The Checkout

The Pervasive Plastic Bag

Annys Shin

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

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 , 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.

By Annys Shin |  April 7, 2008; 8:00 AM ET Annys Shin , Consumer News
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Yay Whole Foods! People just need to get in the habit of keeping the bags in their cars, purses, bikes, etc. That way they'll never forget to use them. It can be learned very easily. I've heard of places charging 25 cents for bags. People tend to learn a little quicker when it hits their wallet.

Posted by: Tara | April 7, 2008 8:34 AM

This article emphasizes an encounter I had this weekend. I stash my plastic bags to keep for re-use as garbage bags (hey, I figure a plastic bag is a plastic bag- at least I got 2 uses out of them) But I had a mountain growing, so I took a bunch with me to the store to drop off for the bag recycling program. But figuring it was a waste to recycle those only to go into the store and buy groceries that required more bags- I just held on to them to re-use, and what was left I would then recycle. You would not believe how annoyed the checker and bag-er seemed over this simple request. They did it, but very begrudgingly. Just goes to show how most people aren't aware of the use (or overuse) of everyday items, like grocery bags, can have an immense impact on our environment. It's too bad grocery stores don't take a more proactive approach. Besides, it would only help their bottom line. Less bags= less money spent by them.

Posted by: Jennifer | April 7, 2008 8:40 AM

The article complained about checkers not putting "enough" into plastic bags
but I have the opposite problem with reusable bags (which I love but frequently forget to take inside.)
The fill those bags to the brim,
even if I give them 6 to use, instead of spreading out the groceries into the 6, they will stuff 3 bags, making them impossible for me to lift.
So I end up standing at my car trunk, moving items from the bags filled by the checkers into the bags they SHOULD have filled half way.
I have even ASKED them not to overfill bags and they ignore this request.
I definitely get the impression the bag fillers don't like dealing with reusables.

Posted by: marina | April 7, 2008 8:59 AM

On several occasions we've brought our whole foods reusable bags to safeway or giant and usually get a blank stare of confusion when we hand them to the check out folks.

And I agree with marina, they do tend to well over-pack the reusables, even when I have plenty of others for them to use.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 7, 2008 9:05 AM

I've started re-using the plastic bags I get from Safeway and the like as well as carrying around the reusable Trader Joe's bags when I'm smart enough to remember them. In CA where I am from this is now the usual practice but every store I've gone to knows exactly what to do when I put my bags on the conveyor belt next to my food. In CO however, it's another story.

I've put my plastic bags next to my merchandise and had cashiers pick them up and stare at them quizzically, try to throw them in the trash, put them in a new plastic bag, etc. It's really appalling. I can't believe how many times I have to explain that I want them to put my purchases IN that bag. Sheesh people!

Posted by: Megan | April 7, 2008 9:14 AM

My store of choice is Wegman's and we have four of their bags along with one each from Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. In the days before reusable bags I always asked for paper since I inevitably left with the dreaded 1-2 items per bag with plastic (although they are great for cleaning up after our dogs when we go for our nightly walk).

My personal pet peeve, however, is that few checkers actually know how to load multiple bags. I take great care to put heavy items and products which create a good base (e.g., box of instant oatmeal, large can of crushed tomatoes, 1/2 gallon of OJ) up front with the loose and/or oddly shaped products behind. The objective, of course, is to allow the checker to divide the load evenly across multiple bags. What I generally end up with, however, is a bag with three boxes of cereal, bananas and yogurt that a 5-year old could carry with the others overloaded with milk, juice and canned goods.

My partner thinks I am crazy, but I actively seek out "good" checkers at Wegman's, but find that even with their good training it is a difficult skill to teach and no one really seems to care that much about it. The store managers and front end supervisors know me by sight now and often steer me to specific check stands.

Posted by: SapphicHokieMom | April 7, 2008 9:16 AM

I've had the opposite happen--they don't fill my reusable bags enough. Granted, I can lift the heavy bags, but I've had Safeway cashiers tell me that they "can't allow" me to have such heavy bags! And putting food into plastic bags to put them in the reusable bags--happens all the time. I try to state clearly when I get to checkout: NO PLASTIC. But they will gather up the loose apples, separate the meat, bag a bottle of cleaning supplies---what I try to do is bag it myself. At Shoppers they love this. Final rant: has anyone else noticed that using your own bag at the self-checkout line can be a headache? I've overcome this by scanning the milk first, placing it in the bag, then placing the bag in the bagging area. This usually works...

