Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Green Memo: Plastic Bag Bans...and More

New Jersey proposes statewide plastic grocery bag ban: If passed would be first in USA
Following on the heels of recent plastic grocery bag bans in San Francisco and Oakland, California in the USA, and in cities in Europe and Australia, New Jersey might become the first state in the U.S. to ban the use of plastic grocery bags by food retailers. In England, the city of London also could ban the bags as early as November 27, when Parliament debates a plastic shopping bag ban for all retailers in the city. We review the growing international movement to ban plastic grocery bags.

New Jersey would become the first state in the U.S. to ban the use of plastic grocery bags by the state's food retailers under a bill introduced yesterday in the state assembly. If passed, the law would require all retail food stores over 10,000 square feet in the state to phase-out the use of plastic grocery bags in three years.

The bill's primary author, Democratic Assemblyman Herb Conaway, says "plastic bags may be cheap and convenient, but they have costly long-term environmental consequences that just can't be ignored. In proposing the legislation Conway, a medical doctor, said nearly 1 trillion plastic grocery bags are used worldwide each year. "We need to get these bags out of the waste stream because they are polluting our soil and water," he explained in announcing the plastic bag ban bill yesterday.

The bill, if passed, requires New Jersey food retailers with stores larger than 10,000 square feet to reduce their use of plastic grocery bags by 50% by December 31, 2009, and eliminate the use of all plastic bags by the end of December, 2010. The stores also would have to provide in-store recycling bins for plastic bags and offer reusable grocery bags for sale as part of the legislation.

New Jersey Democratic Assemblyman Jack Connors, the plastic bag ban bill's co-sponsor, says plastic bags account for 90% of grocery bags in the U.S. "The (plastic) bags end up as litter, take longer to decompose in the environment than paper bags and harm wildlife," he said in explaining one of his reasons for co-sponsoring the bill with Assemblyman Conaway. The stores would still be able to use paper grocery bags if the bill passes.

San Francisco ban went into effect yesterday
San Francisco is the first city in the U.S. to ban the use of plastic grocery bags in retail food stores. The San Francisco law, which went into effect yesterday, requires all retail food stores that do over $2 million a year in sales to no longer offer plastic bags for shoppers. The stores can offer approved biodegradable "plastic" bags made out of corn starch and similar natural materials. Paper bags also are allowed under the San Francisco law.

Oakland following San Francisco's lead
Following San Francisco's lead, the Oakland City Council recently passed a law banning the use of petroleum-based plastic grocery bags by food retailers with stores doing over $1 million in annual sales. The Oakland law pertains to plastic bags used at store's checkout stands, and not those used to bag fresh produce or meats. The law, which hasn't gone into effect yet, allows for the use of biodegradable bags such as those made from cornstarch, like in San Francisco.

The Oakland plastic bag ban also includes chain drug stores along with the food stores. San Francisco's law also includes chain drug stores but they get a one-year (from November 20, 2007) grace period, and must eliminate the bags beginning in November, 2008.

Numerous other California cities are considering similar bans. These cities include nearby Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Davis, Chico and Santa Monica.

California's statewide plastic grocery bag legislation
In September, the state of California implemented a law that requires food retailers to place plastic grocery bag recycling bins in stores and to offer reusable grocery bags for sale. The California Grocers' Association, the state's supermarket trade association, supported the legislation in part as a way to hopefully prevent outright bans like the San Francisco and Oakland laws, and similar plastic grocery bag ban bills working their way through city councils in other California cities.

New York considering plastic bag legislation similar to California's
The state of New York is currently considering legislation similar to California's which would require all food retailers in the state over a certain size to place plastic grocery bag recycling bins in their stores as well as offer reusable grocery bags for sale. There's talk in New York City however about legislation similar to San Francisco's and New Jersey's which would create an outright ban on the bags despite the pending state legislation. Cities can pass their own laws--including bans--despite state legislation.

London plastic shopping bag ban bill before Parliament next week
last week, the London Assembly, a local governing body consisting of London's 33 local authorities, approved a bill which would ban all plastic grocery bags in the city.

