'Paper, plastic or reusable?' Why variety in brands and bags matters

By David Asselin, dasselin@plasticsindustry.org

The way that people do their grocery shopping in Austin, Portland and Seattle has changed, by government decree. In all three cities, city councils have enacted bans on plastic bags. With this trend in the national spotlight, business owners on the front lines of this change may be asking: What does this mean for my business? Might similar legislation be headed my way?

As any business owner knows, the consumer is indispensible to success. Providing for the needs and preferences of customers—and recognizing the diversity of these preferences—builds loyalty.

And so, when entering the produce section of a grocery store, I have the option of organic fruits and vegetables. Walk over to the personal care section and there’s not one type of toothpaste; there are dozens to choose from. Catering to the varied preferences of customers is at the core of American business—it’s part of our culture.

Grocery bags are no different. Realizing this, most stores have long provided shoppers with the choice of paper or plastic bags. In recent years, reusable bags, often branded with a store logo, have become increasingly common, giving shoppers a third choice at the checkout counter. Whether the shopper prefers to bring his own bags from home or reuse his plastic retail bags to pick up pet waste, he can do just that.

Simply put, plastic bags are available because shoppers continue to find them useful. When government intervenes to take away an affordable item that many choose to use, something is amiss.

Specifically, several considerations are being overlooked:

The value of plastic: Plastic bags were adopted in the 1970’s and, since then, have been recognized for their cost and energy savings, cleanliness,  reliability (being able to carry 25 pounds) and recyclability. Furthermore, shoppers like them because they serve various secondary functions—as trash-bin liners, pet-waste disposal or lunch bags.

Bans don’t reduce litter. In justifying their actions, city council members have alleged that plastic bags are a large portion of litter. While no amount of litter is acceptable, the reality is that plastic bags are a minuscule portion of the waste stream—a fraction of 1%. Even if a city manages to remove all plastic bags from use (and, given the exemptions generally granted to produce bags, dry cleaning bags, etc. that’s all but impossible), what about the more than 99% of the litter that remains? The larger drivers of litter—including soda cans, chip bags and cigarette butts will remain. Education, not legislation, changes habits.

Recycling is a better solution. The recycling bins in front of America’s grocery stores are links in America’s recycling chain. It’s a system that joins all partners—from factory to shopper to store – in a circle of sustainability that turns used plastic bags into playground equipment, benches and even new plastic bags.

In the end, plastic bag bans benefit no one except the vote-seeking council member—not the shopper who involuntarily sacrifices a useful item, not the store that prides itself on facilitating consumer choice and not the environment. The public demand to go green is a powerful one, but it requires neither a huge shift in behavior nor drastic legislation. It merely demands a recommitment to a lifestyle defined by the mantra: reduce, reuse, recycle. I hope you can support us in this goal as we strive for thoughtful policies, which will actually improve our environment.

Dave Asselin is executive director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance. It was founded in 2005 to represent the United States’ plastic bag manufacturing and recycling sector, employing 30,800 workers in 349 communities across the nation. APBA promotes the responsible use, reuse, recycling and disposal of plastic bags and advocates for American-made plastic products as the best environmental choice at check out—for both retailers and consumers. He can be reached at dasselin@plasticsindustry.org.

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