The problem that won’t go away

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At a nondescript Freihofer’s bakery outlet in a strip mall next to a McDonald’s in Chester, NY, a customer bumped the door open with her hip, hugging a load of breadstuffs to her chest.

“She must have kids,” the cashier half-joked. Indeed, the customer looked like she’d done this sort of thing before, as she used her chin to secure a loaf of bread while opening her car door.

This store, which sells bread, chips and cookies, doesn’t appear particularly progressive, but looks can be deceiving. On January 1, 2013, the employees here stopped handing out plastic checkout bags to customers. Reusable bags are for sale next to the cash register for 99 cents plus tax.

The clerks – Rose and Betty, who insist that their last names are unnecessary because they’ve been working here for decades and “everyone knows us” – are sympathetic to their customers’ juggling. “Sometimes you wish you had something to give them,” said Betty.

“People got upset at first,” said Rose. “But now everyone comes in with their bags,” often a plastic bag tucked into a back pocket. “Mostly people don’t get upset anymore,” she said, although some do still “give you a hassle.”

“You can’t satisfy everyone,” said Betty.

Who gave the order to stop giving out checkout bags is a mystery. Betty and Rose only know that the idea came from above them, and referred this reporter to “corporate.” The Freihofer’s parent company, Bimbo Bakeries in Pennsylvania, told Dirt they hadn’t heard about the plastic bag thing and said they’d check into it, but hadn’t called back by press time. It’s strange, because you’d think a move like this would be motivated by public relations, and yet there’s been no fanfare or advertising other than the piece of paper that appeared on the door of the Freihofer’s store at the end of 2012, announcing a “Countdown to less plastic.” Could it be that the driving force here is not the bottom line but the voice of reason?

In the grand scheme of things, it’s a modest step. After all, each individual loaf of bread in the store is still wrapped in plastic. But it’s a bold and inspiring move in a society where customers expect convenience and plastic is all but free.

Plastic bags are the problem that won’t go away. Every piece of plastic that’s ever been created (and not incinerated) still exists, much of it floating in a massive island in the Pacific. Although there are new bio-plastics being developed, traditional plastic is made out of oil, and nothing on this planet eats it. It never biodegrades completely, but breaks down into smaller and smaller toxic particles that animals eat and that eventually end up on our dinner plates. This is not news.

In 2007, a group from the town of Warwick, NY, decided to do something about plastic bags. The idea came about at a meeting of the citizens group Sustainable Warwick, when someone complained about seeing so many plastic bags going out of grocery stores. A bunch of people popped up and agreed that it bothered them too. Warwick is serious about issues like farmland preservation and organic agriculture. It seems like the kind of town that could get people fired up enough to do something about plastic bags. Nantucket had managed to do it way back in 1990, when it became one of the first places in the world to require retailers to use biodegradable packaging.

Seven women who called themselves the Bag Ladies got to work, writing letters to the editor of local newspapers and handing out canvas bags at the Warwick ShopRite. Mary Makofske, a tall and stately poet, greeted shoppers wearing an extravagant hat made entirely of different colored plastic bags. Their target wasn’t just plastic bags, but paper bags too. “Using any bag once, or even twice, is not an efficient use of resources,” said one Bag Lady handout. ShopRite wouldn’t go so far as to charge people for plastic bags, but they already had a policy crediting two cents for bringing your own bag (now it’s five), and they put up a sign at the store entrance reminding people to bring in their bags.

Recycling plastic bags is better than throwing them away, but it’s not the answer, the Bag Ladies explained. (In case you were curious, the bags you bring back to the grocery store become feedstock for rigid plastic products like traffic cones or plastic lumber, said Reenee Casapulla, the recycling coordinator at the Sussex County Municipal Utilities Authority.) “It is not energy efficient to use a non-renewable resource, process it into bags, use the bags once, and then spend more energy transporting and recycling them,” wrote Makofske.

The campaign was a success. In 2008, a local newspaper reported that the Warwick ShopRite was selling the most reusable shopping bags of the 26 ShopRites in the Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties. “You noticed people carrying re-usable bags,” said Makofske. But that kind of sustained effort can’t go on indefinitely. Eventually, “we kind of let it lapse,” Makofske said. “We did talk about going to the merchants in town and making a bag that would list the different stores, and they could all sell it,” but it never amounted to anything. In grocery stores, “you still see a lot of people with their 15 plastic bags in their cart,” said Makofske, but the issue got lost under a pile of more pressing environmental problems like fracking and energy consumption.

