SAN FRANCISCO — Plastic grocery bags represent one of the supermarket industry's biggest contributions to environmental waste, but the industry is beginning to make progress in reducing the number of bags leaving its stores — and in recycling those that do.
The bag problem is not trivial. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 380 billion plastic bags are used in the United States every year, approximately 100 billion as plastic grocery bags. Not only do plastic bags take as long as an estimated 1,000 years to degrade in landfills, but as litter, plastic bags have become a major public expense.
The problem has prompted local municipalities to look for answers. Cities like Los Angeles and Toronto are considering imposing a surcharge on plastic grocery bags or passing regulations that require retailers of a certain size to dispense plastic bags that are compostable or biodegradable.
On the state level, a new environmental law enacted in California last December requires store operators to establish, by July 1, a recycling program that will allow customers to return clean plastic carryout bags to stores.
Many supermarket retailers are now responding to this issue. Late last month, the California Grocers Association announced that seven of San Francisco's supermarket companies, operating 32 stores, reduced the number of plastic bags used in their stores by 7.6 million in 2006.
The reduction is the result of a voluntary agreement struck between the city and county of San Francisco and the food retailers for the latter to cut back plastic bag usage in order to prevent the imposition of a 17-cent per bag tax. The retailers' efforts included an education campaign, setting up recycling containers and the sale of reusable bags.
The participating retailers included Albertsons, Andronico's, Bell Markets, CalMart, Cala Foods, Mollie Stone's Markets and Safeway.
A&P Canada, Toronto, encourages its customers to return clean plastic bags to its stores. The chain combines those bags with other plastic films used at their stores and sells the materials to Hartsville, S.C.-based Hilex Poly. Hilex takes the materials to its recycling facility in North Vernon, Ind. where the used bags and other plastic are reprocessed into new plastic bags.
Leon Farahnik, chairman of HPC Industries, Los Angeles, the parent company of Hilex, said management is working on opening a similar facility in the near future, probably in California so it can also service West Coast retailers. Hilex also makes the “Rhino” bag, a large, strong recyclable bag designed to reduce bag usage.
Giant Foods in Landover, Md., also collects and recycles plastic bags. Spokesman Jamie Miller said the program has evolved into a growing and profitable business. “When we started it back in 2001, a trailer of plastic would sell for about $300. Today, a trailer of plastic sells for $10,000. There is definitely a demand for recycled plastic.” Giant and sister Ahold division Stop & Shop recycled 1.6 tons of plastic in 2006.
One alternative to plastic bags is high-quality reusable shopping bags made of materials that don't need to be discarded after use.
Two leading retail food chains, West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee and Springfield, Mass-based Big Y, reduced plastic bag usage by 25% about six months after implementing a Hippo Sak reusable/recyclable bag program, from Crown-Poly, Huntington Park, Calif., last fall. Because Hippo Sak bags have a reinforced bottom and can hold more items than a traditional plastic bag, both chains were able to significantly reduce bag usage “without requiring any change in the behavior of their customers,” said Catherine Browne, general manager, Crown-Poly.
Safeway is selling reusable bags made of plastic and fiber for 99 cents in all Safeway-banner divisions in the U.S. Safeway spokeswoman Teena Massingill said Safeway is seeing “a positive consumer reaction” to the bags, “though it varies by geography, with more people in the San Francisco area opting to use them. But they also sell well throughout Northern California.”
A&P Canada sells what Tammy Smitham, communications director, described as an “affordable” alternative to plastic bags: a machine-washable, reusable shopping bag made by Commerce, Calif.-based Earthwise Bag Co. and retailing for 99 cents.
Made from a recyclable, durable and lightweight material called non-woven polypropylene, the Earthwise bag, said Smitham, is heavier and deeper than traditional plastic bags, so it can safely hold up to 50 pounds of goods, thus giving customers the added reassurance of knowing their bags will not break as they make their way home. A&P of Canada trains its cashiers to fully pack all bags so fewer bags are used and customers have fewer bags to carry.
Pathmark Stores, Carteret, N.J., launched an Earthwise Reusable Bag Program last month in all of its 141 supermarkets. Rich Savner, Pathmark's director of public affairs, said Pathmark believes that there is “an opportunity in the retail community to reduce the amount of plastic and paper waste,” adding that since many customers are environmentally conscious, they will be receptive to using the Earthwise bags. “Not only are the bags environmentally friendly, inexpensive and aesthetically pleasing, but they can be reused for a variety of purposes.”
Stop & Shop, which also has an Earthwise reusable shopping bag program, regards it as “an opportunity to make a difference in our stores, which touch over hundreds of communities throughout the Northeast,” said Elizabeth Psaros, marketing manager for Stop & Shop.
In January 2006, Wal-Mart Stores implemented a statewide rollout in California of the Wal-Mart Kids Recycling Challenge.
The private/public partnership helps California elementary school students protect the planet's resources and minimize plastic bag litter while earning money for their schools.
The program works this way: For each 60-gallon collection bag filled with plastic bags, the participating schools are awarded $5. Students in the schools fill the collection bags (provided by Wal-Mart) and take them to the nearest Wal-Mart.
The schools that bring in the most collection bags receive additional cash grants of $1,500, $1,000 or $500 from the Wal-Mart Foundation.