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The Times
  • Grocery stores are finding ways to discourage paper, plastic

  • You may think you’re making the environmentally responsible choice when you request paper instead of plastic bags in the supermarket. But you would be wrong.

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  • You may think you’re making the environmentally responsible choice when you request paper instead of plastic bags in the supermarket. But you would be wrong.
    “Paper is not a good alternative because it has a higher carbon footprint. That means it takes more energy to manufacture the product and transport it and recycle it,” said Joan Barenfanger of the Green Business Network of Springfield, Ill. She oversees the network’s Better Bag Project, which seeks to increase the use of reusable shopping bags in Springfield.
    “We don’t use the term ‘cloth bags’ because a lot of them are actually made from plastic,” she said.
    A recent study of shoppers at large retail stores in Springfield revealed that more than 90 percent of them use plastic or paper shopping bags and fewer than 10 percent opt for reusable bags. Of shoppers who use paper or plastic, 95 percent opt for plastic. The study was done by the Green Business Network with help from the local government recycling staff.
    It takes 12 million barrels of oil to make a year’s worth of plastic bags –– 100 billion –– for Americans, according to the National Cooperative Grocers Association. The production of plastic bags releases toxins into the environment, and the bags don’t break down in landfills, the grocers association reported.
    In addition, plastic bags threaten marine animals, which can become strangled in them. Sea animals also can starve when they eat plastic. Scientists recently reported finding plastic in the guts of small fish. These fish are eaten by larger fish, which are then eaten by humans.
    Paper bags don’t harm animals, but their manufacturing produces 70 percent more air pollutants and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags. And nearly twice as much energy is required to recycle a pound of paper instead of a pound of plastic, according to the Green Business Network.
    Governments are dealing with the eco-threat of both paper and plastic bags by enacting bans and fees. San Francisco banned plastic bags and requires shoppers to pay 10 cents for paper bags. Westport, Conn., banned plastic bags. Los Angeles is moving forward with a plan to ban both types of bags in supermarket checkout lanes. In Austin, Texas, a bag ban will begin next year.
    “I have never liked seeing everybody in grocery stores with plastic shopping bags. One day, I decided I had to do something,” said Barenfanger, who educates the public about bag problems by speaking to community groups. She shops with reusable bags, but she also reuses plastic bags.
    “I bring them back into the store and display them on my shopping cart. Maybe I can guilt people a little,” she said.
    The Better Bag Project wants retail stores to encourage shoppers to choose reusable bags. For example, clerks can be trained to ask, “Did you bring your own bags?” Stores can have reusable bag promotions that include punch cards, discounts and freebies.
    Page 2 of 2 - Retailers also can switch to more expensive compostable bags, which are biodegradable. (More suggestions can be found at http://gbns.org/Projects/BetterBagProject.aspx.)
    To remind shoppers not to leave reusable bags in their cars, Schnucks, a Midwest grocery store chain, has a large sign on some of its buildings that asks, “Did you remember your reusable bags?”
    Other grocery stores will donate a nickel to local charities each time a shopper either declines a bag, brings in a reusable bag or uses a box from the store.
    Although Barenfanger educates people about bags whenever she gets the chance, she said she sees little change in Springfield’s bag habits.
    “What breaks my heart is seeing a mother or father with a child in a shopping cart with 10 plastic bags,” she said. “The child is learning that’s OK.”
    Food editor Kathryn Rem can be reached kathryn.rem@sj-r.com.
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