Editorial: Conservation — it’s in the bag

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 25, 2008

Everywhere they looked, volunteers who visited the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina encountered trash, especially plastic shopping bags. Stuck in trees, skittering down sidewalks and floating through the air, they outlasted brick mansions and centuries-old trees.
If a nuclear holocaust hits, it won’t be the cockroaches that survive. It will be the plastic shopping bags.
That’s overstating the bags’ resilience, of course, but plastic bags are nearly indestructible in the nation’s landfills. More than 1,000 years can go by before a plastic bag completely breaks down, environmentalists say. That’s good reason to reduce the number we use ó and especially the number we throw away.
In ways both trendy and practical, that’s what’s happening. More and more stores are offering customers, at a price, reusable alternatives to plastic bags that last longer and break down faster in landfills. Wal-Mart, Harris Teeter and Target are among recent converts, and Food Lion is working on it. The reusable bag is evolving from trendy fashion accessory to mainstream shopping tool.
Food Lion’s Bloom stores have sold reusable bags ever since they opened in 2004 ó a non-woven polypropylene bag with handles that costs $1. Spokesperson Kimberly Blackburn says the company is evaluating what type of reusable bag to use in Food Lion stores and plans to offer them there soon. No timetable has been set.
Meanwhile, it would be a mistake to believe all plastic shopping bags needlessly fill landfills and violate the environment. Blackburn says bags that customers put in recycling bins at Food Lion and Bloom stores are recycled by a vendor who uses plastic bags to make a deck lumber product. Several chains recycle plastic bags, and trendiness is the furthest thing from their minds. “Recycling continues to help us drive cost out of our system, produce income and is the right thing for our environment,” Blackburn says. Last year, Food Lion LLC recycled 7,730,869 pounds of plastic.
Whole Foods, a Texas-based supermarket chain, is going a step further than most in bag-consciousness. Whole Foods is not just offering alternatives; it plans to eliminate plastic bags from its stores this spring, according to an article in The News & Observer of Raleigh. The company estimates that will keep 100 million bags out of landfills this year.
How far will anti-plastic-bag sentiment go? San Francisco has banned large grocery chains from handing out plastic bags, The N&O reports. Let’s hope that degree of regulation does not sweep the nation. No plastic-bag Gestapo, please. For now, customer demand has been sufficient inspiration for companies to offer reusable alternatives. The day may come when “reusable” is the only alternative, but don’t discount the value of “recyclable.” What’s important is not the type of bag people use, but what they do with it. Reduce, reuse, recycle. It’s a way of life, not just a trend.