After the plastic water bottle, you couldn't do much better than the plastic shopping bag as a symbol of American consumerism run amok. We go through 380 billion a year. An estimated 5.2% get recycled; in landfills, they could last 1,000 years. Bags are made from oil, and our bag habit costs us 1.6 billion gallons each year. That last statistic, and its link to global warming, is starting to drive change.
Because municipalities have been picking up the tab for unclogging pipes—plucking bags from drains and ditches and either recycling them or disposing of them in landfills—they're the ones making the most noise by forcing retailers to change. The city of San Francisco, which spends $8 million a year on bag cleanup, will require grocery stores with net profits of more than $2 million a year and drugstores with more than five locations to use compostable bags. The ban takes effect November 20 for grocery stores and next May for drugstores. The city will collect the bags from households, along with food scraps, and turn them into fertilizer.
The new bags are expensive—they cost between 5 and 10 cents apiece, while plastic costs between 1 and 4 cents. But the big downside to these bags is that they decompose only in a commercial composting facility, which most cities don't have. Within the dry confines of a landfill, compostable bags will act just like plastic.
Cities from New York to Toronto to Los Angeles are considering measures similar to San Francisco's. But some of the nation's best-known retailers are already engaging with customers about what to do with plastic bags. Given a choice, reducing consumption is better for the environment than reusing what's already out there, which is in turn better than recycling. We cycled through four high-profile programs to rate their effectiveness.
Wal-Mart's Recycling Effort
The nation's largest retailer, and perhaps the most conspicuous business talking green, is touting how it collects old bags for recycling. Last year, the company incurred the costs to collect 56 million pounds of bags and ship them to Rocky Mountain Recycling, which paid $10 million for them. Those bags will become lumber, food-storage containers, or garden pavers. But that's not recycling, that's "downcycling." At the end of that paver's useful life, it won't be recycled into anything: It's going straight to the dump. Sure, downcycling bags is better than nothing. Plastic lumber spares trees, and using recycled plastic resin for other products avoids processing oil to make new resin.
Target's Encouraging Words
Whole Foods' Bag of Carrots
The nation's largest natural-foods grocer gives customers a nickel off (a dime in some places) for every bag they bring in to reuse. In
Ikea's Disposable Stick
The Swedish retail giant encourages customers to use fewer bags by charging shoppers 5 cents for each disposable bag they take. (Ikea gives the nickel to American Forests, a nonprofit.) The policy, in effect since mid-March, has already cut bag consumption in the United States by more than 50%, far more than executives had expected. "Most people feel positive about it, though a few think it's crazy," says Pernilla Spiers-Lopez, president of Ikea North America. In the United Kingdom, the policy, which started in June 2006, cut bag use by 95%. The cynical view is that every time a retailer cuts its order for disposable bags, it saves money. "But that's not the way to look at it," insists Spiers-Lopez. "In the long term, it's a good decision for our customers and for the earth." As proof that money isn't Ikea's motivation, the company reduced the price of its big blue reusable totes from 99 cents to 59 cents when the bag penalty took effect; sales are up 10 times.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.