Friday, September 23, 2011

Bag ban effort part of global movement

Large-scale bag manufacturers watching Hailey initiative

Express Staff Writer

Atkinsonsí Market checker Margaret Racalek, right, bags items for customer Mia Edsall Wednesday afternoon in Hailey. Photo by David N. Seelig

Hailey voters will decide on Nov. 8 whether to ban the use of disposable "single-use" plastic bags. Supporters of the proposed ban say using reusable shopping bags, which are available for sale at local stores, will reduce pollution and reduce fossil fuel consumption.

The ban, if passed, could cost local retailers, who would have to pay for partially recycled paper bags instead, at least until local shoppers are trained to bring in their own reusable bags for shopping.

If the initiative passes with more than 50 percent of votes, it will become city law. Retailers still using the illegal "single-use" plastic bags would be fined $50 per day.

Wood River High School student activists who organized the bag-ban initiative, with the help of Hailey city staff, are taking part in a global battle that has pitted large-scale plastic bag manufacturers against citizen activists around the world.

At least one of these companies, Hilex Poly Co., which has a manufacturing plant in Jerome, is paying close attention to the students' efforts. Mike Shutz, a plant manager at Hilex Poly in Jerome, spoke in opposition to the proposed ban last week at a City Council meeting, saying his company preferred to work toward recycling the ubiquitous plastic bags.

A call to Hilex Poly, based in South Carolina, resulted in a return call from Chris Bastardi of Edelman Public Relations in New York City. Bastardi said Hilex Poly in Jerome gathers used plastic bags from grocery stores in the region and takes them elsewhere for recycling.

Bastardi said he is paid by Hilex Poly to follow news around the nation about proposed bans on plastic bags.

"We are following legislation there [in Hailey]," he said.

Hilex Poly and two other companies sued reusable bag maker Chico Bags (owned by Andy Keller, aka "the bag monster") this year for allegedly reporting false and misleading plastic bag statistics on its website, information that Hilex Poly said resulted in "irreparable harm" to their companies. A public relations battle was waged between Keller and his supporters and Hilex Poly (the other companies dropped the suit) until the case was settled last week.

The New York Times reported on Sept. 19 that Keller was ordered to pay Hilex Poly an undisclosed amount and that both parties are required to update their website information to more accurately reflect statistics relating to plastic bag pollution and plastic bag recycling rates. Both parties are hailing the settlement as a victory.

After months of research, Wood River High School students Chase England, Lex Shapiro and Maggie Williams presented the proposed bag ban to the city several months ago. Like Keller, students in support of the ban have appeared around town and in City Hall dressed in a suit made of 500 plastic bags, the number Andy Keller said the average American shopper uses in one year. They gathered 157 signatures on a petition to get a plastic bag ban initiative on the fall ballot.

Erika Greenberg, mentor for the students, said they were inspired by Hailey's "Just Bag It" campaign, rather than by Keller, and used the bag monster costume as an "educational tool."

Similar efforts to ban or reduce the use of "single-use" plastic bags have been successful as far away as China, England and Italy. The city council of Telluride, Colo., imposed a ban on the bags last March with an additional charge to consumers of 10 cents for every paper bag they use. A similar proposed ban will be decided in Aspen, Colo., next month.

The cost of paper bags used by shoppers in Hailey would be borne entirely by retailers, a fact that has turned Atkinsons' Market co-owner Chip Atkinson against the proposed ban.

"I know this means a lot to these students, but I don't think they have thought it through," Atkinson said. "We have worked really hard with the city on their initiatives to reduce plastic bag use, by gathering statistics and providing information. We have made huge progress, but that is not enough for these students."

Atkinson said education efforts made in Hailey have saved his company money. He said that between 2009 and 2010, the Hailey Atkinsons' store saw a 27 percent reduction in plastic bag use, or 224,000 bags. With each plastic bag costing Atkinson's 3 cents, the reduction resulted in a one-year savings of $6,720, Atkinson said.

But Atkinson said any savings his company saw from the city's educational efforts would likely be lost if the ban takes effect, because he would have to spend 12 cents each on paper bags for shoppers who do not have their own reusable bags.

Atkinson sells reusable bags for 99 cents.

"I can only get that price because they are made and shipped from China," he said.

Chico Bags, made in California, cost $5.99.

Tony Evans:

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