How the Irish can help us cure our addiction to plastic bags.


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For whatever reason, I recently started trying to stop using plastic bags. At the grocery store, at Target, and wherever else plastic bags rule the checkout counter, I try to do without them.

It started one day at Whole Foods. Here I am, feeling all green and superior and hip with my liter of organic kefir, my wedge of imported Pont L'Eveque, my quart of all natural taboule salad and my 100% recycled carton of free-range, hormone free, all vegetarian fed chicken eggs... when the girl at the counter asks me those dreaded words: "Paper or plastic?"

Pause frame.

Paper bags are bad. They kill trees. Actually, they're the crushed, melted and reconstituted remains of dead trees... and they're harder to recycle, etc. So... no paper bags.

But what about plastic? Plants that make plastic bags spew all kinds of chemical pollutants all over the place, they're all over South Carolina's roadsides, and they fill gajillions of miles of landfills.

To give you an idea, worldwide, the number of plastic bags used is anywhere from 500 billion to 1 trillion every year. Americans throw away about 100 billion plastic bags each year, according to the Worldwatch Institute. Only 1 percent of them are ever recycled. That means that about 1.5 BILLION lbs of plastic bags hit landfills every year in the USA. That's 4,000,000 lbs of plastic bags every single day.)

So... plastic bags are basically an unnecessary evil.

The question at the moment is "paper or plastic," and I'm stumped.

That's when I see the fancy little $0.99 (or $1.99) green "material" tote bags for sale right there by the counter. I figure... okay, they're made out of recycled materials or whatever, so that's good. And I can use them over and over again, which is also good because I won't be uselessly throwing bags away anymore.

So I buy two bags, the cute young cashier proudly fills them with my food with extra care, and I drive home, proud as a bug for having taken a big step towards being a better human being.

But then something weird happens a few days later. When I use my Whole Food bags at Bloom, I get dirty looks from the cashiers. I even get a comment on my way out: "It's not very nice using those Whole Foods totes in Bloom. They're a competitor. Why don't you use ours?" The cashier is joking, of course... but not really. So the following visit, I buy a couple of Bloom bags and use them to carry my food home. I now have two sets of totes.

A week later, the same thing happens at Publix. I add a set of Publix tote bags to my growing collection.

I now carry three pairs of tote bags in my car. This way, not only will I not be using plastic bags anymore, I also make sure not to offend anyone at any grocery store by using a competitor's bag. These are the lengths I go to to be a good little neighbor. A good little shopper. A responsible corporate citizen.

It is complete nonsense, but it makes everyone happy and I can be brand-friendly.

Anyway. That isn't my story. This is my story: I'm in Whole Foods three weeks ago, with my two good karma WF tote bags, buying all kinds of overpriced but very healthy sounding food items, when I notice that the bagger is wrapping all of my stuff individually with plastic bags before putting them in my tote.

She's about half way done when I look up from the card pad thing and catch her in the act. I watch her take a bottle of Kombucha, wrap it in a plastic bag, and carefully place it inside the tote. There are more plastic bags inside my tote than if she had just bagged my stuff in a couple of regular plastic bags.

WTF?!?!?! Luckily, by the time the thought makes it to my mouth, it sounds more like "Um... wait... What are you doing?"

The innocent little old lady blinks up at me with the kindest smile. There is absolutely no way I can be mean to this woman. In the friendliest way possible, I tell her that she doesn't need to wrap any of my stuff in plastic bags. She insists. I explain that I am trying to reduce my use of plastic bags... which is why I use the totes. She doesn't seem to understand, at first. She looks down at the totes and seems confused. But then she gets it and apologizes. She starts reaching into the totes and unwraps everything. I don't stop her... but I thank her half a dozen times.

On my way to my car, I ponder the possibility that perhaps as a people, we've become completely addicted to plastic bags.

My next grocery outing takes me to my neighborhood Publix, where the exact same thing happens. Instead of just putting my stuff in the totes, the bagging lady wraps them in plastic bags first. WTF?!?!?!

I go through the same dialogue: I'm trying to stop using plastic bags. Hence the totes.

As I said: Addiction.

I expect that a year from now, this confusion will be water under the bridge, but this is South Carolina, so... maybe not.

I figure most people here will not change their plastic bag habits unless retailers (or local and state lawmakers) follow the example of our clever brothers from another mother in Ireland.

From PSFK's Piers Fawkes:

Will the plastic bag be remembered in the same way we now think of how they used to smoke on the London Underground or maybe even how people used to wear fur coats? The image of the plastic shopping bag has taken a drastic plummet in Ireland as carriers are cast as socially irresponsible, the New York Times reports. After a tax charge of 33 cents a bag was instigated at cash registers, use of plastic bags plummeted and were replaced by the owners’ reusable cloth ones. The NY Times reports:

Within weeks, plastic bag use dropped 94 percent. Within a year, nearly everyone had bought reusable cloth bags, keeping them in offices and in the backs of cars. Plastic bags were not outlawed, but carrying them became socially unacceptable — on a par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after one’s dog….Today, Ireland’s retailers are great promoters of taxing the bags. “I spent many months arguing against this tax with the minister; I thought customers wouldn’t accept it,” said Senator Feargal Quinn, founder of the Superquinn chain. “But I have become a big, big enthusiast.”

