Paper, plastic…or canvas? Stores become eco-friendly

REGION – The next time you go to the grocery store and the cashier asks if you want paper or plastic, think about saying "neither." That's the message many environmental groups are trying to spread. They hope consumers will opt for reusable canvas shopping bags. Many area stores and shoppers are listening to this green message.

Late last year, Meijer began selling reusable canvas bags for 99 cents. "The response has been tremendous," said Customer Service Manager Jim Shoobridge of the Division Street store. "At first, we only sold a few a day. Now we have to fill up the racks a couple of times each day."

Meijer has sold about 500,000 reusable canvas bags since late last year – about 40,000 a week – for all of its stores combined.

Meijer said it began offering the canvas bags because of customer requests and also its commitment to being an eco-friendly company. One shopper said she likes the canvas bag not only because of protecting the environment, but also because of the convenience of throwing it over her shoulder instead of the "finger pain" associated with plastic bags. Each canvas bags holds about the equivalent of three full plastic bags.

Ric's Food Center, which has five Michigan locations including one in Interlochen and one that recently opened in Rockford, is also doing its part to encourage green shopping. For several years, they have offered customers five cents back for each bag they reuse. Store Director Bruce Hanson says within six weeks, Ric's hopes to have reusable canvas bags available to shoppers.

Plastic bags have been a staple of grocery stores since 1977 when they were first put at check-out lanes. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 380 billion plastic bags, sacks, and wraps are consumed in the United States each year. Most of us only use the bags once or maybe twice before throwing them away. That's a big problem, because the EPA estimates it can take up to a thousand years for bags to decompose in the landfills.

Because of these environmental concerns, one national supermarket chain has decided to stop using plastic bags altogether. Whole Foods Market says its goal is to be plastic bag-free by April 22 of this month, which coincides with Earth Day. In a press release President A.C. Gallo stated, "Together with our shoppers, our gift to the planet this Earth Day will be reducing our environmental impact as we estimate we will keep 100 million new plastic grocery bags out of our environment between Earth Day and the end of this year alone."

While the trend began in grocery stores, they aren't the only ones jumping on the "green wagon." Shoppers at stores like Target and Wal-Mart can also choose reusable canvas bags.

While going green is optional at most stores, there are places where it's mandatory. San Francisco became the first major American city to ban non-compostable plastic bags from being given out at large grocery stores. Supporters hope the year-old law will stop 180 million bags from ending up in landfills. Other cities, and even the entire state of Maryland, are considering similar legislation.

But despite the push toward paper or canvas, plastic bags show no sign of going away for good. One of the reasons is simple finances. According to the plastics industry, a plastic grocery bag costs about a penny to produce, compared with five cents for a paper bag. If a store were to order 10,000 plastic bags, it would cost them $100 dollars. The same order of paper bags would cost more than $500 dollars. BN