Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Paper, Plastic or Neither, Revisited

By Brian Rohter

Last night I participated in a panel discussion, sponsored by Recycling Advocates, about how our community should deal with the use of “single use” grocery bags. City Commissioner Sam Adams, David Allaway, a waste prevention specialist for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and Tom Watson, a King County Washington recycling specialist were the other presenters.

Commissioner Adams was part of the conversation because he is a leading advocate for coming up with a plan to reduce the amount of bags that go into our waste stream (definitely a worthy goal). His office had started an effort to limit the use of bags last year and I blogged about it at that time. The momentum for this project slowed down during election season, but Commissioner Adams recently gave it a major push. In a nutshell, the proposal is to charge a fee for any bags you get the checkstands of grocery, drug or convenience stores. The Oregonian did a pretty comprehensive job describing the situation. "Which is best: Paper or plastic?"

David Allaway, from DEQ, explained the science behind the issue. While some of it was pretty wonky, one statement that I found particularly interesting was, that if we eliminated virtually every single plastic bag in Oregon, we would only reduce our greenhouse emissions by one tenth of one percent (.1%).

Tom Watson, from Seattle, talked about what had been going on up there and how the plastics industry trade groups had forced the issue about charging fees for paper and plastic bags to be put to a ballot. He said that three of the issues that had been discussed widely in Seattle were: There are more important environmental issues, so why is the city focusing on this? Why limit this to just grocery stores as opposed to department stores and others who use bags? And what about the people who reuse bags for garbage can liners and pet clean up, etc.? I would have been interested in hearing what the answers to these concerns were.

Commissioner Adams explained his reasoning behind the proposal and made it really clear that he was still in the information gathering phase and was committed to reaching out to all the stakeholders to create a win for our community as a whole. The Oregonian has a good summary of last nights meeting online already. "Is Portland ready to eliminate one-time-use grocery bags?"

I explained that even though the paper bags are way more expensive (11 cents each compared to about 3 cents each for plastic), New Seasons Market has never used the plastic bags because, we felt that the paper bags were clearly a better environmental choice. We’ve also done our best to reduce consumption by offering our customers an incentive to reuse paper bags and by offering plastic bag recycling stations.

I would support a ban on the plastic bags, as it seems like anything we can do to reduce the use of petroleum products is really important. However, I’m not ready to support a fee for people who want (or think they need) to use paper bags. I know that some folks think that it would be easy for people to avoid paying the fee (Just bring a reusable bag with you when you shop!), but I’m not convinced that it’s quite that simple. For the past year we’ve been trying hard to figure out how to remind our shoppers to bring their bags back with them and we’ve had pretty good progress. During 2007, in about 17% of our transactions, our customers reused their own bags. So far, during 2008, that percentage has jumped to about 27%. Even though we’re pleased with this improvement, we obviously still have a long way to go.

My suggestion is that we go ahead and prohibit the use of the plastic bags as Phase 1 and then assess the situation before we start Phase 2. This would have a couple of advantages; first it would give the folks in Portland a chance to adapt to the new way of doing things and second, it would give us an opportunity to learn from some of the other cities (like Seattle and San Francisco) who are considering similar policies. It seems like any time a change like this occurs, there are unintended consequences and I’d rather have a better understanding of what some of those lessons are before we try this experiment on 750,000 people.

I think our most important goal should be to do this right—to do a really good job on the planning and the implementation. If we get it right, it will be easier to “export” it to the rest of the state and, maybe like our bottle bill, to other parts of the country.

I’m definitely interested in what you are thinking about this and would be excited to see you chime in. Thanks to Commissioner Adams and Recycling Advocates for putting on the event. It was really worthwhile.

14 comments:

Rick Hamell said...

I'd prefer to be charged the full price of the bags and/or some with the excess donated to environmental concerns. $.25/bag would not be obscene in this case. I'd even be happy to be charged for the bags if it helped you reduce costs on products in general.