The so called "shopping bag bill" will go to Parliament on November 27 for debate and possible passage into law. The London Assembly can't pass an outright ban bill itself but serves as an advisory body for Parliament.

Polls in London are showing 60% of the city's residents either support an outright plastic shopping bag ban like the bill calls for or support a 15 pence per-bag surcharge, with the money going to recycling programs. The per-bag tax is a possible alternative to an outright ban.

Supporters of the bag tax say doing so would decrease plastic shopping bag usage and provide funds to recycle the bags. Supporters of the ban say that's hogwash. They sight as their evidence next door Ireland, which passed a similar plastic shopping bag tax in 2002. They argue plastic bag use in Ireland hasn't dropped at all since the 2002 tax was implemented because the demand for stronger, heavier bags has resulted in just as much plastic being used in total.

If passed, the London bill would ban the use of free plastic bags at all retail stores, not just food retailers, although grocers are the most prolific users of the bags. The UK's top food retailing chains--Sainsburys, Tesco, Marks & Spencer and others--are against an outright ban but say they're committed to reducing the use of plastic shopping bags in their stores.

All of the UK's leading food retailers sell reusable grocery bags and offer paper bags in addition to plastic. Many also give out reusable bags to shoppers for free and give a discount to the customer for each reusable bag they use on each shopping trip. The retailers say they want to be able to work to get shoppers to change their behavior in terms of using reusable bags rather than throwaway plastic bags. However, they say they still want to be able to offer shoppers the choice of plastic along with paper and various types of reusable grocery bags.

Based on British consumer demand and the examples of cities in France, Germany, Ireland and Australia--and now the USA--which have passed bans, it appears a plastic shopping bag ban is likely to happen in London. If an outright ban like the current bill scheduled to be debated next week in Parliament doesn't pass, it's highly likely we'll see something like a combination bag tax and partial ban enacted into law in London soon.

British PM Brown backs plastic shopping bag elimination
In fact, yesterday British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he's backing the current campaign to eliminate plastic shopping bags--not just in London but in all the country. In a speech laying out his "green" agenda, Brown said he is calling a forum to be attended by British supermarket operators, The British Retail Consortium ( a trade group) and other affiliated groups, to discuss how they can urgently end the use of disposable plastic shopping bags.

U.S. trade group supports recycling laws over plastic bag bans
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., a group called the Progressive Bag Alliance, a Texas-based trade group for plastic bag manufacturers, is working to get states and cities to author plastic grocery bag recycling legislation like California's rather than outright bag bans. The group says they've thus far worked with a number of cities in the U.S., including Austin, Texas, Annapolis, Maryland and Philadelphia to create stricter plastic bag recycling standards and programs instead of banning the use of the plastic grocery bags by food retailers.

Changing consumer behavior the ultimate goal
The goal of all these programs and new laws--whether its an outright plastic bag ban, recycling program, bag tax or other legislation--is to get shoppers to change their behavior. If it became routine for shoppers to take their own reusable bags to the grocery store such legislation wouldn't be needed. However, it's a fact that laws often are needed to change behavior--that's why we have so many of them. Of course, one can view a law as good or bad depending if its your ox that's getting gored or not.

In the case of the plastic bag industry they're feeling gored. On the other hand, the industry might think about speeding up their development and marketing of corn starch-based biodegradable grocery bags. These bags already exist but are offered by just a few suppliers. The conventional plastic grocery bag manufacturer who is the first to convert from selling exclusively or primarily conventional plastic bags to the biodegradable in a big way will be able to have first mover advantage and lead the market. And it's a huge market waiting to be dominated by a large plastic bag manufacturer with the resources to do so.

Paper grocery bag manufacturers at first blush might look like they are in the catbird seat with so many cities and states considering plastic grocery bag bans. After all, that means more sales of paper bags to retailers. And until consumer behavior shifts to using reusable bags as routine that will be the case. However, it just might be a matter of time before paper bag bans come next. Although the bags are recyclable many still end-up being tossed in the garbage and going to landfills rather than to the recycling center. As such, might per-bag recycling taxes and outright bans eventually be enacted for paper as well as plastic?

