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Is a Ban in the Bag?

Eugene Considers Joining Portand and Other Cities in Favoring Paper over Plastic
By
Ed Russo

Eugene resident Robbin Titone admits that she likes plastic grocery bags. Sometimes she forgets to bring reusable bags into the Fred Meyer store where she shops, so she carries her groceries out in plastic bags.  At home, Titone finds the bags handy. She uses them for lining trash cans, padding packages and collecting newspapers for recycling. But Titone and other Eugene shoppers may not have a choice much longer if the city follows Portland’s lead and bans plastic bags from grocery stores and other retailers.

“I wouldn’t like it,” Titone said.

At the urging of environmentalists, the City Council will discuss whether to prevent stores from dispensing polyethylene bags. A date has yet to be selected for the council discussion, which could lead to a public hearing and an ordinance to ban the bags.  A ban would affect consumers and retailers. Operating costs could rise if stores decide to instead buy paper bags, which are more expensive than plastic. A representative of a major plastic bag maker said a ban on plastic bags would punish consumers.

Environmentalists counter that a ban is needed to reduce the number of plastic bags that pollute the ocean. A growing number of cities have banned or are contemplating outlawing so-called single-use plastic bags from checkout stands.

San Francisco in 2007 was the first U.S. city to enact a ban. Other cities followed, including Aspen, Colo.; Brownsville, Texas; Washington, D.C.; and Edmonds and Bellingham, Wash. Environment Oregon and local chapters of the Sierra Club and other groups began pushing for Oregon cities to pass bans after an attempt at a statewide ban died in the Legislature last summer. The Portland City Council passed a ban shortly thereafter. Now other cities besides Eugene are contemplating bans, including Seattle, Corvallis, Newport and Ashland.

In Portland, plastic bags are prohibited at the checkout stands of supermarkets with more than $2 million in annual sales, plus retailers with stores of 10,000 square feet or more that have pharmacies, such as Walgreen’s and Rite Aid. The ban exempts plastic bags used for produce, meat and bulk food at grocery stores. Pharmacists dispensing medicine may use plastic bags to protect a customer’s privacy.

Lisa Libby, planning and sustainability director for Portland Mayor Sam Adams, said city officials and residents had been talking about a plastic bag ban for four years, so most retailers and shoppers were prepared for the change.  Some shoppers have switched to paper bags while others tote their groceries in reusable bags, Libby said.

Some stores charge a nickel per paper bag. 

Some people predicted that the ban would lead to problems, Libby said, but that hasn’t occurred. “People are making do, and our hope is that they are managing by bringing reusable bags and reducing the impact of plastic bags on the environment,” she said.

Oregonians use about 1.7 billion plastic bags a year, said Dave Mathews, preservation associate with Environment Oregon, one of the groups that has asked the Eugene City Council to consider a ban.  Many of the bags find their way to the Pacific Ocean, where they pollute the water and kill marine life, he said.

“There is no reason a product we use for a few minutes should float in our oceans for a few hundred years,” Mathews said.

Oregon’s proposed statewide ban was opposed by Hilex Poly, a South Carolina plastic bag manufacturing firm. Anna Richter Taylor, a Portland spokeswoman for Hilex Poly, said a ban would punish consumers by limiting their choice. It also would eliminate a “highly convenient, 100 percent recyclable product that 90 percent of people reuse,” she said.

“If the council decides to explore this issue, Hilex Poly hopes that they will get all the facts and broaden the conversation beyond a ban that punishes consumers, to expanding recycling opportunities for not only plastic bags, but all plastic films and wraps,” Richter Taylor said.

Not all stores offer plastic

While major grocery store chains in Eugene offer plastic bags, a ban won’t change things at some local grocery stores because they don’t offer them anyway.  Sundance Foods, a natural foods store in south Eugene, has never offered plastic bags at the checkout stands in 40 years of business, owner Gavin McComas said.  Three years ago, Market of Choice eliminated plastic bags from the front of its stores. Customers are offered paper bags. They get a nickel off their purchase for every paper bag they bring to the store.  Scott Cook, the firm’s sustainability coordinator, said that before the switch, managers thought customers would use more paper bags than they actually did.

“We didn’t see an increase in our paper bag use,” he said. “We thought it would be a huge increase and cost for us. But people use reusable bags and they use paper bags over and over again.”

Fred Meyer has had a different experience in Portland, spokeswoman Melinda Merrill said.  The grocery store chain voluntarily removed plastic bags from its 10 Portland stores in the summer of 2010, a year before the Portland City Council approved the city ban.  Now, most Fred Meyer customers use paper bags, not reusable bags, Merrill said.

When you remove plastic, “Customers overwhelmingly shift to paper,” she said. “Plastic is about one cent a bag. Paper is anywhere from four to eight cents per bag, so it causes the retailers’ costs to skyrocket. Additionally, you’re just shifting the problem from one disposable bag to another.”

Fred Meyer doesn’t believe it has lost customers because of the ban, but executives don’t like the Portland prohibition because it applies to large retailers, not smaller ones, and it doesn’t require stores to charge for paper bags, Merrill said.  Fred Meyer executives backed the statewide ban in the Legislature because it would have required all stores to charge customers 5 cents per paper bag, Merrill said.  If all stores charged the same amount for paper bags, more people would use their own bags, she said.

Merrill said store executives eliminated plastic bags before Portland acted because they expected the Legislature to pass the statewide ban. But taking plastic bags out of the Portland stores before it was required gave store managers a chance to see how it would work.

“We did it to see what it would be like and how it would affect customers,” she said. “You just can’t pull (plastic) out of the stores. It was a huge operational change, and we are really glad that we did it.”

Customers shared their views on the ban for a couple of months afterward, mainly through e-mail, Merrill said.

“We got a lot of feedback,” she said. Eight out of 10 shoppers said they were either in favor of the ban, or said they were neutral.

About 20 percent of customers said, “I hate this. I deserve a choice,” Merrill said.

After a couple of months of hearing from customers, she said, “We haven’t heard a peep. Our customers are fine with it.”

Some shoppers OK with ban

Brooke Buchanan, a spokeswoman for Walmart, declined to say whether the world’s largest retailer would oppose a plastic bag ban in Eugene, where it has two stores. But Buchanan said Walmart offers paper and reusable bags for sale in communities where bans have been enacted.

In Eugene, a ban would most likely disappoint some residents, including pet owners who use the bags to dispose of pet waste. “I’m not a fan of plastic bags, but I save them for my neighbor because he has a dog,” Safeway shopper Randy Sewell said. “Whether it’s paper or plastic, I will shop here.”

Some Eugene shoppers didn’t seem that bothered about the possibility of a plastic bag ban.

Fred Meyer customer Marcia Drahn said she uses plastic bags for a variety of tasks. She recycles the bags she doesn’t use, bringing them back to the store. A plastic ban “would be an irritating inconvenience,” she said. “But I would think it would be the right thing to do because we don’t want the bags blowing around our feet.”