Posted by: wdc | April 7, 2008 9:17 AM

Some good news: yesterday at Whole Foods, six out of the seven people who walked in about the same time I did brought their own bags!

Posted by: wdc | April 7, 2008 9:19 AM

One of the easiest ways to be a little more earth-friendly is to bring your own grocery bags. According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags every year - and that is just one country.

Posted by: Cool Grocery Bags | April 7, 2008 9:55 AM

I either place my reusable bags in front of my groceries on the belt, or I hand them to the cashier as I walk up. Although, a few times, I've had to tell an over-zealous cashier or two that I have my own bags when they have started bagging without looking.

I also agree with the problems many stores have with their baggers ability to properly bag groceries. I was a bagger when I was a teenager and we had training that taught you about using multiple bags at the same time to spread heavy items across the bottom, grouping like items together, etc. I wonder if stores just don't train their employees on bagging anymore?

Posted by: M Street | April 7, 2008 10:12 AM

I live in St. Louis and have started to notice more and more people bringing their own bag. The grocery stores are even selling reusable bags for around $1.00. The only problem I've had (so far) happened when I went to a discount grocery store and brought my own bags, the cashier at first ignored them and started to put my things in a plastic bag, when I corrected him, he then claimed I had to bag my own groceries if I wanted to use my bags. I like the idea of giving people an incentative to use reusable bags, either with a discount on current or future purchases, Trader Joe's enters your name in a monthly drawing for free groceries.

Posted by: dym | April 7, 2008 10:37 AM

I've brought my own bags for years, and I used to circumvent the checkers and simply pack my own bags: it gave me something to do at the checkout and I could pack them better. Now that I have a kid, however, dividing my attention isn't possible, yet relying on the Giant/Safeway checkers to pack the bags is a bad option too. Please let's push store and regional managers to train checkout staff on packing reusable bags, because I don't have the ability anymore to school them all every time I check out.

Posted by: ReduceReuseRecycle | April 7, 2008 11:13 AM

I've carried my own canvas and net bags (from 7th Generation) for years and get 3 cents back for each bag. On the other hand, I 've seen checkers put only one item in each bag for other shoppers. They go through the line with 5 items and carry out 5 bags. Can't they put more than one item in each bag?

Posted by: Anonymous | April 7, 2008 11:31 AM

"Final rant: has anyone else noticed that using your own bag at the self-checkout line can be a headache? I've overcome this by scanning the milk first, placing it in the bag, then placing the bag in the bagging area."

And I thought that I was the only one with this problem...I ONLY use the self-checkout at the Burke Safeway (Burke Centre Parkway) and I really hate it when I put down a paper or reusable bag only to get the dreaded "unexpected item in bagging area" message. I understand the need to reduce shrinkage, but there needs to be a way to easily handle this.

Posted by: SapphicHokieMom | April 7, 2008 11:57 AM

I hate to rain on this parade, but I'd be a lot more in favor of reusable bags if the manufacturers would design one that was convenient for checkers to use. The problem is that they don't stand up or stay open by themselves, and aren't designed so that they can be slipped onto the metal pegs that hold the plastic bags. I get really frustrated when I'm behind someone who's brought in reusable bags and the cashier slows down to less than half his usual speed because he's trying to get groceries into a bunch of floppy reusable bags.

Posted by: fudd | April 7, 2008 12:36 PM

Anyone else have the problem with reusable bags falling apart way to quickly? Especially the Whole Food bags - I must scrape them on the ground as I walk (I'm short) but they get holes in them after one or two uses. I like using reusables but I hate having to throw them out so quickly but don't know how to fix it...

Posted by: Washington, DC | April 7, 2008 2:12 PM

I've gotten some great looks bringing my reusable bags to the mall. The cashiers at places like Macy's are totally unprepared for you to whip out your own cotton bags. Explaining I don't want the store's bags for environmental reasons usually just gets me confused looks. I've started lying and saying I'm buying gifts and don't want the people I'm shopping with to see what stores I've been to. That's generally effective.

Harris Teeter has been really great about using my bags. I like that they put raw items from the butcher and fish counters in plastic bags before putting them in my cloth bags.

