The Pervasive Plastic Bag
We're getting some company here at The Checkout. As of today, I'm being joined by two of my colleagues, Ylan Q. Mui, who covers retail for the newspaper, and Nancy Trejos, who writes about personal finance. We'll be taking turns on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, so check in when you can. We'll also weigh in when news breaks or we find a really juicy story that we can't wait to share. As always, feel free to write to us at email@example.com.
Here's Ylan, taking on reusable shopping bags.
I jumped on the eco-bandwagon two years ago and bought my first reusable shopping bag at Giant for 99 cents. I went to the cash register flushed with pride, only to watch the clerk try to stuff my bag into a plastic one. I was furious, but that was just the beginning.
I've had to stop workers multiple times from packing my groceries in plastic bags before placing them inside my resuable bag. I rarely get the discount for bringing my own bag, and when I've asked for it, I've gotten blank stares. It's only three cents, but it's about the principle. What gives? Has plastic become our societal default?
According to Reusablebags.com , an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year -- or over one million per minute. Billions end up as litter each year. Wind-blown plastic bags have become so common in Africa that groups are now harvesting them to weave into bowls and hats. And apparently, lots of cute sea turtles die because they mistake the discarded bags for jellyfish, one of their favorite snacks.
I called Giant and Safeway to ask about their reusable bag policies and why the workers I sometimes encountered seemed to be so confused. Turtles lives hang in the balance, people! From Jamie Miller, Giant spokesman:
"The program is communicated to our cashiers. I'll be honest, we probably -- at the front end with our cashiers -- we probably haven't executed as well as we'd like to and we're going to beef up the training that we do. We really want to encourage our customers to purchase the reusable bags and reuse those."
Greg TenEyck, a spokesman for Safeway, said the company trains checkers on paper vs. plastic but hasn't really taken reusable into account. But customers' main complaint is that checkers don't fill the plastic bags that they do use, he said. Buy 10 items, and walk out with 10 bags -- even more if the checker performs the dreaded "double bag."
It turns out that each of Safeway's plastic bags can hold up to 20 pounds of weight. The company even has a local Director of Industrial Engineering whose job is to make sure the bags hold up. This guy keeps a Safeway plastic bag filled with at least 20 pounds of stuff hanging on a hook outside his office for months at a time to prove his point. Which is basically a long way of saying that double-bagging is totally unnecessary.
But the most eco-friendly option of all is to simply bring your own bag. That's why Whole Foods will stop carrying plastic bags at its stores starting on Earth Day (April 22). The company started giving out reusable bags as a marketing campaign and to raise money for charity in 2005, and they were so popular they began selling them in stores, said spokeswoman Michelle Guerrero. Customers get 5 cents back for each bag they bring. Guerrero said Whole Foods has distributed about 1.2 million reusable bags in the Mid-Atlantic region alone since it started the program.
Now that's not a bad number. But compared to the number of plastic bags floating around out there, it's just a drop in an ocean that -- with any luck -- will still be filled with sea turtles a generation from now.
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