As the Earth Day marketing drumbeat hits a crescendo on April 22, consumers may think the tide is turning against the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag.
That's because shopping bag recycling and reuse is the Earth Day cause celeb this year.
Look around. Whole Foods Markets' Wild Oats store in Tampa will stop using throwaway plastic bags for good, steering customers to reusable bags or nets priced from 99 cents to $7.95. Wal-Mart is giving away 1-million reusable bags on Saturday. Ikea, which charges a nickel for plastic bags to goad shoppers into buying 59 cent reusable ones, last week said it's dropping single-use plastic and paper bags on Oct. 1.
All four major supermarket chains in the Tampa Bay area moved displays of reusable synthetic bags priced at 99 cents next to the registers.
Publix taught baggers how to wedge three plastic bags of groceries into a single reusable one, prodded them to push reuse in their "plastic or paper" spiel and sold 500,000 of the 99 cent bags in five months.
Even department stores are getting in the act. Macy's touts a cloth shopping bag at $3.95. Once handbag designer Anya Hindmarch sold millions of her "I'm Not a Plastic Bag" shopping bags at $30 a pop, Nordstrom debuted a stylish $21.50 fold-up shopping bag with a leather base that fits in a purse.
"The reusable shopping tote is a fashion item," said Pamela Perret, Nordstrom spokeswoman.
The stores insist their environmental conscience runs deeper than the green marketing trend. Indeed, adding urgency is the threat of government restrictions ranging from outright bans to 30-cent-per-bag taxes on flimsy supermarket bags. Restrictions have spread globally from South Africa in 2003 to Europe and China in June. Stateside it's a hot topic at many city and county halls including Phoenix, Seattle, New York and Boston. That's after San Francisco banned single-use plastic bags in December at chain grocers. A similar ban in Oakland is stalled by a bag industry lawsuit.
Rather than switch to a disposable, biodegradable bag at 15 cents a pop, San Francisco grocers offer only paper free.
Similar proposals surfaced in Miami-Dade and Sarasota counties this year, prompting retailers to lobby the Legislature to pre-empt local governments. They want bag laws to be statewide, like they are for bottle recycling.
"We don't want 67 different shopping bag ordinances," said Rick McAllister, CEO of the Florida Retail Federation. "The answer is changing shopper behavior, and this is a hard habit to break."
Retailers advocate more bag recycling and re-use. But the retailer mentality is about selling stuff as solutions. In the 41 years since grocery shoppers learned how to do the Tampa two-step lugging 12 plastic bags in two hands, grocers fear anything that limits a customer's appetite to fill their cart. And few shoppers are prime to go on a shopping bag diet even as they consume 100-billion bags a year.
"I don't see grocers getting rid of plastic shopping bags as long as customers want them," said Steve Smith, merchandise vice president of Sweetbay Supermarket.
Plastic is a nuisance
The knock on plastic shopping bags is multifaceted.
They're second to cigarette butts as nuisance litter. They take flight in a light breeze. In coastal Florida counties, bags are flushed down storm drains into the bays and gulf, where they get tangled in mangrove thickets.
"They're a huge problem for shore and wading birds that get caught in them," said David White, southeast director of Ocean Conservancy, an environmental advocacy group. "Turtles mistake them for food. They cannot digest the plastic and die."
A volunteer litter cleanup recently exhumed 187 plastic shopping bags from a pond in a Clearwater park.
"They ought to ban them," said Bill Sanders, director of Keep Pinellas Beautiful, who organizes adopt-a-mile litter cleanups. "I can walk any shopping center parking lot and easily fill a bag with discarded plastic bags."
Past regulatory efforts have backfired. For instance, in 1990 Florida outlawed all but photodegradable grocery bags. They deteriorate quickly into thin strips. The problems: The plastic stays in the soil and recyclers cannot tell photo-degradable plastic from other kinds. So recyclers rejected both in fear it could be recycled into plastic benches that fall apart. Florida quietly repealed the law in 1993.
The plastic bag industry has fought back by plugging shopping bags' checkered recycling history, arguably the main reason so many bags become litter. For starters, at 1 to 2 cents apiece, plastic grocery bags cost much less to make than to recycle.
Nationally, 3 percent of bags are recycled from curbside collection. The material is so light that recyclers need to bundle too much of it to make it worth the effort.
"Recycling works for bottles or hard plastics, but nobody makes money from grocery bags," said Ron Henricks, waste reduction director at the state Department of Environmental Protection. "It's break even at best."
Supermarkets lead recycling
In the Tampa Bay area, 85 percent of bags collected curbside are burned in waste-to-energy plants. The rest goes to landfills.
That has made supermarkets the biggest recycler of used bags. They collect them in bins at the door, then food-delivery trucks take the bundled plastic to supermarket warehouses for volume resale to recyclers. In 2007, that's how 68 percent of all plastic bag waste was recycled. And the amount recycled increased 24 percent to 812-million pounds in 2006, according to the American Chemical Council.
The plastic bag industry argues that 92 percent of consumers recycle bags by reusing them for other purposes ranging from doggie duty to lunch bags. A message now printed on Target plastic bags promotes the industry argument that bags are useful, listing 10 uses for them.
"Every state where bans or bag taxes were proposed, governments came around to recycling education once they learn the facts," said Keith Christman, director for the Progressive Bag Affiliates, a bag trade group.
Consider Pamela Muller, a marine science professor at the University of South Florida.
"There's a half-dozen cloth shopping bags in my car, but I still get a few plastic bags for other jobs like trash can bags," she said.
The surplus she files in store recycling bins.
Mark Albright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8252.