Impact of plastic shopping bag bans has a ripple effect

Impact of plastic shopping bag bans has a ripple effect

The recently-announced planned ban on plastic shopping bags in Los Angeles is a landmark decision for the bag’s opponents. With Wednesday's decision, L.A. becomes the largest U.S. city -- and just the latest in a growing number of metropolitan areas worldwide -- that are either banning or taxing the use of plastic bags.

The ripple effect of this news is being felt across a wide spectrum of industries.

Plastic bag manufacturers are still working out their collective response. “Understanding and conveying the business impact is a little premature,” said Donna Dempsey, spokesperson for the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a group representing the five largest plastic bag manufacturers in the U.S. and about 4,700 workers nationwide.

The alliance estimates that more than 30,000 American manufacturing jobs in 349 plants could be affected by proposed ordinances to ban and tax plastic bags. APBA also notes the U.S. is the world leader in recycling plastic bags and film – which in turn fuels green technologies and jobs.

Some retailers have already made preparations when it comes to a future with fewer plastic shopping bags.

Kroger, one of the nation's largest grocery retailers, reportedly saved more than 159 million plastic bags in 2010. “The Kroger family of stores is in a unique position to help customers reduce plastic bag use and transition to reusable bags,” said Keith Dailey, the company’s director of external corporate communications, in an email to GreenBiz.

“In fact, our goal is to save a billion bags by 2014," Dailey said. "We plan to achieve this goal through associate education, new parking lot signage, and changing customer habits.“

Dailey says Kroger and its “family of stores” -- including Ralphs, King Soopers, QFC and other supermarkets -- have reduced plastic bag usage by offering an array of reusable bags. And the company’s report on sustainability says that last year Kroger retailers sold and provided over five million reusable bags— an average of 14,000 reusable shopping bags per day, the report estimates.

The paper industry has had recovery and recycling programs in place for more than 30 years. According to the American Forest and Paper Association, more than two-thirds of all paper consumed in the U.S. last year was recovered for recycling, and the industry is hoping to push that rate to 70 percent by 2020. While recent data is not available, the association estimated that 10 billion paper bags were used in the United States in 1999.

Kentucky-based Duro Bag Manufacturing, one of the world’s largest paper bag producers, has been implementing sustainable practices for some time. The company started its environmental program nearly two decades ago, has worked on “greening” its supply chain while informing the public of its choices. Duro Bag primarily uses 100 percent recycled paper, as well as paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Those branded paper bags are in turn used by a variety of companies including Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX), Whole Foods and the outdoor gear retailer REI.

Chris Klein, Duro Bag’s environmental director and manager of strategic initiatives, says his company views any growing ban on plastic bags “with reserved enthusiasm.” The industry’s future growth, Klein says, “will be based on our core product benefits, rather than relying on legislative movements.”

While some legislators and environmental organizations are encouraging the use of reusable bags, Klein has his doubts. He describes them as ”largely non-recyclable, non-compostable, non-biodegradable, made from non-renewable resources [which] pose a serious public health risk through cross contamination.”

Plastic bag bans do not necessarily mean more shoppers and retailers are using paper bags, either. Klein thinks that some affected areas might experience a slight increase in demand, while others experience little to no demand.  

But he believes the growing media coverage of the bans is encouraging consumer debate on the issue, which he hopes will encourage “consumers to research the issue themselves, and to make small environmental choices in their routine.”

Photo of disposable and eco shopping bags by Jon Nightingale via Shutterstock.