In December I wrote about the progress of the reusable bag movement, reporting on the efforts of various communities such as San Jose and Los Angeles County that have combated the menacing Bag Monster, the figure-head of single-use plastics and the poster-child of unnecessary waste.
What started out in San Francisco as a small grassroots campaign to curb urban blight, reduce litter and decrease marine pollution has turned into an all-out war between various communities and the single-use plastics industrial complex. As a retailer, can you afford to sit on the sidelines?
As discussed in my previous article, the 2010 failure of a widely supported state-wide law reducing the unnecessary use of disposable single-use bags here in California has only proved to galvanize the movement. In 2011, we are seeing a groundswell in the introduction of municipal ordinances, initiatives and ballot measures, especially in my state of California.
In the last few weeks, communities such as Santa Monica, CA; Calabasas, CA; Brownsville, TX; Fort Stockton, TX; unincorporated Marin County, CA; and the entire country of Italy, have either voted to ban plastic bags or have previously approved legislation that has gone into effect. Next in line, with ordinances in draft form, are the communities of Berkeley, Long Beach, Santa Cruz, and Santa Clara County. Other cities in California such as Belmont, Daly City, Fort Bragg, Richmond, Salinas, Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa and San Rafael all are discussing possible ordinances. However, California is not alone.
The Oregon state legislature appears to be poised to approve SB536, a bill that would ban single-use plastic bags and require a five-cent charge for paper bags. This action would make Oregon the first state to harmonize the scattering variety of local initiatives with a state-wide law, making compliance easier for retailers with multiple stores. In addition, the inclusion of a fee on paper bags is key to the success of the retail community. A ban on plastic, without a fee on paper, will result in shoppers simply switching to paper. This is a significantly more costly option and erodes retailer profitability by increasing operational costs. If a community is to address plastic bags, they need to address all other single-use bags at the same time. In addition to Oregon, other states like Vermont, Connecticut and Arkansas are considering similar laws. To track the movement in your area, check out my map.
While the groundswell seems unstoppable, the plastics industry seems to be doubling its efforts to stop legislation. Tactics include: lawsuits, full-page advertisements, scary commercials, political campaign contributions, a variety of Web sites (including my favorite, www.savetheplasticbag.com), studies on the dangers of reusable bags, surveys and a well-organized PR campaign.
At first glance as a retailer, you may want plastic bag bans to stop as well. However, despite the efforts of the plastics industry, the cat is already out of the bag. A growing population is increasingly choosing paper over plastic, believing plastic is worse for the environment. With continued influence from the paper industry and environmental groups, it does not seem possible for the plastics industry to reverse this trend in behavior.
However, charging a fee for bags DOES change behavior. It poses an important question to the consumer of, “Do I actually need a bag?” A fee takes the cost traditionally embedded in the cost of food and puts it out in the open, giving the customer a choice and dramatically reducing consumption. As you may know, most items are bagged regardless of need (think chips and a soda or a gallon of milk). In Washington, D.C. alone, a legislated fee on paper and plastic bags resulted in roughly 80% reduction in bag consumption, certainly reducing costs for retailers.
Is any grocery retailer brave enough to enact their own fee on single-use bags and possibly push customers to the competition? Very few are willing to do it alone. If all the retailers band together and agree to charge a certain fee for paper bags, would that be price fixing or collusion, an illegal activity? The solution is smart legislation, which will help retailers reduce unnecessary waste and expense.
The other way to impact your bottom line is by increasing your top line. Are you still asking “Paper or Plastic?” For six years, ChicoBag Company has been helping retailers increase profits by revamping their bagging policies, starting with that age-old question. If the customer has a small purchase, instruct cashiers and front-end staff to ask, “Do you need a bag?” I find that when given a choice, most are perfectly happy without a bag, if they can easily carry their purchase in their hands, pocket or purse. When bags are obviously needed, ask, “What kind of bags are you using today?” This, in many cases, can lead to a conversation about the variety of reusable bags offered in your stores. Fast-food restaurants always ask if you want fries or a drink. Clothing stores ask if you want socks or accessories. Why not ask your customers, “Would you like to add a reusable bag to your purchase today?”
The reusable bag movement is coming of age and now is a great time to get off the sidelines and get involved. If you have implemented a bagging policy that has improved your bottom line, have comments about this article, or would like to talk shop, I would love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail. Or post your thoughts here on this blog or on my wall on Facebook.
Andy Keller, entrepreneur and activist has traveled the country as the dreaded Bag Monster to increase support for single-use plastic bag reduction efforts. Keller is the Founder and CEO of the ChicoBag Company and a Founding Member of the Reusable Bag Industry Coalition.
Blog posted February 25, 2011