I've pretty much given up on Whole Foods bags. The paint chips off on everything and they never want to stand up. I've replaced them with some of the un-dyed cotton bags from They're not perfect at standing up but they're much better than Whole Foods, plus they were very cheap and are machine washable (but hang-dry).

Posted by: CortJstr | April 7, 2008 2:28 PM

Our local chain sells canvas bags that are the same size and design as your standard paper bag with handles. WHich means it folds flat so I can leave it in the trunk, and it stands up when you're bagging groceries. I don't always remember it, but Ukrops does an excellent job training their cashiers and baggers. I've actually had to tell the cashier to charge me for the bag, not just give me the discount, when I buy more bags.

Posted by: from Richmond | April 7, 2008 5:00 PM

Sea turtles do indeed get mixed up between plastic bags in the water and jellyfish. Unfortunately, it usually ends up killing animals that ingest them. My organization, Oceana, provides a list of things people can do to help sea turtles on a daily basis. Using reusable bags, rather than disposable plastic ones, is one of the simplest things a person can do to help. You can learn more about the problems sea turtles are facing here:

Posted by: Kevin at Oceana | April 7, 2008 5:52 PM

While I agree with fudd (reusable bags aren't necessarily bagger friendly), I love my Envirosax. I have 10 of them - a few permanently reside in my purse, the others live in a pair of canvas totes that I use for extra heavy or cold items.

I've only had one checker out here in Western Wisconsin give me grief - so many of our stores here offer reusable bags (the heavily Norske population is very parsimonious) that it just isn't a big deal. Most are happy to oblige - one less piece of overhead to give away!

Posted by: Chasmosaur | April 7, 2008 6:39 PM

I make my own reusable bags out of thirft store sheets. They are based on the gusseted plastic bag. I've yet to solve the floppy problem, but I am working on some tabs that could hook over the metal arms in the bagging stand. No, I don't sell these, so its not a plug for a website :)

For M Street - I think part of the problem is there are rarely dedicated baggers anymore. Now the cashier bags the groceries, so the bags generally get packed in the order they go on the belt. I try to grup things togther on the belt the way I'd like them bagged to help with this. I, too, was a bagger in my teens. I remember being trained on bagging by a video "build walls, fill it out, fill it up."

Posted by: Anonymous | April 8, 2008 10:39 AM

A few people have said they forget their bags. I do too, but I've improved my ability to remember to bring my reusable bags into the store by this tactic: If I forget the bags, and don't want to go back to the car for them (cold, wind, etc.), I simply put my groceries, unbagged, back into the cart after checking out, then when back to the car, I fill the bags myself at that time. It motivates me to remember the bags! I help speed up the grocery clerks by handing them one opened bag at a time. Most are OK with this-saves a few seconds. I try to be friendly to the store staff-others are watching, too, and maybe they'll get the idea to use the bags.

Posted by: Denni on the lake | April 9, 2008 10:24 AM

I use Chico Bags. They fit over the metal bars just like the plastic ones. They are also durable, hold up to 25 lbs, and fold into a little pouch. The pouch clips on to whatever purse/backpack I'm using, so I never forget.
I bag my own or my 14 year-old daughter does it. Henry's, Trader Joes, the co-op, and Whole Foods are the only place we don't have to.
Don't use the self-checkout if possible, since they are just there to eliminate checkers. Unfortunately, people need those kind of jobs and the co's don't want to pay union salaries.

Posted by: Susan | April 12, 2008 12:26 AM

I have baggu bags ( and I am really impressed. Similar to the chico bag, maybe bigger. I'd recommend some patience with baggers at stores - I used to bag groceries and can say that sometimes you're on auto-pilot, just trying to get things done quickly. So, it's not surprising that handing these people your reusable (or used?) bags could throw them off. The baggus and chico bags are super though - these bags are far more convenient than I had expected!

Posted by: kris | April 12, 2008 9:51 PM

There's an industry group called Progressive Bag Alliance, that promotes plastic bag recycling. Some interesting tips & stuff at:

Posted by: Don | April 18, 2008 6:04 PM

I'm one of those folks who uses my plastic grocery bags as my garbage bags, which works out to a nearly perfect balance. We are a family of four and haven't bought trashbags for almost 10 years and the bags don't pile up at our house.

Don't worry about the checkout people at the store - they are learning to deal with the reusuable bags. I guess I will too.

Posted by: Josey | May 2, 2008 11:10 AM

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