Sunday, November 11, 2007

Green Memo: Plastic Grocery Bag Bans

San Francisco, CA Grocers and Others Prepare for Upcoming Plastic Grocery Bag Ban

Grocers and others in San Francisco are preparing for November 20, when a new city ordinance passed in March banning the use of all plastic grocery bags in large retail food stores goes into affect in this "green" city by the Bay.

To the surprise of many in this politically-charged city, opposition to the legislation which was passed by a vote of 10-to-1 by the city's legislators, was minimal. Although the California Grocers Association, the state trade group for food retailers, opposed the ordinance, the city's leading supermarket chains, independent grocers and larger specialty store retailers, put up no organized opposition to speak of.

Rather, knowing the legislation was essentially a sure thing, the grocers asked for a year or so to phase-in the use of alternatives like reusable bags made from biodegradable materials and canvas shopping bags. The Board of Supervisors ended-up giving the grocers an eight-month "phase-in" period. Paper grocery bags made from recycled paper can still be used to bag customers' groceries in retail food stores of any size in San Francisco. In a year the law will automatically ban plastic bag use by large retail drug stores.

Retail food stores in San Francisco which must eliminate the use of plastic grocery bags in their stores on November 20 include Safeway, Lucky Stores, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and numerous independent grocery, natural foods and specialty markets.

Most all these retailers are currently selling reusable biodegradable bags and canvas shopping bags of various qualities and styles. Prices for the bags range as low as a dollar for the biodegradable-type bags to as high as $20 for an upscale canvas bag sold at Whole Foods. Safeway, Lucky, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and others are selling basic reusable canvas shopping bags for as low as $3.99 to $4.99 however.

The city's numerous department stores and boutiques also are getting into the act by selling various types and styles of reusable shopping bags in their stores. This is somewhat ironic since these format stores can and in most all cases still use plastic shopping bags. The stores are selling shopping bags made from canvas and other materials, ranging from the simple to the designer fabulous, including those made from reused and recycled materials.

Many observers in San Francisco predict the plastic grocery bag ban will create a fashion trend among grocery shoppers in this style-conscious and individualistic city. The use of reusable shopping bags already is big in San Francisco--and they say it will only get bigger and more interesting--beginning on November 20.
The impending plastic bag ban also is stimulating the local economy in this entrepreneurial city. For example, a story in today's San Francisco Chronicle reports local entrepreneurs are creating "eco-friendly" reusable shopping bags out of materials like used rice sacks, recycled juice packs, surplus military tents, unused car upholstery and ripped sail cloth.

San Francisco "eco-designer Kendra Stanley sewing her reusable shopping bags, which are made out of old raincoats. It's a new use for an old product.. It's hard to get much greener than that. (Courtesy SF Chronicle.)

Among these "green" entrepreneurs is "eco-designer" Kendra Stanley. Inspired by the plastic grocery bag ban, Ms. Stanley has created a line of reusable grocery bags made from repurposed rain jackets, reports theChronicle. Her line of grocery bags, City Bag Trade, recycles as much of the rain jacket as possible, including the zippers and pockets.

Ms. Stanley is selling the bags on her website. She told the Chronicle she has thus far given away about 50 of the "green" grocery bags as a way to create awareness of her line and to encourage responsible environmental behavior. She calls her strategy 'guerrilla bagging,' a word-play on guerrilla marketing, and says "it's a way to get people to think about the overuse of plastic bags and their damage to the environment." On her website Ms. Stanley not only sells her bags but even offers to give consumers one for free if they'll send her an old raincoat which she can make a new bag from.

Four of San Francisco "eco designer" and entrepreneur Kendra Stanley's reusable shopping bags made from old raincoasts. (Courtesy SF Chronicle.)

San Francisco city Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who wrote the plastic bag ban legislation, says local entrepreneurs and artisans are approaching him with requests to create an "official" San Francisco reusable bag, according to today's Chronicle story. Mirkarimi says he's asked the San Francisco Arts Commission and local arts-advocacy groups to look into offering grants for local artisans who want to create "eco-friendly" shopping bags.
San Francisco sources tell us entrepreneurs have approached Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, along with local independent natural foods stores like Rainbow Grocery and others, offering to produce lines of reusable grocery bags made out of 100% post consumer recycled, repurposed, fair trade and other environmentally sustainable materials for these grocers. These would be locally-produced bags, made "by San Franciscans for San Franciscans" as one entrepreneur we talked to described the scheme.

