The Grocery Bag Dilemma: Some Suggested Solutions

As a result of a previous post regarding the misguided attempts by several cities to ban plastic bags at grocery stores, I got called to task by a concerned reader.  If you think you're so smart, how do you get rid of the plastic and paper bags? 

I'm supposed to complain AND come up with a solution?  That seems pretty demanding.  On the other hand, it's a fair question that deserves at least an attempt at a response.  So, how might we do that?

Since, as a practical matter, groceries will need to be sacked, there is only one way to eliminate the bag as a waste -- be sure the bag is reusable.  That's not a shocker, but getting there is the trick.  To do that, we need to somehow convince the shopper that using the bag over and over is to their advantage in some way.  The history of environmental regulation has shown that there are essentially two methods of "encouraging" reuse: 1) hit the public’s conscience or 2) hit their pocket book


Under the guilt approach, you explain how much damage is being done to the environment by paper and plastic bags and hope that the public starts to bring their own bags for sacking. When you look at the statistics on the costs of creating paper and plastic bags, it's an easy case to make. The only problem with this is that it doesn’t work.   Most people have heard some version of the statistics, yet today only a small number of individuals at mainstream grocery stores bring reusable bags. If you can’t get those shoppers to do it, it isn't going to have any real impact.

You could help this philosophy along, however, by simply banning all bags at grocery stores. That would then force the buyer to bring a sack or, as in the case of Sam’s Club, hope that there is a spare box (that you then throw out at home).  Maybe the stores could hire young high school men and women to become grocery “carriers” instead of grocery “sackers” to take the groceries to the cars. That way the store owners wouldn’t hear the customers swearing as they carried the groceries, load by load, to the kitchen.  

You will have to judge for yourself, but I doubt that a total ban would work. If an individual store implemented it, the loss of business would likely force them back to bags. To avoid this, a city would need to be sure that every store followed the rule, but if there was a city-wide ban imposed, I would guess that, whenever possible, a lot of people would shop at the next closest city.  Although it would be a bold move, I haven't found any city that has considered a total bag ban.


The more likely solution is the pay-as-you-throw option.  That is, if you use a throw-away bag, you pay for the cost of the toss, not just the cost of production.

The simplest method is to just charge everyone a nickel for each bag. This should encourage re-use.  New York  has considered this.  The difficulty with this solution is that it sounds like a tax, which is a political lightning rod.  Also, unless the cost is high, I don't think it would be effective.  If your grocery bill is $50 or $100, most people would be willing to pay the extra 40¢ or 50¢ rather than change their behavior and, if that is the case, there’s no reduction in the waste stream.  If you want to change behavior, you need to get smarter than that.

For example, you could do what a some states do with beverage cans. You could charge, say, 5¢ per bag and return the nickel if they return the bag. While consumers may be willing to pay the 5¢ with no chance of getting it back, they don't seem to be as willing to throw it away. I'm sure that there is a psychological name for this, but I like to think of it as the PAF (people are frugal) effect.  You can almost always count on it. 

Once the bags were returned, they could be recycled. If they weren’t returned, the nickel would go to the landfill.  It's hard for the consumer to argue with it because they are getting their money back (with a little effort).  The biggest objectors would be the grocery stores, so they would likely need to get something for their effort, as is currently done with the can deposit.  This solution has the added incentive that, just like with beverage cans, enterprising youths and adults would search out discarded bags and return them for the nickel. You wouldn’t see many bags blowing around the neighborhood.  It isn’t a perfect solution, but it might work.

An interesting variation would be to simply charge $1 per bag and all bags would be those recyclable, hemp ones that we are now seeing at most stores. You know, the ones that drive you crazy because you remember that you have ten of them stored in your trunk just as the cashier says: “Paper or plastic?” The difference here would be that if you forget to bring your recycled bags, you would get to buy another three or four for your collection at $1 each. At $1 a bag, the PAF effect is really going to kick in. My guess is that after someone accumulates 15 or 20 of those bags, forgetting the bags will be a thing of the past.  (While I'm on it, would it be so hard for grocery stores to post "Don't Forget Your Bags" signs throughout the parking lot?)

Maybe none of these suggestions will work, but they're a start.  I leave the rest to the city council members -- that's why they're paid the big bucks.

RELATED POST: Sure Plastic Bags Are Better For The Environment, But Is That The Real Question?

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