The problem that won’t go away (Until we decide to do something about it)

| 01 Nov 2013 | 02:36

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.