That being said, I do attempt to bring my reusable bags in as much as possible. Frequently I just forget them, or I'm riding my bike and just don't have them on me. We have even taken to providing our own bags for fruits and vegetables when we do bring them in, or we make many small trips during the week as we both work and live within a mile of one of your locations

This is just one more of our "small steps" to reducing our impact on the environment in general.

Brian Rohter said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Brian Rohter said...

Hi folks, I received some comments from our paper supplier, Aaron Taylor at International Paper, that I'd like to share with you. This is their position on the issue:

Our paper handle sacks are;

* Made from 40% Post Consumer Waste

* Made from 60% Pre-Consumer recovered wood fibers

* In the NW trees are not cut down to create chips specifically for paper bags, the fibers we get are a by-product of the dimension lumber process.

* Are the ONLY SFI certified paper bag manufacturer in the world

* Are made locally in Beaverton, Oregon (the next closest bag plant is in Arizona) which greatly reduces transportation costs.

* The paper is made locally at the Albany, Oregon paper mill which uses steam co-generation to provide most the energy used to produce the paper

* The inks are water-based and also produced locally in Beaverton, Oregon

* The glues are starch-based adhesives and are non-toxic and food-safe

* The New Seasons OCC is sent to a third-party recycler (AGG) which is ultimately collected by the local IP recycling plant to be sent to the Albany paper mill. This creates an Oregon-based closed loop recycling system.

* Have worked with Heather Schmidt of New Seasons Market to help reduce double-bagging

Greg said...

I'd like to see this: All preferred bags are the reusable kind, and the recycling program is one of re-use. If you use the cloth bags, you get the equivalent of the store card discount. Paper bags pay the regular rate. So, the default price is the paper bag price and the cloth bag gets you the "member" discount.

Cloth bags would be freely available and droppable like plastic bag drops work. You could even scan each bag at checkout if you wanted, and track how well the return and reuse program works.

There's no need to penalize customers for bag choice, but incenting those who want to participate in the preferred program is a great thing to do.

sue said...

I think people are missing the point, a little bit. There's really no reason to have a non-durable bag at all. Looks outside the US. Take Ireland for an example. You pay a heafty price at the grocery if you don't bring your own bag. What did it do for them? As a tourist I noticed that there is no, none, zero, plastic/paper bag debris in the streets of Dublin (or anywhere else).
Also, it doesn't matter if a paper bag is all 'eco-friendly'. They still need energy to create them. Have you ever smelled the pulp mill in Albany? Talk about pollution! So what if you're on your bike? I ride my bike and do my shopping by bike. I have a rack. I have buckets, baskets, panniers, backpack, whatever is needed to carry necessary items. I also plan ahead or go without if I can't carry it. Probably not necessary at that point.
I'm not trying to be 'holier than thou' just making the point that there really is no need for plastic or paper shopping bags.

lucia said...

While I understand that charging for bags is a big, unknown step, and one ahead of many other stores, it's one that makes sense for New Seasons.
I shop with my dollars at New Seasons for many reasons, but one of the biggest, is _because_ you consistantly show such forward thinking vision.

Of course there will be some grumbling. It's a big change. But even if the change is 'only one tenth of one percent' it will be positive. In fact I think the change will be larger, and one that can't be written as a percentage.
For many, thinking about the state of the enviroment is absolutely overwhelming. Giving people a way to make a small, conscious choice gives them a voice, even if it's one that's grumbling a bit.

I believe that New Season's vision goes far beyond good groceries. Please stay true to that vision, and keep clearing that path.

Anonymous said...

Money is the number one consumer incentive. We all know it and most of us who shop at NS appreciate any incentive which helps the environment, even at a slight inconvience. Charge for bags and *guarantee* that each of us will start bringing our own.

amber said...

On the bag manufacturer comments, it is my understanding that SFI is not really a great certification and was made up by the paper industry to confuse people. The REAL folks doing good certification are FSC or Forest Stewardship Council.

