We're left holding the bag
Ingles goes green with reusable
story by Kathryn Purcell
photos by Angelina Bellebuono
Countries like Ireland, China and Australia are taking steps; major U.S. cities like San Francisco, New York City and Oakland are making progress; and smaller communities, including Morgan County, are getting in on the action.
The reason for the revolution? An end to the seemingly age-old question muttered in grocery stores around the nation and throughout the world: "Paper or plastic?"
On January 22, Whole Foods Market, a grocery chain with close to 300 stores in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, made history when they announced that plastic grocery bags would no longer be offered at checkouts in their stores. The company chose to institute the measure in an effort to cut down on the use of plastic bags, considered to be a hazard to the environment, and encourage the reuse of bags - paper, plastic, fabric or otherwise - already in existence, according to the Whole Foods Web site, www.wholefoodsmarket.com.
"Plastic bags are petroleum-based and they fill landfills, harm nature and litter our communities," the Whole Foods Web site states. "Since it can take more than 1,000 years for a plastic bag to break down in a landfill, polymers of every single plastic bag ever produced still exist on our planet. As they break down, plastic bags go through photodegradation - breaking down into small toxic particles that contaminate both soil and water, and end up entering the food chain when animals accidentally ingest them."
The effect of plastic bags on the environment, however, isn't a new issue. As far back as 2002, Ireland levied a tax on the bags, according to a New York Times article ("Motivated by a Tax, Irish Spurn Plastic Bags," February 2, 2008). Currently, shoppers in Ireland must pay 33 cents per plastic bag.
The effect of the tax? "Within weeks, plastic bag use dropped 94 percent," the article states. "Within a year, nearly everyone had bought reusable cloth bags...Plastic bags were not outlawed, but carrying them became socially unacceptable."
More recently, countries including China and Australia and U.S. cities including San Francisco, New York City and Oakland have explored, discussed and, in the case of San Francisco, passed regulations banning plastic bags.
In Morgan County, the environmentally friendly trend has made its way to the checkout counters of the local grocery store, as Ingles Markets made it a companywide policy to carry reusable grocery bags, produced by Green Bag Company.
Store Manager Larry Miller estimates that, in the six weeks the Green Bags have been available at Ingles, the store has sold 300 bags.
"I've seen people buy as many as 20 [bags] at one time," Miller said.
The Green Bags are made of Non Woven Polypropylene, recyclable and reusable and water repellent, according to the Green Bag Web site, www.greenbag.info. More than that, one Green Bag has the carrying capacity of between three and four plastic bags.
They are available at the Madison Ingles, near the checkout counters, for 98 cents.
And there are more perks to the Green Bag than solely being beneficial to the environment.
"They're easier to bag than the plastic bags because they stand up," Miller said. "It also helps the trash problem in the county, too, because lots of people take them (plastic bags) home and throw them away."
Morgan County Solid Waste Supervisor Asbury Williams can attest to the fact that plastic bags pile up in and around county trash collection sites.
"We see them (plastic bags) all the time," Williams said. "As a matter of fact, since they stopped with paper bags...they (Morgan County residents) take them, when they're done with them, and throw them away. They go to the landfill, when they can be recycled."
Cost is also a factor for grocery stores like Ingles when it comes to encouraging the use of reusable bags.
Ingles goes through 20 boxes of plastic bags a week, according to Miller, and there are 2,000 plastic bags in each $30 box. So, the Madison grocery store spends $600 per week, or $31,200 per year, on plastic bags; more than that, the local Ingles goes through 40,000 plastic bags per week, or 2,080,000 plastic bags per year.
The estimated more than two million bags the Madison Ingles goes through in a year, however, is nothing in comparison to the estimated 150 million plastic bags Whole Foods consumes (consumed, rather) in a year, according to a New York Times article ("Whole Foods Chain to Stop Use of Plastic Bags," January 23, 2008). Even the amount of bags Whole Foods goes through pales in comparison to the 100 billion plastic bags the United States goes through annually or the estimated 500 billion to one trillion plastic bags used worldwide each year, according to reusablebags.com.
Locally, however, there is good news. Aside from purchasing reusable bags, recycling is available at Ingles.
"You can recycle plastic bags here," Miller said.
Another local option in regards to reusable bags, aside from Ingles' Green Bags, has also developed through a fund-raiser organized by the Madison Artists Guild.
The idea for the fund-raiser first came to Artists Guild Executive Director Karen Strelecki in October.
"I was working on an illustration project and listening to MSNBC's coverage of Al Gore's nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize," Strelecki said. "I've always been good about recycling, personally. All of a sudden, it hit me - this would be a good idea for the Artists Guild to do as a project, and one that's good for the environment."
After gaining the approval of the Guild's board, Strelecki set about taking the necessary steps to create the bag.
With the help of fellow Guild members Chris Cook and Pete Muzyka, Strelecki conceived a design for the front of the bag.
"The bags say 'We can all save the earth one bag at a time; Madison Artists Guild; Shop locally, bag responsibly with this creative alternative to paper or plastic," Strelecki said. Further, the front features a graphic of the earth.
Strelecki also sold advertising space on the back of the bag, the first run of which sold in two days. When she received calls from more interested advertisers, the decision was made to do a second run of the bags. The advertising space on the second run of bags sold within a week.
"I am so proud of the fact that they (the advertisers) are interested in supporting the fund-raiser itself and interested in not using paper or plastic," Strelecki said. "The advertising is affordable and it was good for the local economy. They believe in the project."
The Artists Guild's bags, made of 100 percent recycled cotton, are the size of a large grocery bag and hold the same amount of groceries as a paper bag, according to Strelecki. The bags retail at $11.50 and will be available at the businesses of the bag's advertisers as well as Madison Fest. They are expected to be available by mid-March.
"If people buy them (the bags), they are doing a good thing for the local economy...and doing a small part to help the environment," Strelecki said.
Whether Green Bags, Madison Artists Guild reusable bags or even plastic bags from a previous trip, the bar for the Morgan County community has been set.
"I would like everyone in Madison to be an example to the rest of the world and bring their bags with them and shop with their own grocery bags," Strelecki said.