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Paper, Plastic or Bring Your Own?

2008 December 4

About the author: Brenda Reyes Tomassini joined EPA in 2002. She is a public affairs specialist in the San Juan, Puerto Rico office and also handles community relations for the Caribbean Environmental Protection Division

On a recent Sunday morning, I went to a local clothing store to purchase a gift bag for a present that one of my kids was taking to a birthday party. I usually keep recyclable gift bags at home, but this day, I had none. Upon paying, I proceeded to put the rather small bag in my purse along with the receipt. The cashier told me that I needed to put the gift bag in a plastic bag because it was store policy not to let customers walk out of the store with unbagged merchandise. Baffled, I placed my purchase in the store bag, but not before telling her that in Europe and some other islands in the Caribbean, stores either tax their customers for their use or simply don’t provide them. Her reply was the same: store policy.

I remember as a child, going with my mother to the supermarket and packing our groceries in paper bags. These were later reused. I fondly recall tearing them at the seams and using the inside for drawing and making crafts. I also remember how brown paper bags gradually disappeared from our lives when plastic ones were introduced in 1977.

Each year plastic bags cause the death of hundreds of thousands of sea birds and marine animals that mistake them for food. Paper, if not recycled, can fill our landfills and contribute in the long run to climate change. Both, paper and plastic require a lot of energy and raw materials to be produced.

But old habits die hard and our local businesses and industries have been slow in adopting sustainable and green practices. Even though some sell reusable bags, when the time comes to pack their purchases, I only see a small number of people using them. Some non-profit and environmental organizations in the United States have proposed a tax on plastic bags to discourage their use. In 2007, the city of San Francisco, California passed a city ordinance to ban plastic bag use in supermarkets and pharmacies. In Ireland, and since 2002, citizens have been paying a tax to use plastic bags. In turn, their use has dropped by 90% and the government has raised money for recycling programs. As more cities and countries declare a ban on plastic bags, retailers and consumers need to be aware that there is more than paper or plastic. And that is Bring Your Own.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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10 Responses leave one →
  1. joan permalink
    December 4, 2008

    Brenda, thanks for addressing this topic. I am trying to get onboard by purchasing my own reusable bags, but old habits die hard and I still sometimes forget to take them to the store. I think the stores need to launch some massive campaigns to get their customers on board with BYOB: Bring Your Own Bag.

  2. Glenn Welch permalink
    December 4, 2008

    We are starting a community awareness program on the subject of plastic grocery bags/drinking bottles in our middle school. Is there a grant available for this? If so, is it hard to apply?

  3. Brenda-EPA permalink
    December 4, 2008

    Glenn: Please contact your local EPA regional office. You can address this issue through an environmental education program, but you have to be a non-government community based organization to apply for the grant. Best of lucks!

  4. Beth Terry permalink
    December 5, 2008

    Great post! I never realized the EPA had a blog. Encouraging consumers to bring their own (bags, mugs, utensils, etc.) is what we need to stem the river of disposable junk that’s polluting our world. I’ve been attempting to reduce my own plastic consumption and plastic waste since June of 2007 and have compiled a list of plastic-free alternatives on my blog, Fake Plastic Fish, that might be useful for anyone else trying to go plastic-free.


  5. Rejin L. permalink
    December 6, 2008

    A lot of store clerks will get nervous about letting you leave without bagging your items, but be firm. They are just covering their buts and don’t want to get in trouble. But point out that the receipt proves you paid for your stuff, and tell them other stores don’t have this policy. I do this (go bagless) all the time and it is getting easier.

  6. Bill permalink
    December 7, 2008

    Oh this is sooo wonderful. I wish we could do everything like Euorpe. Maybe we should all stop showering and then we could save water and we should ride are bikes everywhere to save on gas. who cares if we will smell a little more or if our industries will suffer. we should do whatever it take to save our planet even if it means hurting Humans in the process. We can make a difference if we all join in and help togather and then we could hold hands and sign a nice song. Maybe if smoke a little grass…… Wake up crazies.

  7. Christine permalink
    December 8, 2008

    I started using reusable bags when I started walking to the grocery store from my house. They are much easier on the hands to carry than the plastic ones which tend to dig into my hands and feel uncomfortable. Now this grocery store allows me to scan all my items as I walk through the store, and it is faster if I bring my bags and pack as I scan.

    Our local Trader Joe’s helped also with the switch by allowing me to enter a weekly raffle for a $25 gift certificate every time I used my own bags. I’ve already won twice.

    My kids put the bags into my car after we are done unloading so I am almost always ready whenever we go to a grocery store.

  8. Linda permalink
    December 10, 2008

    I’ve been using cloth bags for groceries for quite a while now. I got into the habit when I was serving in Germany, where bags are not provided at the register; you either bring your own or purchase one. I go out of my way to collect bags that are pretty as well as functional, so now my shopping is often sparked with smiles and happy memories. I do occasionally forget to bring one in with me; in that case, I go bagless, or buy one at the store (reinforcing the message to bring my own next time).

    If a clerk were to give me grief about using my own bags (not usually a problem, in my experience) I would quickly inform them that I will comply with store policy this once … but will not be shopping there in the future unless the policy changes.

  9. Laurie Ann permalink
    December 20, 2008

    A clerk at the Virgin Megastore informed me that I could not leave with the one book (and receipt) that I had purchased without a bag because it was “store policy.” I argued about the ridiculousness but he would not slide my book over to me without the bag. I took the bagged book, stepped two feet away from the counter, removed the book from the bag and dropped it back on the counter. The manager “caught” me before I left the store and I told him the policy was insane. He actually agreed with me, but said they had to follow it. I’m sure it’s some sort of advertising thing, but honestly, I can’t wrap my head around their insistence.

  10. Johanna permalink
    April 26, 2010

    I hate taking bags when I have only purchased one or two things. However, when I lived in Japan, this happened several times. I was out shopping and of course (as it happens) after several hours had a handful of little bags, none of which were problematic to carry. At the last store, the lady insisted on giving me a huge bag. I couldn’t figure out why (I only spoke minimal Japanese), until she took all of my smaller bags and put them into the larger one from her store. Baffled by this, I asked a Japanese friend about it and found out that it wasn’t to help me but more to “advertise” for that store. Bigger bag=more advertisement. Such waste….

    Johanna Lasserton

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