A fee is the best way to go in my opinion and I would be happy to pay for those times when I do need a bag, whether that is paper or plastic. As someone pointed out at the hearing (I was in attendance), New Seasons, by saying they are in support of a bag fee, is really saying nothing at all. It would not change their practice. I'd like to see them step it up and support a bag fee. It's good for business--you would actually save money on bags! I love your stores and will be disappointed if you oppose a fee effort.

Hilary said...

As a shopper who's strapped on cash but still enviornmentally aware, I would LOVE to be charged for bags as a reminder to bring my own everytime. A quarter (plus) is just enough to keep my own bags in my car at all times- being that 1 load of laundry costs me $3.00 in quarters alone.

The economy is only getting worse and its only fair to charge people for using what you're paying for. Just like food- its marked up to get profit and pay for the fuel charges/labor. I say yes yes yes to the bag fee!

npulone said...

First I should state that I re-use cloth and paper bags all ready for shopping. I find it easy to do most of the time. I have forgotten to return the bags to the car once in a while and that is when I have to use the bags at the store. If I have to use bags I want them to be paper. I don't think I would mind paying to use a bag but know other folks that will. In some people's view I am afraid, it may be hard to reconile the "friendliest" store in town with being charged for bags unless everyone does it. I like the idea of offering a small store of recycled bags from other customers at each store that could be used if I forget mine. I would also like a way to re-use bags for online shopping. Incenting those of us that religiously use cloth bags is helpful but I think you run the risk of alienating those who are just learning about this idea.

MMW said...

just want you to know how much I LOVE the paper bags because I re-use them for so many things. My kids use them to organize their toys, I use them to haul items to Goodwill, my husband uses them to take lunch and items to work. We even use them to line our garbage bins.

Even though we don't bring them back to the store for groceries again - we do reduce reuse and recycle.

I'd also be happy to pay for for the bags IF IT comes to that.

Anonymous said...

It took me awhile to start remembering to bring my own bags but now I almost always do. Here is what I did to start remembering: I put a bar of chocolate in my reusable bag, and told myself I would get to eat it when I remembered to bring the bag to the store. And then I did... and now I always do. Rewards work.

Katyo said...

I'm late to the party, but my comment is this.. not only do we need to eliminate the plastic bags at the checkout (thanks new seasons for only offering paper!!) but we also need to figure out an alternative to plastic in the produce department. I have my own cloth shopping bags and haven't used a paper or plastic bag for groceries in a LOOONG time, but produce is my downfall. I've tried washing and reusing, and have been mildly successful, but it's a big hassle to expect everyone to wash out their plastic produce bags. what can we use as a viable produce bag alternative?

Anonymous said...

It looks like I am a little late to the party as well, but there seems to be a New Seasons Market customer viewpoint that is missing. I don't understand why people want to use government, which includes force, to move their pet projects along.

Instead of, or maybe in addition to, banning plastic bags we should ban meat, dairy, eggs and all animal products. If the "environment" is really our concern then that would be more logical. Or maybe we could even ban certain vegetables that are less environmentally friendly than the average vegetable. Or maybe we could ban all aluminum canned products, or glass enclosed products since the extra weight requires extra resources to transport.

Or maybe we can allow people to be treated like adults and have them make decisions that they view as reasonable. I'm a vegan, but I don't see how it makes sense to legislate that to everyone. I use reusable bags the vast majority of the time, but don't see how it makes sense to legislate that to everyone.

The problem isn't with the plastic bags, they have their place. The problem is with people not being held accountable for damaging others private property, easily manipulated people to jump in on whatever hot button environmental issue is being lobbied at any given time, and government figures who desperately want to justify their existence.

The sort of thinking that supports banning plastic bags is the sort of thinking that leads to companies using the government force to subpoena the private property of a business.

I love New Seasons Market and would support them in their decision to not supply plastic bags in their private establishment. I, however, will never be behind the use of government, and therefore violence, to force their decision.

Ben