On March 1st, Whole Foods moved to remove plastic bags from check-out lines. Customers have the option of a paper bag made of recycled material, purchasing a reusable bag for $0.99 or a more expensive canvas bag. This is a bold move by Whole Foods that will likely impact their bottom line. Executives hope they will set a trend in the grocery industry helping to keep millions of plastic bags out of the waste stream.
At first glance this seems like a great move for the environment. Banning plastic as Whole Foods and some cities have would benefit the environment. Plastic bags certainly contribute to our waste and they frequently fly away and end up in streams and rivers. However, I recently read a publication by the American Chemistry Council that made me rethink this move to ban plastic. The publication cited how much more energy is used in producing paper bags compared to plastic (40%). To deliver the same number of bags, seven trucks are needed to transport paper compared to one for plastic. Both paper and plastic bags can be recycled. Recycling paper uses much more energy and there are more chemical waste products that end up in our watersheds.
Waste is certainly an issue, but so is energy. This is a big move by Whole Foods but it still is not achieving a sustainable solution. The best solution to the grocery bag debate would be to force every customer to reuse their own bags. I don't know how that could be done though. Most customers don't think to bring their own bags. A truly bold move would be to stop supplying bags at the register altogether. Is that possible? People flock to Sam's Club and this store does not provide bags. Maybe it can be done.
At Lasell, we have a similar issue we have been debating. How can we get students to use refillable coffee mugs at the campus coffee shops? We would love to see paper cups eliminated from campus. We have talked about banning them for a day but fear a student revolt. Our current plan is to flood the campus with reusable mugs and promote awareness. If we can get a reusable mug in the hands of every student and make them aware of the environmental consequence of using paper cups every day, maybe it will make a difference. Changing behavior is certainly a challenge.