On Nov. 8, Hailey residents will decide whether they are ready to give up the ability to make the ultimate grocery line choice—paper or plastic?
A townwide ban on plastic bags was first broached by a small group of Wood River High School students who brought a proposal to the Hailey City Council to prohibit stores from using the sacks. The students argued in a council meeting that the ban would reduce pollution, help protect wild animals and reduce oil consumption. The council agreed to put the issue to the voters, placing it on this year's November ballot.
But opponents of the ban say stopping the use of plastic bags would lead to more expenses for grocers and little to no environmental benefit.
"The right thing"
Len Watson, general manager of Roxy's Market in Ketchum, said the store does not use any plastic bags apart from the smaller, thinner bags used for produce. Not only would the store go through an enormous number of plastic bags, he said, but some bags are "toxic," depending on the manufacturer.
"Basically, it was the smart thing to do," said Watson of the store's policy of using only paper bags. "There's a little more cost to us, but we feel better not polluting the environment."
But studies have shown that the manufacture and disposal of paper bags actually use more resources and may produce more greenhouse gasses than plastic. A 2007 report commissioned for the Progressive Bag Alliance—a coalition of plastic bag manufacturers—shows that the oil used in the production of an equal number of plastic and paper bags is the same, and the plastic bags don't hold as much.
"Both compostable plastic and paper bags require more material [than standard plastic bags] per bag," states the report, conducted by Boustead Consulting for the alliance. "This results in greater use of fuels in the extraction and transport of raw materials ... as well as greater energy in bag manufacturing."
According to the report, production of 1,000 paper bags produces more water and air pollution and more greenhouse gas emissions and uses more water and energy than the production of 1,500 plastic bags.
However, paper bags will degrade in a landfill while a plastic bag can take up to 1,000 years to break down. According to The Wall Street Journal, Americans use about 100 billion plastic bags per year, and a 2008 study from the Ocean Conservancy states that plastic bags are the second most common refuse found in the ocean.
Chip Atkinson, co-owner of Atkinsons' Markets, said he supports reducing the use of plastic bags. However, he said, he has been working with Hailey's Just Bag It campaign since 2009 to reduce the amount of plastic bags used in his stores.
"We've been in an education campaign and really improved everything," he said. "We were moving in the right direction."
Atkinson said he believes a plastic bag ban will only cause people to shift to paper bags, which cost him four times as much to provide to customers.
"The biggest frustration for us about a ban is that it is meant to reduce, but it's really a conversion," Atkinson said.
Customers wishing to avoid disposable bags altogether do have another option—reusable bags made of cloth, plastic or hemp.
The reusable bags Atkinsons' sells are "popular," Atkinson said, and used by almost 7 percent of his customers. Of the customers who buy three or more items, Atkinson said, roughly 12 percent of use reusable grocery sacks. That number has risen from a mere 2 percent in 2009, before the Just Bag It campaign to reduce plastic bag use began.
"The education campaign the city of Hailey instituted really started to make some progress," Atkinson said. "Offering choice, offering education is the way to go."
Watson said that more than 40 percent of his customers use the reusable bags the store provides, emblazoned with the Roxy's logo.
"We'd like to have people use the reusable bags," he said. "We thought, we'll just start that way, and we haven't had to switch [to plastic]."
Not only are reusable bags sturdier than the average disposable bag, they can help the market save costs on paper bags.
The Seattle Times reported in 2008 that manufacture of reusable bags uses more energy and materials than disposable bags, but those negative impacts are negated after just four uses. Reusable bags also hold more groceries than plastic bags do.
There are, however, two major drawbacks to using cloth bags. The first is that many reusable bags are made in China, while plastic bags are often made by American companies such as Helix-Poly, which has a plant in nearby Jerome.
Atkinson said his stores buy plastic bags from Crown Poly, a plastic bag producer in Washington. His cheapest reusable bags are made in China, in an attempt to cut costs.
"[Customers] don't want to spend eight dollars on a reusable bag," Atkinson said, adding that many customers need more than one bag per trip. "People try to buy one reusable bag, but they might need six of them when they buy groceries."
The second drawback is increased sales of plastic garbage bags and resealable sandwich bags.
According to a 2008 New York Times article, Ireland was able to reduce use of single-use plastic bags by 94 percent just weeks after introducing a 33-cent tax on plastic bags in 2002. But a 2007 Irish Ministry of Environment report quoted one retailer who said sales of other plastic bags such as wastebasket liners went up 400 percent.
What's a shopper to do?
While the fate of the bag ban has yet to be decided, Atkinson said he hoped education on how to reduce—not prohibit—plastic bags would continue. Grocers are on the "front lines," he said, and will have to deal with the fallout a bag ban may produce, especially when they have been working to encourage reducing, reusing and recycling plastic bags.
"It's kind of harsh that the grocery stores are where [the impact] falls," he said. "We've worked to reduce bags, we have instituted recycling them. All of a sudden, that's not enough."
The bag ban issue will be on the city of Hailey ballot on Tuesday, Nov. 8.
Reuse bags again and again
According to a 2007 study by international research firm APCO, more than 90 percent of Americans reuse plastic grocery bags at least once. Though they are often termed "single-use" bags, they can be used multiple times to carry groceries. For other ways to put those bags to good use, see www.bagtheban.com.
Next week, the Community Library will host a showing of "Bag It!," the documentary that inspired Wood River High School students to propose the plastic bag ban in Hailey. The documentary looks beyond plastic bags and discovers that virtually everything in modern society, from baby bottles to sports equipment to personal care products, is made with plastic or contains potentially harmful chemical additives used in the plastic-making process. The movie will be shown at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 1, at the Community Library in Ketchum. The event is co-sponsored by the Environmental Resource Center.