By now, just about every supermarket in the country should have had all of the polypropylene bags they offer tested for lead and other heavy metals. Chances are that they meet or exceed federal safety standards. Of the 77 tested bags tested by one company, 20 had lead levels of more than 90 parts per million (ppm), which is the safety threshold used by the Consumer Product Safety Commission on household paint.
Of those 20, only five had levels of more than 200 ppm — which is still 100 ppm below the current level of lead allowed in children's toys. Indeed, even the worst bags are still safer than 16 kiddie products recalled so far in 2010 by federal authorities for excessive lead levels, including a lacrosse glove, a tiara set and even a cloth book.
Media one-upmanship certainly fed the embers that eventually erupted into a firestorm of controversy. The issue has been smoldering since September, when a couple of consumer watchdog groups performed tests on bags from Wegmans, the 76-store chain based in Rochester, N.Y. That was followed by the report from the Tampa Tribune, which profiled bag problems among Florida retailers, including Publix and Winn-Dixie. Just last week, the Associated Press found dangerous levels of heavy metals in the decorative elements on the outside of children's drinking glasses.
While it's good that the industry and consumers are aware of the potential environmental hazards presented by the bags, it's unfortunate that the sustainability message the bags represented has been waylaid. Make no mistake: Despite the headlines, reusable shopping bags are still a sound option to paper or disposable plastic bags. The vast majority of those made of nonwoven polypropylene are safe, reliable, convenient and, best of all, stay with shoppers even when they are outside of the store. In a business built around promotional and merchandising prowess, they're a marketer's dream.
And therein lies the irony. Supermarkets have become champions of environmentally sensitive technology and design, but it's been a challenge to communicate those green efforts to consumers. There's little or nothing to display. Most of the business of sustainability is conducted off of the sales floor. The state-of-the-art biohydrator is in the back service area and the high-efficiency plumbing is behind the wall.
Not so with reusable bags. Consumers identify with them — precisely because they are a tangible manifestation of “sustainability,” a concept that remains largely a vague, abstract concept for many people, according to two separate, recently published studies. Both reports concluded that there is a limit to what American consumers understand about sustainability.
In this context, then, reusable bags are a simple idea, possessing both merit and visibility. If they need to be tested, test them. If they need to be reformulated, so be it. What's important is that supermarkets continue to help their shoppers relate to sustainability in a meaningful way.