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single use shopping bags in Portland: on the way out?

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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posted September 24, 2008 at 2:58 pm

Just came across an interesting article on tree hugger talking about making & recycling paper & plastic bags:

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posted September 24, 2008 at 3:42 pm

ok, so after doing a bit of research I’m convinced. Even though paper bags tend to take more energy to produce and recycle, they tend to degrade a lot better. I guess I wasn’t aware of the tiny plastic particulates from when plastic bags break down, or the small number of plastic bags that are actually recycled. cheers.

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posted September 24, 2008 at 5:16 pm

Good link, Tony. Thanks.
I don’t think I understood until recently the downside of using paper bags. It has inspired me to increase my efforts to bring my own reusable bags. I’m going to keep an extra one in the car in case I forget to bring one with me (which I’m sure will happen quite often).

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posted September 24, 2008 at 7:54 pm

Like Laura I too was impressed with the variety and amount of people that are genuinely concerned with this issue. What surprised me was something that would seem so simple, actually becomes a complex. There were issues brought up such as not being able to provide reusable/loaner bags in stores due to health issues and the how reusable bags are constructed to allow grocers to effectively use the bags. Despite this Sam Adams made the point that Portland is not the first to enforce this policy. Countries such as Bangladesh, India, and Ireland have effectively adopted such a policy.

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Steven Brook

posted September 30, 2008 at 1:05 am

Great post about the meeting, Laura!
I have to admit that when I first heard about this panel discussion I wasn’t very enthused. I’ve brought my own bags and containers to stores for re-use for years. But even so I couldn’t imagine what the big urgency was about plastic bags when there are far more serious issues out there: the effects of commercial agriculture on habitat, how people transport themselves, the bottled water craze, consumerism, . . . But the meeting was very educational for me and now I’m a convinced supporter. It doesn’t make the other issues any less serious. But plastics in general in the environment is a serious matter and eliminating plastic bags to the extent possible and encouraging recycling of those that are used is an important first step to correct it.
The details and logistics presented were fascinating:
-the amount of energy and oil used to produce the plastic bags,
-their effects on the ocean (the ones that sink cover and smother the seabed, the ones that float cause entanglement or get ingested, the ones that break down to plankton-size particles then attract and concentrate toxins and then get ingested, the North Pacific Gyre),
-before being banned in Bangladesh they clogged the drainage system during a couple of cyclones,
-the industry and big money forced Seattle’s proposal away from the city council and onto a future ballot measure which they’re sure to put more money into defeating,
-whether to distribute free reusable bags to all households in the Portland area or to distribute free coupons for households to then redeem for reusable bags,
-finding more environmentally sound options for trash can liners and dog-doo bags which people currently use the plastic grocery bags for,
-if people have to buy plastic bags (pay a bag tax) rather than bringing their own, the store clerk won’t be able to finish the transaction until all items have been bagged and the number of bags counted,
-plastic bags get tangled up in the sorting machines of large area recyclers. Far West Fibers said that 300,000 plastic bags a day cause problems in their machinery and have to be pulled out or cut out. They use 25-30% of their labor costs in dealing with these problems.
I too appreciated mayor-elect Sam Adams. This was my first time to see him in action. He really seemed to listen and to invite ideas. He was often jotting down ideas and notes as people spoke. He was very articulate and calm in expressing himself; he never got defensive or tried to push his own agenda. He often told how people could contact him to give more input. He wants to come out with a good plan that will be accepted by the public and that will work.
I was also impressed by the New Seasons founder for all the reasons Laura expressed.
I was also very excited to find out about the Recycling Advocates since they work on issues that appeal to me as an activist for waste reduction, simple living, and sustainability. I paid my dues and joined right away.
I forget which speaker said it, but it was one of the most important things stated: People cannot think, “Oh ok, now that I’m using re-usable bags I’m doing enough to save the environment; I don’t need to do anything else.” The other issues and their impacts are still out there. But as Sam Adams kept saying, this is a “low-hanging fruit” and it’s one issue we can solve.

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