Paper or plastic? Or recyclable? Or reusable?
The decisions consumers make at the end of their shopping trip may get more complex with the passage of a new bag ordinance in San Francisco and the possibility other jurisdictions around the country may follow with similar legislation.
The San Francisco law will require that supermarkets doing more than $2 million in annual sales switch to biodegradable or recyclable bags by the end of the year.
Similar legislation is pending in Los Angeles, while New York state may soon see a proposal that would force grocery and drug stores to cut use of non-biodegradable plastic bags in half by the end of 2010 and to eliminate them altogether by 2012.
“You could call it the Al Gore effect, given the higher degree of awareness about global warming and related issues,” Jonathan Ziegler, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based analyst with Dutton Associates, El Dorado Hills, Calif., told SN.
“It would have been nice if the industry had been forward-thinking enough to see this coming and come up with its own solution on the bag issue instead of getting caught with its pants down, but it didn't, and as a result it had this legislation shoved down its throat in San Francisco.
“And I suspect this kind of action will be contagious and will roll across cities all over the U.S. and take on a life of its own.”
Jon Hauptman, partner in Willard Bishop, Barrington, Ill., said he isn't sure if similar legislation will spread. “We've seen municipalities try to enact legislation regulating use of plastic sacks, but those actions generally have not caught on,” he noted.
However, he said he believes the industry will find a way to take the San Francisco law — and any others that may follow — in stride and move on.
“This will force supermarkets to take another look at their grocery sack programs to make sure they have environmentally sustainable offerings,” Hauptman said. “And it could force supermarkets to look at new types of sacks, including some that are stronger or reusable or more easily recyclable.
“What you may see is retailers looking at different types of plastic that are more environmentally friendly — that's the way I think it will go — and some retailers will find they may have to spend a little more per bag in the short term to come up with more environmentally friendly solutions in the long term.”
Ziegler said he thinks the industry should go back to vendors to find new solutions.
Reusable bags might be one such solution, he suggested, “though getting consumers to reuse bags, which is not quite as convenient, might mean the supermarkets will have to come up with some form of incentives to induce consumers to reuse bags.”
In any case, he does not see bag legislation as a major factor for change in the industry. “It's like a flea on an elephant. This is a minor issue, and shortly it will be business as usual in San Francisco and anywhere else legislation is passed.
“The industry will come up with a solution on the bag issue, but it needs to think that way in other of its business endeavors to get in front of issues instead of letting someone else tell it what to do.”
That's what Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., is doing — offering reusable canvas bags retailing for 99 cents. According to the company, if 2% of its customers switch to the reusable bags, the chain could eliminate the use of 77 million plastic bags a year.
Robert Graybill, vice president, FMS Solutions, Pasadena, Md., said he believes government agencies should be going after “bigger targets than recycling bags. There needs to be a change in focus to things that matter.”
Regarding the impact of bag legislation, Graybill said it will inevitably lead to higher supply costs “that will have to be passed on to consumers.”
Among California players, the issue is more practical than philosophical.
“This new legislation is not going to affect us at all,” Bob Piccinini, chairman and chief executive officer of Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif., told SN. “We'll just quit offering [fuel-based] plastic.
“And while the supervisors of San Francisco are very well-intentioned, I have some doubts about how much benefit there will be.”
The California Grocers Association, which has opposed the San Francisco legislation since it was proposed, said it does not believe the new bag program there will accomplish what its backers intend. “Compostable bags cannot be recycled and must be segregated from other carryout bags,” CGA said in a written statement, “and mixing compostable carryout bags in the bag/film stream renders that stream of recycled plastic material unusable.
“Recycling experts have said the unintended recycling of both bags will render any subsequent material produced using the contaminated supply as inferior and unsaleable.”