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Reusable shopping bags gain in popularity as a way to help environment
For 'green' shoppers, the right answer to 'Paper or plastic?' is now 'Neither'
Sunday, May 27, 2007

Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette
Judith Falvey of Meadville buys a reusable bag at the checkout at IKEA in Robinson Towne Centre.
Click photo for larger image.

Judith Falvey, of Meadville, got through the checkout line at the Ikea in Robinson recently only to discover that the retailer no longer provides free bags. Plastic bags cost a nickel, used cardboard boxes are free and reusable canvas bags are 59 cents.

A pillar of the modern shopping world -- the bag, and the plastic bag in particular -- is under intense pressure nowadays. Using bags responsibly or getting rid of them entirely has become a new benchmark for green shopping.

"I think they're just a blight to our whole society," declared Greenville resident Pat Hopkins, who was part of the shopping expedition to Ikea with her sister.

The typical plastic bag takes hundreds of years to stop being a bag, a concern to those trying to be environmentally responsible. Then there's the mess caused by bags released into the wild.

This is not just a paper vs. plastic thing. In analyzing the process from production to recycling, industry observers say plastic bags require less energy and produce less waste than paper bags. The trouble is that less than 6 percent of them make it into a recycling bin.

And there are so many. Factories around the world made 4 billion to 5 billion plastic bags in 2002, according to Worldwatch Institute, an environmental advocacy group in Washington, D.C. Americans alone throw away more than 100 billion annually, the organization said.

The bag issue has been loitering in retail circles for a while, but San Francisco lawmakers brought new energy to the discussion in April by voting to require supermarkets and drugstores to replace traditional plastic bags with biodegradable plastic that can go into the community compost heap. The requirement goes into effect later this year.

The biodegrable option sounds like an easy fix, but Giant Eagle won't be going that route anytime soon. The O'Hara-based grocer has evaluated using such bags. "While they are compostable and have a very limited reusability, they are not recyclable," said spokesman Dan Donovan.

Recycling has been the grocery chain's method of choice for years as a way to mitigate the impact of its plastic bag distribution. Last year Giant Eagle collected 450 tons of bags. The company declined to say how many it distributed.

The Environmental Protection Agency calculated more than 4.45 million tons of plastic bags were generated in the U.S. in 2005.

The rise of reusables
Despite San Francisco, the trendiest choice in carryalls at the moment may be the reusable bags. Web sites such as www.reusablebags.com rally support for the cause by keeping a running tally of the number of plastic bags used. The site indicated the number exceeded 195 billion at mid-week.

In November, Giant Eagle added another layer to its bag program by selling reusable totes for 99 cents at the majority of its locations. A company spokesman said they have been popular.

Just a few months ago, the Toys 'R' Us chain brought in a version it sells for $1.99.

Niche grocers such as Whole Foods Markets and Trader Joe's have long sold reusable bags. The latter recently introduced a glossy, blue and green $1.99 version that sold out all over the country, although at last check there were still a few at the East Liberty store. The company declined to break out results for individual stores but sales in California weren't hurt by a mention in a newspaper article discussing the recent wave of designer shopping bags.

In an effort to offer a carrot to wean shoppers off plastic bags, some retailers have put their names on designer creations meant to lend cachet to the cause.

In England, long lines of customers reportedly waited outside Sainsbury stores to grab a version from Anya Hindmarch emblazoned with the words, "I'm not a plastic bag." It didn't take long for them to show up on eBay. Then there were the knockoffs listed under the description: "I am I'm not a plastic bag either shopping bag/tote."

While there are doubts about how much those who go for such bags truly want to save the Earth, the idea is to change people's habits. Peer pressure, guilt, fashion, fees -- whatever it takes.

Kelly Kinsey, of Lawrenceville, has become much more aware lately over how so many things affect the environment. She was leaving the Whole Foods store in East Liberty last week with a couple of reusable bags she'd just purchased. She'd first taken the plunge into reusable grocery bags a few days earlier but found she didn't have enough to do the job.

"There's awareness pretty much everywhere now about the environment," she said, noting some of the consequences of people's actions are pretty scary.

Olivia Robertson of East Liberty got her reusable bag from a previous occupant of her apartment building, but she's training herself to get in the habit of using it by leaving it in the front seat of her car. She's even used a Whole Foods bag at Giant Eagle and said the staff didn't make a fuss.

"My concern is more the environment factor," she said. Eventually she hopes to buy a hybrid car.

Retailers have tried different tactics to make it worth customers' while. Trader Joe's enters those who BYOB (bring your own bag) in contests. Wal-Mart, which does not sell reusable totes but has recycling bins in its stores, two years ago began a contest to get elementary school children to bring in plastic bags for recycling.

After introducing its new policy this spring, Ikea has already exceeded its one-year goal of reducing plastic bag use by 50 percent and it ran out of blue bags in Atlanta, according to a company spokeswoman.

Despite her initial confusion, Ms. Falvey had no problem buying a reusable Ikea bag to hold her new candles and rugs, explaining, "I'm all for recycling."

She hasn't been in the habit of bringing her own shopping bags but she's been thinking about changing. Not long ago she noticed a man loading up his own totes at a small grocery store near her home. "I thought, if he does it, I should," she said.

Darlene Ratliff, of Independence, Ohio, came through the Ikea line a little while later with her 3-year-old daughter, Samantha. They picked up a blue bag, too, even though they had already bought one at a different Ikea store. They just didn't bring it.

Ms. Ratliff said she liked that the retailer tries to be environmentally conscious and finds the blue bags useful for more than shopping. But old habits die hard. "I think this is nice as long as you can get into remembering to use it," she said.

She isn't accustomed to taking her own bags to shop at Kroger. Besides, she said, the bags come in handy to line trash cans. When she stops at Sam's Club or Aldi -- two more retailers that don't provide free bags -- she's fine with grabbing the empty boxes they try to leave out for customers.

Avalon resident Kathie Church was unloading a full grocery cart from the nearby Aldi store into her car. The mother of six had her own bags ready in the trunk -- paper, plastic, even some foldable totes from Hannaford supermarkets in Albany, N.Y., that her mother bought.

Not a hard-core environmental activist, her priorities tend to be keeping costs down and avoiding waste. If she stops at Giant Eagle, she doesn't bring her own bags, adding, "Here I do it because I have to." It's a trade-off she's willing to make for the savings that she believes Aldi offers.

It would be hard to convince all shoppers that the bag switch is just about being green. One Ikea shopper opined that this was about retailers cutting down on costs and that she definitely expected a bag when she's paying department store prices.

The traditional European system of picking up a few groceries daily may lend itself more to keeping a shopping bag on hand than the American tradition of loading up once a week, said Donna Dempsey, spokesman for the Film and Bag Federation, a unit of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. in Washington, D.C.

The trade group has been paying close attention to the issue, of course. San Francisco's move brought a lot of queries but the federation argues that wouldn't work for most municipalities since most don't have curbside composting programs as San Francisco does.

The plastics organization has been working with retailers in California to encourage more recycling, said Ms. Dempsey. Training retail workers not to double bag would also be good.

"Honestly, the industry gets it. It's a visible blight," she said. But the plastic bag is a lightweight, inexpensive product that serves many useful purposes. "It wouldn't be blowing in the wind if people properly disposed of it."

First published on May 26, 2007 at 9:27 pm
Teresa F. Lindeman can be reached at tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018.