The New BYOB

plasticbag
image from diongillard

College students should start a new BYOB: Bring Your Own Bag.

At the grocery store, when asked if you want paper or plastic, your answer should be neither.

Plastic bags are made from polyethylene, which, like all plastics, is derived from oil. According to WorldWatch, fewer than 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled, leaving the other 100 billion to clog streams and take up space in landfills.

Plastic sucks.

It takes 11 barrels of oil to make a ton of plastic bags. Our reliance on this seemingly innocent staple of American life could be continuing our country’s dependence on oil from the Middle East.

Because of the plastic bags’ detrimental effects on the environment, San Francisco banned them last year. It is the first city in the United States to do so, but other large cities like Boston and Chicago are considering similar proposals.

Even though nothing that green is growing in the Midwest, consumers can still curb the amount of waste generated by their everyday shopping habits.

Some stores in the Lawrence area offer a discount for customers who bring in their own bags. Both The Merc, 901 Iowa St., and all Dillons stores offer a five cent discount for every reused bag.

“We do this for grocery bags, produce bags and coffee bags,” says Janie Wells, general manager of The Merc. “I started in 1996, and we’ve been offering the discount at least since then.”

Sheila Rowrie, Dillons spokesperson, says that Dillons has been offering the discount “for as long as any of us can remember,” and that she has been with the company for 11 years.

Even though five cents may not seem like much money, the spare change adds up over time. The problem with offering this discount is that many customers have no idea that it even exists. Rowrie says that the discount is not explicitly advertised.

“It’s more of a word-of-mouth thing,” she says.

Wells says that The Merc has some in-store signs about the discount and that it is occasionally mentioned in advertisements or newsletters.

For people who don’t see the environmental benefits of using reusable bags, they need to be notified of the four Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle, remember this phrase) and shown the monetary benefit they would gain.

Larger chain stores, such as Wal-Mart, do not offer a discount for bringing in your own bag, but assistant manager Robert Garner at the store at 3300 Iowa says that the store welcomes people who want to BYOB.

“You can bring your own bags in—that’s fine,” he says. “We probably don’t offer a discount because we have a very big recycling program that the company uses for all stores, so that the bags are used as many times as possible.”

Although reusable bags are omnipresent at all types of stores now, larger corporations are still dragging their feet on the issue.

“Customers can buy a reusable bag for $1 at the store, but we do not offer a merchandise discount,” Wal-Mart spokesperson Bill Wertz says. “That may be something we’ll consider in the future, but I wouldn’t want to speculate at this point.”

Bringing cloth bags to the grocery store is more common now than it was in the 1980s or 1990s, Janie Wells says. She estimates that 30 percent of The Merc’s customers now bring their own bags.

Wells says that The Merc has resisted charging customers for using the store’s bags, a trend that is becoming increasingly popular on the West Coast.

“It’s the Midwest,” she says. “That’s pretty harsh. I would rather approach this through education and offering a reward for making a good choice.”

Now that you’ve got the facts, don’t be left holding the wrong bag.

originally published in Jayplay magazine on Feb. 14, 2008 (PDF). Click here for its original online home.

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