The single-use plastic bag could be an endangered shopping species.
The thin plastic bag with handles – known in the industry as the T-shirt bag – is under pressure from municipal bag bans and a growing number of retailers who are encouraging shoppers to BYOB – bring your own bag.
A new industry has sprung up that’s churning out reusable tote bags made from recycled water bottles and other more eco-friendly materials, and is poised to profit from the passing of the traditional plastic bag.
Dan Sabbah, president of Global Design Concepts in New York, is one executive predicting the days of the plastic bag are numbered.
“Plastic bags are quickly going the way of extinction,” said Sabbah. His handbag and tote bag company has joined with a Canadian business to form a venture called Global Way to make tote bags from recycled water bottles.
In April, Global Way shipped hundreds of thousands of the bags to retailers, including Stop & Shop, CVS and Walgreens, for reusable bag promotions tied to Earth Day observances. “Retailers are getting ahead of this curve,” Sabbah said. “I don’t believe anyone thinks this is going to go away. This is going to be the wave of the future.”
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest grocery and retail chain, has pledged to cut its plastic shopping bag waste by 33 percent – or 9 billion bags a year – by 2013. This year it began a bag-free trial in California, eliminating plastic bags at three stores there. Swedish furniture company IKEA and organic grocer Whole Foods Market Inc. stores banished plastic bags in 2008.
Target Corp. in April handed out 1.5 million reusable tote bags in honor of Earth Day. The discount retailer gives shoppers a 5-cent rebate for every time they use one of their own bags instead of a new plastic one.
An organization that represents plastic bag makers argues, however, that the future of plastic bags will be one of rebirth and recycling, not R.I.P.
“Reports of the death of the plastic bag are greatly exaggerated,” said Shari Jackson, director of the Progressive Bag Affiliates, an association representing the major U.S. makers of plastic bags and plastic-bag recyclers.
“There’s another side – the recycling side – that is just not being told, and it’s growing,” Jackson said. The PBA has set an industry goal to achieve 40 percent recycled content in all bags made by its member companies by 2015. In 2008, Jackson said, more than 832 million pounds of bags and other plastic films were recycled and most retail chains have bins for recycling bags. Recycled bags are being used to make composite deck materials, fencing, shopping carts, containers and new bags, she said.
Surveys, Jackson added, also show Americans reuse supermarket and department store bags for wastebasket liners and lunch bags. “They are heavily reused after they’re used to carry groceries home,” she said.
Supporters of the reusable totes say they hold much more than the typical T-shirt bag and because they are woven out of recycled plastics, they also can be tossed in a recycling bin when they wear out. Most retailers sell the basic reusable totes for about $1. Wal-Mart jumped on the reusable bag bandwagon in a big way in 2007, cutting its bag price to 50 cents.
“We want to be the low-cost leader, and that’s the same when it comes to reusable bags,” said Kory Lundberg, senior manager of sustainability communications for Wal-Mart. At 55 California stores, where Wal-Mart is heavily promoting reusables, customers can buy bags for 15 cents.
The PBA and bag manufacturers argue that the reusable bags can be breeding grounds for bacteria. They cite a report by a Washington D.C. television station in which shoppers’ reusable bags were tested for bacteria and most failed the test.
Global Way, which makes reusable tote bags for Toys “R” Us as well as its supermarket and drugstore accounts, is banking on the youngest consumers to lead the demand for reusable bags. It has licensing deals to put Disney and cartoon characters on its bags. The thinking, Sabbah and other Global Way executives explained, is that children will remind parents to bring the Disney Princess or SpongeBob bag along when the family goes shopping. “Children have a big role right now in what’s going on in recycled product,” Sabbah said.
The first generation of reusable tote, Sabbah said, generally featured a retailer’s name and logo. The bags are becoming so common now, he said, that consumers are looking at the totes to reflect their personal taste, fueling demand for more fashionable shopping totes.
Lundberg of Wal-Mart said the biggest problem shoppers have with the reusable bags is forgetting to bring them into the store when they leave their cars. “What we hear from our customers is the biggest impediment to using them seems to be that they can’t remember to bring them out of the car,” he said. Wal-Mart is looking at ways to solve that problem, possibly with “Don’t forget your bags” reminder signs in parking lots.
Phil Lempert, a consumer behavior consultant who operates the SupermarketGuru.com Web site and appears in the media as the Supermarket Guru, believes the single-use bags will go the way of Styrofoam cups and foam takeout containers. “The demise of Styrofoam cups and packages was driven by our kids who learned in school about environmental impact,” Lempert said in an e-mail exchange. “The next generation will not even consider a disposable bag.”