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Green Matters: Paper, Plastic or Neither?

Retailers worldwide see value in trading disposable bags for reusable totes.
By Wendy Bedwell-Wilson

The ubiquitous plastic bag. With nearly every purchase, pet-specialty retailers reward customers with these carry-alls that make it convenient to haul heavy cans, greasy bones or baskets full of treats and toys from the store to the car to the house. For shoppers, they’re often the best choice for packing their purchases.

Click to enlarge timeline

They may not be the best choice, however, for the environment.

A majority of shoppers reuse plastic bags to scoop pet waste or line garbage cans—94 percent, according to Consumer Reports National Research Center—but many plastic bags invariably catch wind and parachute across fields, festoon fences alongside the freeway, bob like jellyfish in oceans, and choke waterways and landfills. The Environmental Protection Agency reported that in 2007, 3.8 million tons of plastic bags ended up as waste in the United States alone.

In response, governments across the globe have recognized consumers’ need to wean themselves from their addiction to plastic bags. A growing number of cities, counties, states and countries have forced people to quit cold turkey, outright banning plastic bags from the supply chain or imposing charges on those who use them.

On April 22, Congressman Jim Moran (D-Va.) introduced the Plastic Bag Reduction Act of 2009, a federal bill that would impose a 5-cent tax on plastic carryout bags from grocery and retail stores beginning Jan. 1, 2010. The proposed legislation would apply to grocery-store bags, dry-cleaning bags, take-out food bags, retail bags and service-station bags. Funding raised through the tax would go to retailers implementing the program (1 cent), the Land and Water Conservation Fund to clean up pollution (1 cent), state and local trash reduction and watershed protection programs (1 cent), and paying off the national debt (2 cents).

Kiwis Charging for a Cause

In April, New Zealand department store The Warehouse began charging shoppers 10 cents per plastic bag to cut waste. Though all profits will be donated to local charity groups, the company expected 20 million bags to be taken out of circulation in the 12 months following the new 10-cent charge, according to a news release.

A four-store pilot program between November 2008 and January 2009 raised $11,000 for communities and cut plastic bag use by 70 percent, according to a company spokesperson. One store chose to give the funds to a local RSPCA animal shelter in Rotorua.

“We expect the new 10-cent charge will significantly reduce the unnecessary use of plastic bags,” said The Warehouse CEO Ian Morrice. “Overseas research, coupled with the trial recently conducted in The Warehouse stores, suggests that applying a small charge to check-out bags directly results in reduction, and our customers agree.”

He added, “A recent survey of 600 of our customers told us that 78 percent support the change, with 85 percent of those affected by the trials at The Warehouse stores saying they would choose not to use a plastic bag once the 10-cent charge applies.”

“Plastic bags pose a serious threat to the environment, animal life and possibly even human health,” commented Moran in a press release. “The time has come to implement a national program that encourages the use of reusable bags instead of plastic.”

The United States is not alone. Cities and states in England, Australia, Canada, Ireland, China and India, among others, have enacted similar surcharges or bans, all with the aim of reducing plastic-bag use.

“In May, it will be mandatory to charge 15 cents per plastic bag in Toronto,” said Matt Yaccato, manager for Small Wonders Pet Emporium in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “It’ll encourage customers to bring their own bags. Considering you can buy a tote bag for $1, you might as well invest in those instead.”

Governments may be legislating the reduced use of plastic bags, but grassroots efforts at the retail level suggest the move away from plastic bags is due to more than mere bureaucratic mandates. Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market, for instance, stopped offering plastic bags at their checkout counters last year, and starting in May, the store will be the first national retailer to offer Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper bags, which are made from 100-percent post-consumer reclaimed materials.

“While bringing your own reusable bag is always the best choice, Whole Foods Market’s switch to FSC-certified bags made from 100-percent post-consumer recycled content is a great step forward,” said Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist, Natural Resources Defense Council, in a press release. “This move virtually eliminates the bags’ impact on forests and also sends a strong signal to other businesses that making the right environmental choices is possible.”

Pet-specialty retailers have already begun to make eco-friendly choices. Susan Goldstein, president of Earth Animal in Westport, Conn., hasn’t offered plastic bags in her retail store for years, instead choosing to give away canvas totes emblazoned with her store’s logo.

“Our customers love them, and it’s a way of free advertising,” she noted. “Out the gate, it seemed very expensive. But it was something that we were willing to give to the earth, and as it turned out, it has been very productive for us.”

Stephanie Volo, president of Planet Dog in Portland, Maine, plans to stop providing plastic bags in the company’s retail store starting next year.

“We would like to encourage our customers to come in and reuse a bag,” Volo said. “We’re taking the bags away altogether. We sell reusable bags, and we do have paper bags, but the paper bags we have are made out of recycled paper. That’s something that anybody that offers paper bags can do.”

Janene Zakrajsek, owner of Pussy & Pooch Pethouse and Pawbar in Los Angeles, offers paper, plastic and tote bags, but they’re all made with recycled materials—including the totes, which display her store’s logo.

“We use about 90-percent paper bags for purchases,” Zakrajsek said. “Our paper bags are made from at least 30-percent recycled material, and our plastic bags are made with 15- to 25-percent recycled material consisting of a combination of post-industrial and post-consumer resins with a minimum of 5-percent post-consumer recycled. We ask all our customers if they would like a bag, and we do sell reusable totes from [manufacturer] From Scratch as an option, too.”

Though plastic bags may be in environmentalists’ crosshairs, companies that manufacture them have committed to using more recycled content in the years to come, according to the American Chemistry Council (ACC), an organization that represents plastics manufacturers. On April 21, ACC’s Progressive Bag Affiliates group announced that companies that make more than 80 percent of plastic bags used at retail plan to use 40-percent recycled content by 2015, including at least 25-percent post-consumer material.

“The effort will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 463 million pounds, conserve enough energy (mainly natural gas) to heat 200,000 homes and reduce waste by 300 million pounds every year,” stated a press release issued by the organization.

Statistics from the Consumer Reports National Research Center showed that in a survey of 1,000 households, 40 percent used cloth, string or laminated bags of their own. So how can retailers encourage the other 60 percent to reuse bags or remember their totes?

Offer incentives, Zakrajsek said. Rather than discourage her customers from using new bags by charging them five or 10 cents, she’d rather encourage them by giving back.

“We prefer to offer an incentive rather than to charge for bags, like give customers a free treat when they buy a tote bag, or have them participate in our 20/20/20 program,” she said. “We offered the premium reusable totes for $20, customers could then save 20 percent on everything and anything they could fit into the tote and in turn we would donate 20 percent of the proceeds from sales of the totes to a local pet-rescue group.”

For retailers, marketing opportunities abound while educating customers and reducing plastic bag use, said Donna Myers, director of business development for Display Boys in Santa Ana, Calif. They can partner with manufacturers to co-brand tote bags, or they can work with companies to put up educational store fixtures.

“It would be so smart of retailers to put logos on the totes,” Myers said. “It’s a great canvas for them to do the branding. And they could educate around that, too. There are cross-merchandising opportunities throughout the store to educate customers and build their brand and brand awareness.

“The pet folks are a pretty unique group,” Myers added. “Many already have that concern for the environment, but I think retailers have to push education a little more and help customers understand what these totes are going to do and how they’re good for the environment.” <HOME>

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