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Paper Or Plastic Redux: Safeway's View

Here's a response to Binary Man's blog item last week about the proposals in Virginia to ban or limit the use of plastic shopping bags at grocers and other major retailers. The author is Gregory Ten Eyck, Safeway's spokesman and lobbyist:

Hi, Binary Man:

I enjoyed your column on the issue of paper or plastic in today's Post. I think you covered the subject very well, and in a fair, even-handed manner.

Obviously, we folks at Safeway are directly in the middle of these debates. Being the customer-focused company we are, we have always placed a high priority on our shoppers' convenience and choice. Frankly, we stopped asking the question "Paper or plastic?" years ago (even though paper is available on request) because virtually everyone wants plastic. It's much, much easier to carry loads of groceries, and those plastic bags have so many uses around the home. Just ask the owner of a pet! Additionally, several years ago, we placed plastic bag recycling bins in the front of our stores. We not only accept our own used bags, but also those from any retailer. Most people tell us that it's a valuable community service. But I can't tell you the reason is all altruistic; we make money on selling the used plastic bags to Trex, a company that makes synthetic lumber. Profit is the first rule in a successful recycling effort. So plastic is completely recyclable, and we want to encourage our customers to bring their bags back to our stores. At least those that they haven't reused as trash bags.

Meanwhile, we would be most happy if customers were to bring their own reusable bags to the store, as shoppers in many other countries do. That would reduce our bag expenses and be even better for the environment.

The mistake some well-meaning people make is thinking that plastic is bad and paper is good for the environment. As you pointed out so well in your column, that is just not the case. If you ban one, you have to ban the other. Or if government wants to levy a tax on one type of bag to discourage its use, it needs to levy the same tax on the other.

You mentioned the San Francisco law, which unfairly applies only to chain stores and those grossing over $2 million a year, and prohibits the distribution of non-compostable plastic bags. Because of the cost of this type of bag, virtually all retailers have gone to paper bags. This was feel-good legislation that has done very little for the environment but has increased the cost of doing business in the city by the bay. For an excellent analysis of the effects of this law and the entire plastic vs. paper debate (including some debunking of myths), please take a few minutes to click this link and read a story in the SF Weekly: http://www.sfweekly.com/content/printVersion/1297386.

Thanks again for your rational discussion of this issue. And please let me know if I can ever serve as a resource.

Gregory A. Ten Eyck
Director of Public Affairs and Government Relations
Safeway Inc./Eastern Division

By Marc Fisher |  January 27, 2009; 3:43 PM ET
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