Once in awhile, the issue pops back up. Someone will mention that there are still a lot of people using a lot of plastic bags, and something should be done. “Well you know,” Makofske reminds them, “someone has to do it.”

In the meantime, some individual stores have taken on the mantle, going out of their way and paying more to use sustainable packaging (see sidebar). “Basically it’s a pain in the ass but the right thing to do,” said Jim Haurey, who recently opened The Grange in Warwick. But they are the small minority.

Plastic bags are so omnipresent that you have to have had your cup of coffee and be feeling full of vigor and resolve simply to avoid being handed one as you go about your life. Even at farmers markets, when you select a bushel of fruit in a quaint little cardboard container, your peaches get dumped into a plastic bag and handed over before you have time to object.

Maybe Warwick was just a little ahead of its time. Just as Mary Makofske was donning her plastic bag hat, National Geographic published an article “Plastic-Bag Bans Gaining Momentum Around the World,” detailing how Ireland, Italy and Belgium were taxing plastic bags; Switzerland, Germany and Holland were requiring retailers to charge customers for them; South Africa had banned thin-film bags, their tongue-in-cheek “national flower”, as had West Coast cities San Francisco and Oakland; and Spain, Norway, the U.K. and Australia were considering a similar ban or tax. But it would be a few months still until the movement made it to the East Coast.

In September, 2008, Westport, CT, a small town that prides itself on being one of the first municipal bodies to pass a resolution opposing the Vietnam War in the sixties, became the first Northeastern town in decades to ban thin-film plastic checkout bags, starting a domino effect. In 2011, Rye, Southampton Village and Easthampton Village followed suit. Today, at least 11 municipalities across the Northeast have some legislation on the books regarding retailer packaging. This summer, New York City started talking about requiring retail stores to charge customers 10 cents for checkout bags.

“New York is actually more advanced [than New Jersey] in terms of how they’re starting to require more stores to do the [plastic bag] collection, and also looking at bag bans,” said Casapulla, of the Sussex County Municipal Utilities Authority.

Dirt called Warwick Village Mayor Michael Newhard to see if anything like a plastic bag ban had ever crossed his desk, or his mind. “It has not been considered,” he said, “but I think it’s a great idea. So I will definitely bring that to the attention of my board. It’s a great initiative, I think. The one bit of debris you see around on streets and in streams seems to be plastic bags. They’re so lightweight they just get away and end up in the wrong places. I definitely think there’s merit in banning it.”

Maybe now’s the time to try again.

Warwick restaurants walking the walk

Q. Do you using products that are sustainable or recycled?

Kim Gabelmann, Consciousfork: Nearly all of our food packaging is made of fully compostable materials. Our paper products, such as bags, paper towels, toilet paper, business cards are made of recycled paper. Our cups, lids, straws, napkins, plates, bowls and even our utensils are compostable, made from plant fiber, corn or sugar starch.

Kristen Ciliberti, Tuscan Café: We use old wine bottles for our water bottles for tables. This saves us time and money. We offer in house mugs as opposed to people using paper cups while they are at the cafe. We give a discount to people who bring in their own travel mugs on coffee.

Jim Haurey, The Grange: Paper bags, Bamboo to-go sporks, recycled toilet paper, recycled paper towels, all produce is delivered by local farmers in farm crates that get returned & re-used, recycled paper to-go coffee cups. All plates, glass ware & silverware used in restaurant are washed & re-used, no paper products used in house. Also use coasters for drinks not bar napkins, no tablecloths.

Leslie Noble, Noble Pies: We are using [recycled] to-go containers, coffee cups, coffee sleeves, cold drink cups, toilet paper and bags.

Q. Why use these products?

Conscious: This was a decision made before I opened the business. After doing significant research on the sustainable packaging market – I made the decision to integrate fully compostable packaging into our core business. Even though Warwick doesn’t presently have a commercial composting facility (only for brush/leaves), the containers break down in the landfill. And they save much on water usage which is another vulnerable and precious commodity. I felt strongly that we could use these quality products at the same time and hopefully educating and bringing awareness to the issue.

