The War on Single-Use Plastics

Written By:
Andy Keller, CEO of ChicoBag Company
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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

Comments

I know one of your employees. I think I know a lot more about your operation than you realize. It's your Chinese operation that makes me wonder, not your much smaller Chico operation.

How many Chico residents do you employ? What's your monthly payroll?

What are Chico Bags made of? Any recycled materials?

I was not happy with my Chico Bag for a few reasons. You can't get much of anything in it, it's hard to handle and fill. It doesn't stand up like my cloth sacks, so the bagger has to wrestle it. You should talk to baggers at the grocery stores. They avoided my Chico Bag, pretending not to see it. I usually had to fill it myself.

Sure, they look great as long as you don't use them for anything. We drag our bags around in the same car that carries our dogs, or in our old bike cart. They get filthy, and our Chico Bag didn't wear well. When they get dirty, how would you launder them? If you put it in a washing machine with anything but other nylon items, it comes out looking like a dust puppy, linty and pil-y, frizzy and frazzled looking. After half a dozen washings, it looks like an old Kleenex. I tried washing it out by hand. Ha ha, I can hear you say, "it just takes a little rinse..." You weren't there the first time I immersed it in water and the water turned brown!

And why are they so expensive? Your cheapest bag is $4.96? My grocer gives me 5 cents off for every bag I bring in to use - I would have to use a Chico Bag 98 times before it paid for itself. That's almost a year of continuous use. My last one did not make it a year - I'm sorry, I can't hand a disgusting rag to a grocery sacker, it's too embarrassing. People get disgusted. Alot of people think reusable bags are just plain unsanitary, period.

That's nice you have a take-back program - the grocery store also has a take-back program for "single use" plastic bags. I wonder, do you have the same return rate as plastic bags? Do you keep track?

So, you make them into coasters and rugs? More novelty consumer items? And where are these made - also in China?

And finally I'll say, I think you have a disproportionate influence on Mayor Ann Schwab. I think you get too much of her ear, to push your own interests. You've made it your agenda to get a "single-use" bag ban in our town, and for obvious reasons. I'm tired of my town being run by cliques and special self-interests.

Hello Juanita:
 
I am glad to see you are active in the single-use disposable bag debate here in our town of Chico, CA.  An active debate should yield the best results.  I don't believe you have taken a tour of our office, warehouse and silk-screening operation here in Chico -  I would like to invite you to come out and see what we are doing (and the jobs we are creating) in our effort to make the world a better place.  I would also like to hear more about your concerns and ideas regarding the single-use disposable bag debate. 
 
I am surprised you threw your ChicoBag away because it looked unsanitary.  They are machine washable and clean up really well.  We also have a 1-year warranty to cover any manufacturing defects.  You should be able to get at least 3 to 5 years of continual use out of a ChicoBag.  We do not want any bags to enter the landfill and have a take-back program for any type or brand of reusable bags that have reached the end of their life or are no longer needed.  We make them into new products, like coasters and rugs.  Here is an example: http://www.chicobag.com/product/greatful-thread-rug
 
I hope you will take me up on the opportunity to meet me and see our operations.
 
-Andy Keller
President, ChicoBag 
 
 

Mr. Keller,

your bags are made in China. How the heck can THAT be "sustainable"? We the consumers can't travel to China, we have to trust you, and I'm sorry, I don't.

You claim to create jobs - well, not in Chico! Shop local, yadda yadda, fair trade, social equity - for whom? Yesterday at the Sustainability Task Force meeting, Chico Mayor Ann Schwab said a retail business only has to carry TWO "fair trade" items to be considered a "fair trade" business. Those two items can be a Chicobag and a Cleen Canteen? Both are made in China, shipped to the United States using skads of packing materials, unwrapped and re-packaged by a few over-educated white employees, and then distributed throughout this area.

How does THAT equal "fair trade" and "social equity"?

Your "war" on "single-use" plastic bags is obviously for your own benefit. Your bags cost a minimum of $4.96 (that's the cheapest one we found at S&S, others cost as much as $8!) for a flimsy little bag. Our Chico bag didn't make it a year before it looked terrible, unsanitary, and had to be hucked, INTO THE LANDFILL. Where I'm guessing it will be for the next 100 + years.

You are a marketing genius, Mr. Keller, but while you make your money, Chico goes down in economic flames.

I know that I try to use the reusable bags whenever I go to the store. It is good for the environment and eliminates waste. Some retailers even give out coupons when you use the reusable bag. Another perk for helping the environment.

Quin, I know a single-use bag reduction effort has the support of many people in Chico, including members of the city council. They need to hear from you. I recommend sending them a letter. Here are their e-mail addresses: http://www.chico.ca.us/city_council/home_page.asp

Project GreenBag is the most sustainable, eco-friendly alternative to plastic bags: 100% organic cotton, biodegradable, made in San Francisco California. http://www.ProjectGreenBag.com
http://www.facebook.com/projectgreenbag
http://twitter.com/#!/ProjectGreenBag

Being from (and operating out of) Chico, CA. doesn't it seem backwards that the Chico city council has not initiated a plastic bag-ban?
As a resident of Chico, I find this infuriating.
With their so-called "progressive" thinking council members who are elected by the clearly progressive citizens of Chico, CA. it seems there should have been a bag-ban years ago!
What are you doing about this? Are there any new ideas the ChicoBag Co. is proposing to the elected officials of its town?
It really does seem ridiculous that a town/council that boasts itself as environmentally friendly and progressive, as well as being home to the infamous ChicoBag Co., is nothing close to being what it touts itself as; something needs to be done to provide a positive example to other communities and countries around the world.
Chico city council: step up to the plate and eliminate plastic bags, once and for all!

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