Virtually all the grocers mentioned in our piece currently are selling reusable grocery bags in their stores. However, none are "San Francisco made." This "buy local" angle would fit well with the "eco-friendly" nature of such bags we believe. The "buy local" and green movements generally go hand-in-hand in the minds of most sustainable-oriented consumers.

With its plastic bag ban going into effect in a little over a week, San Francisco is taking a new California law which was implemented in September, to the "next level." The statewide law requires all grocery retailers in the state with stores over 10,000 square-feet to place plastic grocery bag recycling bins in their stores and to offer reusable grocery bags for sale in-store. The law was supported by the California Grocers Association and has been successfully implemented by the state's grocers over the last two months. The grocer's association hopes the law will stave off outright plastic bag bans like San Francisco's elsewhere in the state.

Conventional wisdom has it that laws like San Francisco's are "anti business," and rather than creating commerce stifle it. However, it seems the San Francisco ordinance is doing the opposite, creating a beehive of activity among entrepreneurs as well a getting the support of the majority of the city's grocers.

The plastic grocery bag industry isn't happy about the new law going into effect on November 20, and opposed the ordinance when it was voted on in late March. However, we're assured the paper grocery bag makers are pleased.

Add further to that pleased list the numerous local entrepreneurs looking to create and sell reusable grocery bags, as well as the city's grocers, who not only won't need to have the plastic bag recycling bins in their San Francisco stores, but also will be able to eliminate the need to pay a recycling company to pick the plastic bags up each week. The ordinance also should reduce the grocer's paper bag costs, since shoppers will be using reusable bags much more often. And, in politically liberal and "green" San Francisco, the grocers will garner good will from shoppers for not using plastic bags and offering reusables for sale.

The plastic bag ban will greatly reduce the number of plastic bags San Francisco sends to its landfill each year. The city's Department of the Environment estimates 181 million plastic grocery bags are currently distributed by the city's retail food stores each year. Most of these bags go to the city's landfill rather than being recycled do to a variety of reasons, the city says. The ban will eliminate these bags from the landfill.

San Francisco, like other high-density urban regions, is running out of landfill space. Open land is virtually unavailable in San Francisco for a new landfill. The city already hauls its garbage outside the city to landfill space it owns miles away. This practice angers residents and officials of the cities near the landfill. They oppose allowing San Francisco to obtain any additional space, saying San Francisco shouldn't "export" its garbage to their neighborhoods.

San Francisco is the first city in the U.S. to ban plastic bag use by large retail food stores. Other U.S cities are considering similar bans. The nearby Bay Area cities of Berkeley and Albany have municipal ordinances working their way through the legislative process. The Chicago Board of Alderman also is considering a plastic bag ban in their city. Laws to ban plastic grocery bags are being discussed in places as diverse as New York City and Louisville, Kentucky.

Local governments, the retail food industry, the plastic bag industry, consumers and other interested parties will be watching what happens in San Francisco beginning on November 20.

We're likely to see numerous U.S. cities and states propose plastic bag ban legislation in 2008. With the marketplace moving faster than governments in the environmental and sustainable arena, we're also seeing many grocers offer, promote and even give away free reusable bags in their stores.

As more and more consumers bring their own reusable grocery bags to the store we'll see the eventual disappearance of the traditional plastic grocery bag we believe. In its place will come biodegradable bags made from natural substances like corn and soybeans. These bags already are on the market--and getting more widespread use by grocers each week.

We'll also see--like in Europe--the common use of reusable grocery bags made from canvas and other materials become excepted in the U.S. Celebrities are making it hip to use "green" reusable shopping bags, and its only a matter of time before designer grocery bags are as popular in the U.S. as woman's designer handbags are. In fact, we're waiting for Coach, Gucci and a few others to debut their lines of designer shopping bags. When that happens, you'll know the trend is becoming the norm. It's coming sooner than we all think, by the way.

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