents with a three cent reduction in groceries per bag to customers.

Wegmans is trying to reduce the impact of plastic by introducing larger, stronger bags that carry more groceries, tear less and don’t stick together. This will eliminate their total pounds of plastic by 25 per cent, according to Jo Natale, Director of Media Relations. “We don’t want to eliminate customer choice,” says Natale. “But we do want to provide options and information to help customers make good choices.”

Wegmans sells large canvas bags for $7.99 and woven polypropylene recyclable bags for 99 cents. To date, nearly 900,000 have been sold. “Now we’re looking at how we can remind customers and increase the use of the bags,” says Natale. 

Though everyone agrees that reusable bags are best, the biggest challenge is getting customers to use them. The city of Dublin did this by imposing a tax on plastic bags. New York and San Francisco have tried various kinds of legislation with mixed results.

In the absence of legislation in Baltimore, grocery stores are trying various incentives, including small cost reductions in groceries. Whole Foods Harbor East uses signage in garage elevators and outside the store to remind people to bring their bags.

“I recommend keeping reusable bags in all the places you spend time—especially the car,” says Torres. “What helps me the most is placing the bags back in the car as soon  as I unload my groceries.”    

 

Zoë Saint-Paul is a coach, consultant and writer. Contact her at zoe@zoe-co.com  

 

To learn more about plastic versus paper, visit: www.OneBagAtATime.com.    

 


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