In July, Fresh Foods in Manzanita switched from plastic to paper bags for customers who don’t bring their own. People noticed and applauded.
By Jan Behrs
“We thought about this a long time before we did it,” said store co-owner Jon Welsh. “It started when CARTM stopped accepting plastic bags for recycling. We also kept track of the discounts we were giving people who brought their own bags, and once we hit a certain point — the rate had actually skyrocketed — we made the switch.”
Chung Lee, co-owner with wife, Judy, of Manzanita Grocery & Deli (The Little Apple), also noted an increase in customers’ bag awareness. “We’ve seen a big increase in people bringing their own bags, and the larger, square-bottomed ones are actually easier for us to pack in more stuff,” he said. “Some people still prefer plastic, but I think people are more conscious now about reusing them for trash bags and the like.”
As Welsh noted, plastic bags likely will always have a place in grocery stores for holding wet items such as produce and meat, but single-use plastic carry bags aren’t really a necessity.
“Paper costs about four times as much as plastic, but it’s better for the environment,” he said. “We don’t charge for paper; we just consider it a cost of doing business. We’ve had no blast-back at all from our decision.”
Several Manzanita businesses have always used paper bags. At Unfurl Clothing, co-owner Suzy Freeman noted that the store buys bags made from post-consumer recycled paper, in keeping with its mission to provide environmentally sustainable merchandise. “We don’t mind paying more,” she said.
So, why are plastic bags a problem?
Portland’s Office of Planning & Sustainability lists a few reasons: The lightweight bags blow out of garbage trucks and recycling bins, plugging storm drains and polluting rivers and seas. In the ocean, all kinds of plastic break down into tiny pieces, absorb toxic chemicals, and kill birds and other wildlife.
As the Smithsonian Institution’s Ocean Portal notes, bags with handles strangle sea mammals, and turtles and whales mistake bags for jellyfish and choke on them. According to Environment Oregon, plastic debris in the ocean kills more than 100,000 animals every year.
Plastic bags consum oil and natural gas when manufactured, and they never biodegrade. When people put them into comingled recycling bins, the bags jam machinery and contaminate other recyclables, raising trash and recycling costs.
Paper bags aren’t perfect, either. They require energy and natural resources to manufacture. But they’re much easier to recycle (they go with cardboard at CARTM), and they break down quickly in the environment, according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
The best option, though, is for shoppers to bring their own reusable bags.
It’s been only since the early 1980s that grocery stores have used plastic bags. Now, Oregonians alone consume more than 1 billion single-use plastic bags each year, recycling less than 5% of those bags. While some retailers, such as Fred Meyer, collect plastic bags for recycling, the market for this type of plastic isn’t large. Recycling centers such as CARTM don’t take it.
“CARTM stopped accepting plastic bags for recycling in 2013,” said Executive Director Karen Reddick Yurka. “It cost more to ship them to market than we received for them, they took a tremendous amount of time to process, and the mess they created required the baler to be shut down for cleaning afterwards.”
A report by Moore Recycling Associates for the plastic-film industry says that plastics buyers such as China have reduced their used-bag purchases in recent years. And while the usual end product for recycled plastic bags is composite lumber, that market has decreased, too.
The cities of Portland, Corvallis, Eugene and Ashland have banned single-use plastic bags, and a statewide ban is in the works for California as people realize that a few minutes’ convenience isn’t worth the devastation plastic causes.
Melinda Merrill, regional manager for community affairs for Fred Meyer, says: “We operate in many communities where plastic bags are banned, so we are accustomed to making it work for our business. We work with local municipalities that want to pass a bag ban – we have sort of a template legislation we encourage them to consider so that the bag bans at least look the same all over. We’ve always had signs in our cart corrals reminding customers to bring their reusable bags, and we offer many reusable bag options for great prices.”
Says Jon Welsh of Fresh Foods: “We saw how major metro areas were switching to paper, and we thought we might as well make the switch now and get used to it.”
Artist Chris Jordan shows what 60,000 plastic bags (the number used in the U.S. every 5 seconds) look like. Source: Reuseit.com Newsroom
Jan Behrs, formerly an editor with The Oregonian and Better Homes and Gardens magazines, is a free-lance writer based in Manzanita.