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Paper or plastic? Neither please -- how about reusable?

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02/14/2008

By Lizzy Hewitt, VR correspondent

Marine biologist David Barnes of the British Antarctic Survey best illustrated the global crisis of over-consumption of plastic grocery bags when he said, "They'll be washing up in Antarctica within the decade."

While people may be used to seeing matted plastic hanging from the occasional tree after a windstorm here in central Vermont, it is staggering to realize that this sight is familiar to people from as far north as Spitzenberg to as far south as the Falklands: That is a difference in latitude from 78 degrees north to 51 degrees south. In Africa, use and pollution is so common that a new industry has sprung from collecting windblown plastic bags and using them to weave hats.

According to ReusableBags.com, between 500 billion and a trillion plastic shopping bags are consumed worldwide every year. A ticker on the website's homepage displays the estimated number from the start of the year, increasing at a rate of approximately a million a minute. <MI>The Wall Street Journal<D> published that about 100 billion bags are consumed within the U.S. annually, at a cost of $4 billion to retailers.

Closer to home, at Mehuron's Supermarket, approximately 800 grocery bags are used daily. Paper is the dominant choice, making up about three-quarters of the daily figure. "Most people use paper. We always ask, and most people seem to be pretty responsive to using paper." Owner Tom Mehuron says that there are a significant number of customers who bring in their own bags. "I don't have a percentage, but there are enough so that I get a lot of requests to put out bags with our logo. I've invested in a thousand of them to encourage people to use reusable bags."

Tom Clements of Sweet Pea Natural Foods is very aware of the issue of bag usage. "When we took over the store about a year and a half ago we cut out plastic bags completely. We've cut the number of paper bags by 30 percent since we came here." One way the store promotes reuse is by selling cotton, hemp, canvas, and fishnet grocery bags.

Clements recently initiated a new program to encourage customers to reuse bags: For every person who brings their own bag, Sweet Pea donates a nickel to the Friends of the Mad River. He hopes that the nickel in the jar will remind shoppers how easy it is to make a difference. "It's getting in the front of people's minds and getting into the big picture. It's not just one bag. Some customers bring back their bags and we use them over and over again. I've gone for two and a half days here without using a new bag, just reusing bags people bring back to us. People can physically see it."

Judy Chong, the director of communication for the Shaw's Supermarket chain, highlighted recent progress with the company's reusable bag campaign. "One of the areas we're focused on is reducing usage. We have seen wonderful success with this program. Since January 2007, in our 200-plus stores spread throughout the New England states, 700,000 reusable bags have been sold." On average, 3,500 bags have been sold per store. Shaw's also has a plastic recycling program, where used bags can be deposited in bins in the foyer area. The recycled plastic is then used for Trex Composite Decking.

In 2002, Ireland took action by enforcing a tax on plastic grocery bags. The results were staggering; over the next three months, use dropped by 94 percent. Carrying a plastic bag is now seen as socially unacceptable. Other countries have entertained similar legislation since this success, especially in Africa and Malaysia where plastic bags frequently clog sewer systems. When this was tried in cities like Los Angeles, political support fell short.

Mehuron opposes the idea of enforcing a bag tax in Vermont because grocers are already responsible for collecting so many taxes. Change is possible without the law, he argues. "Everything needs to be a grassroots effort, and education needs to come from the people who shop."

"We take deposits on plastic bottles; there's no reason we can't do it with bags," Clements, who supports legislation for a bag tax, said. "I think it will be a tough one to pass, but I'm pushing it and keeping the pressure on." He is especially concerned about the dangers of plastic bags, which can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade.

Paper bags are also harmful. Paper uses about four times more energy to produce than plastic and generates 70 percent more air and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic. Additionally, in modern landfills plastic and paper degrade at the same rate. However, 10 to 15 percent of paper bags are recycled in contrast to one to three percent of plastic.

Breaking the addiction to single-use grocery bags is a matter of developing new habits and making it convenient. Mehuron carefully selected a bag with durable design that folds up neatly, so it's easy to keep in the car or purse. Suggested Clement, "Throw it in your glove compartment, in your purse. Keep three or four in your glove compartment at all times."

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