One City

On Monday night Steven, Kevin and I attended the forum, “Solving the Plastic Bag Dilemma: Is Portland Behind?” held at City Hall and hosted by the Recycling Advocates. I was surprised by the number and variety of people in the audience.
The panelists were:
1. Sam Adams, Portland City Commissioner and Mayor Elect
2. Brian Rohter, CEO and Co-Founder, New Seasons Market
3. David Alloway, Waste Prevention Specialist, Oregon DEQ
4. Tom Watson, King County Waste Prevention Specialist (Washington) and Seattle Times Eco-Consumer Columnist

Portland uses an estimated 170 to 340 million plastic bags and 62 million paper bags each year. Sam Adams wants a change. He wants Portlanders to begin using their own re-usable bags rather than paper or plastic. He is listening to the opinions and concerns of all parties involved, and is paying close attention to cities around the world who have worked to eliminate single-use bags. His goal is to find a way to reduce shopping bag use that is “good for the environment, good for business and good for the consumer.” You can download a .pdf of his potential program elements and perceived concerns. Please note the FAQ section that addresses things such as the potential financial burden to consumers.
I was very impressed with Adams, but also with New Seasons CEO Brian Rohter. New Seasons is the best grocery store in town (not including co-ops, farmer’s markets, etc.) and I shop there frequently. After witnessing Rohter’s genuine concern for the community and the environment, and hearing about the green policies New Seasons has implemented from day one, I felt quite good about being a regular customer:
1. They have never offered plastic bags at checkout, even though paper bags cost them 500% more
2. They have always provided recycling of the plastics that cannot be recycled curbside, and they pick up the extra cost for this
3. Rohter has gone to Salem to advocate for expansion of the Bottle Bill and stood alone against lobbyists from other local grocers on this and other issues
4. They offer a 5 cent discount for bringing your own bag: in 2007, 17% of total transactions included this discount. So far in 2008, 27% of total transactions have included this discount. In one New Seasons store (Sellwood), that number is 40%. Forty percent of customers at the Sellwood store bring their own bag? Impressive!
Rohter did get challenged for his choice to provide paper bags, since some argue that although paper is better from a waste perspective, the energy and greenhouse gas effects from paper manufacturing are actually worse than plastic. He responded that they did a lot of research before making this decision, that they feel plastic should be banned altogether, and that until an effective policy for reusable bags is implemented they will continue to provide paper.
One interesting thing I learned during this forum is that grocers and other retailers actually stand to make money if customers start bringing their own reusable bags. Right now, they are providing the bags and absorbing the cost. Chances are they are not going to lower prices once customers bring their own bags. So it may actually benefit them financially to push for this option.
Rohter expressed disdain at this prospect and offered to put those profits into additional green solutions such as figuring out what to provide for customers who forget to bring their own bag. I left the forum feeling confident that New Seasons is green for the right reasons and is serious about benefiting the community.
The Recycling Advocates gave out free reusable bags but we had to sign a form promising that we would use them:

Portland IDP folks can hear more about the forum from Steven at this Thursday’s IDP meeting…

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