Food and other retailers can do more
In terms of food retailers, we suggest they offer shoppers more incentives to regularly use reusable grocery bags. Large retailers who can afford it should give a certain number of the inexpensive reusable bags out for free to shoppers each month. They should also, like many already do, give shoppers five cents (or even 10 cents) or so each time the customer uses their own reusable bag rather than a free paper or plastic one provided by the grocer.

An example of retailers who currently could do much more are the large UK supermarket chains who say they're against the London plastic shopping bag ban. It might be wise for them to step-up their efforts at encouraging shoppers to use reusable bags pronto. Why not a free Sainsburys' or Tesco inexpensive canvas grocery bag for each customer order over $10.00 for the next year. The bags can be bought cheaply in volume by the retailers--and they can afford it as a positive cost of doing business.

Creative incentives needed to change consumer behavior
Cities and retailers also need to work together to come up with creative ways to change shopper behavior from the common use of paper or plastic to the less common but growing use of reusable bags. After all, even if conventional plastic grocery bags are banned everywhere, there still remains paper. Although paper bags are recyclable as we mentioned above, they have to be disposed of properly by consumers in order to get recycled rather than tossed into a landfill.

Creating a culture worldwide where people use reusable shopping bags as a daily course is the long-term solution to the problem. In order to do this consumers first have to accept responsibility for their environmental behavior.

Retailers also have to accept more responsibility for the throw away items they sell and offer in their stores. In fact, we're surprised a major supermarket retailer in the U.S. or Europe hasn't stopped using conventional plastic grocery bags on its own as a demonstration of its green principles. We think its coming, by the way. Some already are offering biodegradable plastic bags only, but its few and far between in terms of the larger chains doing so. Most all food retailers in the U.S. and Europe also offer a variety of reusable grocery bags for sale, ranging from 99 cent biodegradable reusable bags to more expensive canvas bags.

If retailers can offer more economic incentives, like free reusable bags and other ideas, we believe shopper behavior will change more rapidly than many can imagine. We aren't saying cities shouldn't ban plastic bags if they want. Rather, looking to the long-term as we mentioned above, its the behavior change that's key--moving shoppers from using any type of throw away bag to reusable bags should be the overall goal. Getting there will require more than just laws--it will require consumers to accept responsibility for their environmental actions. Governments, retailers and other private sector entities can encourage this behavior change with creative, positive actions.

Green Notes

Locavores have officially arrived:
Oxford University Press has named the word locavore as its Word of the Year in the 2007 edition of its New Oxford American Dictionary.

A locavore is a person who buys and eats local foods; those sourced not farther than 100 miles of where they reside. In more common parlance, locavore's are part of the "buy local, eat local" foods movement.

This is the second year in a row in which Oxford University Press has named a "green" or environmental term its word of the year in its authoritative dictionary. Last year's honor went to the term "carbon neutral."
The inclusion in the dictionary of locavore this year, and awarding it word of the year status, should validate the word and locavore lifestyle in the same way naming carbon neutral last year did for that term. With inclusion in the Oxford American Dictionary, locavores have been legitimized and arrived culturally so to speak.

Green themes seemed to be at the top of the dictionary editors choice list this year. Locavore beat out two other green-oriented words or terms, "upcycling" (the mother of all recycling terms) and "colony collapse disorder" (which refers to the symptom affecting worldwide honey bee colonies).

Have a green Thanksgiving: Adopt a turkey rather than eating one
Tomorrow is the Thanksgiving holiday in the USA. The centerpieces of the holiday is family and friends---and food. The main course eaten by the majority of Americans on Thanksgiving day is the turkey. The mighty bird, traditionally served with side dishes of bread stuffing, sweet and mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and assorted vegetables, will grace the tables of millions of American families tomorrow.

However, there is a green alternative to cooking and eating a turkey for Thanksgiving.

Farm Sanctuary, an animal rescue, education and advocacy group, is asking Americans to feed a turkey this Thanksgiving rather than eat it. Through its Adopt-a-Turkey program. Farm Sanctuary is offering to let you adopt a Turkey for a one-time fee of $20.00. For your twenty bucks you get a color photograph of your new feathered family member, an adoption certificate, your turkey's biography, and a one year subscription to the non-profit organization's quarterly newsletter.