Mr. Quinn is also president of EuroCommerce, a group representing six million European retailers. In that capacity, he has encouraged a plastic bag tax in other countries. But members are not buying it. “They say: ‘Oh, no, no. It wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t be acceptable in our country,’ ” Mr. Quinn said.

As nations fail to act decisively, some environmentally conscious chains have moved in with their own policies. Whole Foods Market announced in January that its stores would no longer offer disposable plastic bags, using recycled paper or cloth instead, and many chains are starting to charge customers for plastic bags.

But such ad hoc efforts are unlikely to have the impact of a national tax. Mr. Quinn said that when his Superquinn stores tried a decade ago to charge 1 cent for plastic bags, customers rebelled. He found himself standing at the cash register buying bags for customers with change from his own pocket to prevent them from going elsewhere.

NY Times

This is how little things can have a huge impact almost right away. It just takes the will to do it. Doesn't it seem like perhaps we should have thought of this first?

Why this post? A) Because it's an interesting experience actually having to fight everyones urge to bag groceries in plastic bags for no good reason, and B) Because branding is soon going to become a big driver in the adoption of tote bags. And I don't mean the amorphous canvas bags you can decorate with sharpies. I mean the new style bags that are popping up in grocery stores all across the US.

Let's face it: I don't want to carry three sets of totes with specific grocery store logos on them. As much as I like Bloom, Publix and Whole Foods' logos, I would much rather have one set of totes for all three places (and more). I can't keep track, honestly. And call me silly, but I don't want to attract the ire of another cashier for using a competitor's bag to carry my groceries home. The fact is that it's kind of rude anyway.

Enter the clever marketers and fashion houses: Gap totes. Gucci totes. Chevrolet totes. Coca Cola totes. Starbucks totes. Greenpeace totes. Nike totes. Nascar. NFL. Olympic Games. NBC. HBO. First Baptist Church. Mauldin High School. Bank of America. Girl Scouts. Delta Airlines. Doritos. m&m's.

I would much rather have a VW logo on my tote... or a Canon logo... or the emblem of Manchester United, than a Whole Foods, Bloom or Publix logo. If I am going to carry a tote into a store, I want it to say something about me. I want it to be cool and relevant, like everything else in my world. Why limit myself to a boring grocery store logo when my tote can be an outwardly expression of who I am. Isn't this what we're all about now? Myspace, facebook, custom T-shirts and license plates, blogs, everyone's so-called personal style?

Who the hell wants to carry a Wal-Mart or Bi-Lo tote bag around? My grandma, maybe. But I bet she'd rather walk around carrying a UNICEF tote. Or something a little more a propos, like Iron Maiden or Pantera. Maybe a Che tote. Maybe The Sex Pistols.

I dread the day when I start seeing WWJD totes invade the aisles of my local supermarket, but whatever. It's as inevitable as bad taste, so I'm ready for that unfortunate reality.

The possibilities are endless if you think about it. The issue here is one of distribution, of course: The tote bag is a commodity item you purchase at the grocery store's cash register. You probably don't want to make a special trip to the Apple store or the VW dealership to get yourself a $1.99 tote bag. It just isn't realistic. At least not yet. Which means that totes could soon stop being a commodity item. Totes could soon be priced at $4.99 or $9.99, depending on what is printed on them. Competition for placement inside store might become pretty stiff.

We could have tote wars.

Realistically, I could see a system by which your Gap or Banana Republic purchase could go into a $4.99 Gap or Banana Republic tote (which you would also use at the grocery store) - and every time you used your tote with subsequent purchases, you could enjoy a 5% discount. Think of the totes as a) a way to eliminate the cost of plastic bags in a company's P&L, b) a way to gain some good PR karma by being "environmentally" conscious, and c) a new version of a discount card. The tote is the discount card.

For the smartest marketers out there, the tote could even be equipped with a chip that records its owner's purchasing habits.

With the exception of the chip thing, if advertisers/vendors don't start this branding trend, the tote bag manufacturers will when the adoption curve eventually flattens and sales grow stagnant. They will have to find ways to entice shoppers to buy - and even collect new totes.

This seems a little ridiculous and far fetched, but let's revisit this in a year and see where things are. You might be surprised. Meanwhile, I'll be keeping an eye on what our Irish friends are doing in the tote department. Whatever trends emerge out of this, they will surely start there.

PS: I think that a set of Orange Yeti tote bags would be pretty fly.


Additional reading: Sixwise.com, China to ban plastic bags, Fashion tackles totes.


Have a great hump day, everyone.

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