Whither the plastic grocery bag?
On the one hand, plastic bags, despite their legendary durability, are facing a growing threat to their continued existence in the supermarket.
Media reports have excoriated use of the bags, calling them “a source of environmental anxiety” for polluting landfills and city streets and threatening birds, fish and other living creatures that may ingest the bags or get snared by them.
To date, several major American cities have passed, or are considering, legislation eliminating the use of plastic carryout bags in retail environments of a specific size or type. Other municipalities are passing or considering legislation that mandates retailers to provide a plastic recycling service in their stores or parking lots.
Even without the prodding of legislation, Whole Foods Market plans to eliminate distribution of plastic bags by Earth Day (April 22), while still offering recycled paper bags and encouraging the use of reusable bags.
The critics, of course, have a point. Each year the U.S. uses an estimated 86 billion plastic bags, which can endure for hundreds of years in landfills, according to environmental organizations.
On the other hand, many retailers consider the main alternative to plastic — paper bags — more undesirable because of their higher cost.
Paper bags are “the highest-cost item at the checkout,” said Larry Mihalko, director of operations for Landis Supermarkets, a four-store independent based in Telford, Pa. Some supermarkets are either completely eliminating paper bags from their checkouts or keeping them out of sight and only providing them to customers on request.
Moreover, many retailers believe that the environmental negatives associated with plastic bags can be offset if the bags are recycled and used more judiciously. To that end, they are working on developing programs that encourage consumers to use fewer plastic bags, to recycle what they do use, and to use reusable canvas bags or portable tote bins in place of plastic or paper.
Last fall, a major distributor of bags and other backroom supplies, Philadelphia-based Penn Jersey Paper (PJP), launched a plastic recycling/usage-reduction program called BagSmart in the Philadelphia, southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey markets.
A free service to retailers that are PJP customers, BagSmart is built around a partnership that PJP has developed with Goodwill Industries of Southern New Jersey/Quaker City and Winchester, Va.-based Trex Co., a manufacturer of recycled, non-wood decking.
Retailers already participating or planning to participate include Landis Supermarkets, Pathmark, D'Agostino, some independent ShopRite stores, McCaffrey's Markets, Fresh Grocers and Thriftway, among others. About 140 stores are currently in the program.
Carteret, N.J.-based Pathmark, a 140-store chain now owned by A&P, has 18 stores in the BagSmart program and is waiting for A&P to decide whether to expand into additional stores, said Rich Savner, Pathmark's director of public affairs. “We're pleased, from the Pathmark side of it,” said Savner.
Under the program, PJP provides Pathmark with recycling bins, and Goodwill Industries sorts, bundles and takes the plastic away, “so it's very much a turnkey program,” said Savner. Goodwill also discards any materials that cannot be recycled. “We also use BagSmart to recycle our shrink-wrap, which is another benefit, because it reduces tonnage in the waste stream and it's a cost savings for us.”
D'Agostino Supermarkets, based in Larchmont, N.Y., will be putting the BagSmart recycling bins in all stores this spring, doing what its president Nick D'Agostino III calls “the right thing environmentally.”
Linda Doherty, president New Jersey Food Council, Trenton, said that BagSmart offers “a viable solution” to retailers who don't have the infrastructure in place to do their own recycling of plastic. In addition, she sees some retailers “switching from doing their own recycling programs to using this one because of operational savings.”
Landis Supermarkets intends to discontinue using paper bags in its stores in March due to rising costs, and expects, through its participation in BagSmart, to reduce plastic bag usage as well, said Mihalko.
One of the most important parts of any plastic recycling program, said Mihalko, is to educate consumers. “We are using all of the BagSmart POP aids and promoting the BagSmart program in our weekly advertising, which goes out to 52,000 homes.”
Landis stores post signs saying that they are going to eliminate paper bags in the near future and encouraging the use of canvas bags and the recycling of plastic bags.
“Consumers are doing more recycling than ever before,” noted Mihalko. “We started getting one pickup a week with Goodwill. Now we're working on two, and I expect usage to continue to go up.”
Pathmark's Savner agreed. “In our high-volume stores, Goodwill is now picking up plastic for recycling two or three times a week. Customers are responding very well.”
Another plastic recycling program, Bag-2-Bag Recycling, is available to food retailers via Hartsville, S.C.-based Hilex Poly, a major producer of plastic bags.
Hilex Poly provides retailers with plastic recycling drums to set up outside their stores. Retailers, including such chains as Kroger, Hy-Vee, Price Chopper, Waldbaums, Bi-Lo and A&P, collect and bale the recycled plastic and bring it back to their distribution centers. From there, they sell the plastic to Hilex Poly, sending it to Hilex's plastic recycling plant in North Vernon, Ind.
In 2007, Hilex Poly recycled the equivalent of 450 million plastic bags and expects to expand its capability as more retailers come on board.
Hilex Poly has also just begun selling a degradable plastic bag called the Hilex Environmentally Degradable (HED) bag, which can degrade in as few as eight weeks when exposed to air and sunlight or heat.
And Hilex Poly is developing a software application, Enviro-Count, that counts how many items baggers put in bags, to cut down on underfilling. It lets employees know if they are placing the optimal number of items in bags and allows store managers to know when bags are underfilled. Five major chains are testing Enviro-Count now, and a rollout is tentatively set for the third quarter of this year.