Grange: Mother Nature told me to.

Noble: We decided to because we use so many of these items and it is the right thing to do to help save our environment.

Q. Does using these products cost you more? Do you have a recent example of the price difference that you can share?

Conscious: Yes, the packaging costs a little more than non-compostable packaging but I never even priced out non-compostable – it was an essential part of our business and our message. Sacrificing a few cents here and there for the greater environmental good.

Grange: It costs approximately 20% more to use the sustainable products.

Noble: Yes, these items do cost us more. Here is an example: Our coffee cups cost one cent more per cup.

Q. What reaction have you had from your customers?

Conscious: Many of our guests notice and comment. They are often shocked that even the forks and spoons are compostable.

Grange: Yes, they all prefer that we use the “green” products.

Noble: Customers like hearing that we go out of our way to use recyclable products. People aren’t used to seeing a lot of the sustainable products we use so we get asked about it frequently.

Q. Do you have customers who maintain their own conscious practices when they come to your establishment, such as bringing in refillable coffee mugs, asking for packaging a certain way, etc.?

Conscious: We sure do. Especially for our alkaline water sales – we have regular customers who come in with their water bottles/jugs and we fill them up several times a day.

Grange: No.

Noble: Yes, we do have customers that try to avoid using bags when possible. Currently no one brings their own cup in. We encourage customers to drink their coffee in ceramic mugs if they are dining in the café.

Q. From what source(s) do you order these products?

Conscious: I have secured a partnership with Good Start Packaging who distributes the best products in the compostable area, and I can extend that to other restaurant partners. I just haven’t had time to get the word out on that service... so hopefully this will help with that too, or we can join forces on converting so many of the businesses in the area that are sadly still using plastic and Styrofoam.

Grange: Webstaurant, Restaurant Depot, Amazon.

Noble: Gordon’s Food Service.

Q. Does ordering these products present any difficulties for you (availability, quantity requirements, price, shipping costs)?

Conscious: No, we don’t pay shipping on most items as they are shipped free from a PA warehouse. We buy by the carton.

Grange: Yes, basically it’s a pain in the ass but the right thing to do.

Noble: No.

Q. If you are not currently using all the sustainable products that you would like to, would you be interested in bulk ordering with other local establishments?

Conscious: This is a service that Consciousfork provides but we have been slow to get the word out. Our partnership with Good Start Packaging can extend favorable pricing to our Warwick restaurant partners and/or any organizations interested. We also have warehouse space in Warwick where we store these cartons.

Grange: Yes.

Noble: No.

Q. Are there other sustainable practices that you have put in place in your business, and if so, what are they?

Conscious: We have a philosophy that everything should have more than one purpose: such as instead of using storage, our ingredients for food/juice are on our shelves and available for sale and are equally part of the décor. We have a small garden at our shop and larger garden at my home, growing our own veggie/herbs. We compost the pulp from our juice bar back in to the gardens. Our raised beds were salvaged from Clearview Vineyards in Warwick who were making room for their new tasting room. We sell merchandise on the subject, including home composters, and books on permaculture, organic gardening, etc. We use local producers in Vernon, Warwick and Pine Island for vegetables in season, including memberships in 2 local CSA’s.

Grange: 20% of our electricity comes from wind & solar power (not our own, the electric supplier offers 100% green energy or 20%, can’t afford the 100% at this time). My menu is completely based on what is available from local, mostly organic, farms. Our beef & pork is from Lowland Farms grass fed & pasture raised, all fish is wild caught never any farm raised. Eggs & some cheese from Meadowburn Farm, coffee is organic & fair trade, roasted in Chestnut Ridge. Soda is Boylan, all natural cane sugar soda. No Coke or Pepsi, no Sweet’NLow or any of that crap, just raw organic cane sugar. So far no complaints! By the way, we also bring all our recyclable [bags] to Price Chopper and we compost all the food waste.

Noble: It may seem silly but we save all of our vegetable scraps and use them to feed animals on our farm.

Interviews by Valerie G. Lacey

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