Farm Sanctuary says it's rescued thousands of turkeys from the meat cleaver over the past 20 years. The group operates shelters in Watkins Glen, NY and Orland, CA, where your adopted turkey will live out the rest of its natural life in a human and pleasant environment, never having to again worry about becoming a Thanksgiving day main course.

It's not too late to adopt a turkey by the way. You can do so anytime during the year, as well as make a donation to the group via its website to help support its other work in animal rescue and education. We're having turkey tomorrow but we still plan on adopting one. After all, if U.S. President George W. Bush can pardon a turkey like he did the other day at the White House, the least we can do is adopt one. By the way, we're referring to the actual turkey President Bush pardoned, not Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff Scooter Libby. That pardon was earlier in the year.

Meat The Meatrix:
Speaking of meatless meals, a new animated movie, The Meatrix a takeoff on The Matrix movie trilogy, describes the evils of factory farming in a fun, light hearted way. And just like The Matrix, The Meatrix also is a trilogy.
In the first film in the trilogy, The Meatrix I, Leo The Pig, happy and content in his pen, is greeted by Moophius, a slick-looking, deep-voiced bull dressed in a black trench coat, sharp green necktie and dark sunglasses. "Have you heard about the Meatrix, Moophius asks Leo? Do you want to know what it is?" "The Meatrix, Moophuis explains, is a lie we tell ourselves about where our meat and animal products come from, he tells Leo with a sly look on his face."

The second film in The Meatrix trilogy, The Meatrix II: Revolting, takes on the dairy industry and some of the practices used by some of its players. The third and last film in the trilogy, The Meatrix II 1/2, pays a visit to a meat processing facility, where the narrator says, "We learn how we feed our Fast Food Nation."

You can learn more about The Meatrix trilogy at the films' website. You also can watch a free movie trailer at the website.

Ant- corporate plastic bottled water group says 'think outside the bottle':
The group "Think Outside The Bottle," a coalition comprised of citizens, activists, environmental groups, companies that make tap water filteration systems and reusable water bottles, and others, are asking consumers to take a pledge to give up commercially bottled water in plastic bottles and switch to tap water.

On their website, the group asks consumers to commit to drinking tap water and using reusable water bottles rather than buying commercially bottled water. They argue it's much more ecologically efficient to use tap water at home, and to fill a reusable water bottle with it when going outside the house, rather than buying water commercially bottled in plastic bottles which tends to travel vast distances and end-up needing to be recycled or worse being dumped in a landfill.

The rallying cry to "Think Outside The Bottle" seems to be catching on with many consumers, including numerous celebrities. According to the group, actors martin Sheen and Bill Mckibbon have taken the pledge, and organizations like the Sierra Club, Earth Policy Institute, Union of Concerned Scientists and other groups endorse the pledge. Six U.S. cities also have endorsed the pledge thus far: Salt Lake City, Utah, Boston, and Berkeley, San Leandro and Emeryville in Northern California, as have international municipalities and organizations.

Numerous restaurants in the U.S. also support the program and have taken the pledge to stop selling commercially bottled water in their establishments. Students from colleges and universities throughout the U.S. have taken the pledge as well, giving up buying bottled water and instead filling reusable water bottles with tap water. Faith communities, ranging from Catholic nun orders to Methodist and Presbyterian groups, support the campaign and have taken the pledge as well. You can read a list of pledge endorsers to date here.

As of today, 14,918 consumers have taken the pledge on the group's website to stop buying and drinking commercially bottled water and switch to tap water. The goal is for 25,000 people to take the pledge in what the group calls the first round.

The coalition is focused on the U.S. but has taken the campaign international. And it's not just individuals and non-profit organizations who are supporting the pledge. Companies like Clorox, which makes and markets the Brita Home Tap Water Filteration System and other tap water filter makers, along with companies that produce and sell reusable water bottles, are supporting the coalition as well.

Photo credits: Oxford dictionary courtesy

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