The environmental hazards of plastic straws are making headlines at the moment, but the debate about the use of plastic bags by retailers has been raging for some time. It has been four years since California first enacted legislation imposing a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at large retail stores, as well as a 10-cent minimum surcharge for recycled paper bags, reusable plastic bags, and compostable bags at certain locations. Other states and municipalities have followed suit, or are considering it, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures — so the topic is an important one in our industry.

Why are plastic bags considered harmful? For the first, they are manufactured using fossil fuels, and since most are not recyclable, they ultimately end up in the ecosystem. There they may endanger animals or sea life, or degrade the quality of the soil as they decompose. And in case you think this is a minor issue, keep in mind that the Environmental Protection Agency said recently that Americans use 380 million plastic bags a year.

Thin, single-use polyethylene plastic bags are the particular target of the anti-plastic bag movement. These bags, commonly called t-shirt bags because of their shape, were first designed in Sweden in 1965. Before the movement towards banning them, they commanded as much as 80% of the grocery and convenience store market in the US. This is largely because they are incredibly cheap — $15 for 1,000 — and despite their light weight can carry an impressive amount of weight.

The light weight of the bags is one reason that they have been so hard on the environment, because they easily fly out of garbage bins and trucks. When they land in bodies of water, marine animals sometimes mistake them for food (especially jellyfish). Recycling of these bags often requires a different collection system and processing equipment than the curbside recycling programs already in place.

Even if your community has not banned these single use bags, you can show your concern for the environment by working to limit their use. Our shop uses bags made of recycle paper when possible. The heavy weight t-shirt bags we offer (from W. G. Ellerkamp) are fairly expensive, but they are made of special biodegradable plastic and are ideal for reuse – which is great PR for us when it happens. We also sell folding cloth shopping totes in a wide variety of colors and designs, and offer a chocolate coin as a reward to anyone using their own bag instead of asking for one of ours.

Consumers are not necessarily thrilled with the movement away from the ease of single use plastic bags. The witty video featured in the image above was posted by SDA National (the Australian union of workers in retail) in response to negative interactions between customers and retail staff. But ultimately what is good for the future of our planet will be good for the future of our businesses.

Happy Retailing,
Carol “Orange” Schroeder