GreenTown Los Altos

Paper or Plastic? Replace with Reusables!


Oct 2012


by Reyna Hulett and Margie Suozzo

Girl Scout Gold Award Candidate Reyna Hulett surveys residents about bag Reyna Hulett and Margie Suozzo

On Tuesday, October 23, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors will make a final determination on its Reusable Bag Ordinance. Los Altos is one of twenty-four cities in San Mateo and Santa Clara County considering adopting this ordinance. The ordinance would prohibit disposable plastic carry-out bags at all retail establishments and mandate a minimum charge of $0.10 for every recycled paper bag or reusable bag provided by the retailer at checkout.

To understand reusable bag use in Los Altos, Girl Scout Reyna Hulett worked with GreenTown Los Altos on her Gold Award — the highest award in Girl Scouts — surveying shoppers in Los Altos about their single-use and reusable bag use.

Reyna discovered that although more than 90% of shoppers surveyed at Los Altos stores own reusable bags, the percent of shoppers who brought them shopping, averaged a little over 20% and never exceeded 30%.

With volunteers from her troop and school, Reyna stationed herself for 2-hour stints outside of Los Altos groceries (8 times), pharmacies (3 times) and downtown retail establishments (3 times) tallying paper, plastic, and reusable bag use. Reyna and her team also asked a random sample of customers additional questions about their bag use to better understand the barriers to bringing your own bag.

What’s the big deal with single-use bags?

Plastic bags, which account for 80% of bags used at grocery stores and pharmacies that offer them, (and most do, e.g., Safeway, Lucky, Walgreens, and others), don’t biodegrade. They stick around for millennia, littering streets and waterways, and leaching toxins, such as bisphenol A (BPA) and polystyrene oligomers, into the environment. These toxins interfere with hormone regulation in animals and human.

Paper bags are preferred by more environmentally-conscious stores, such as Draeger’s and Whole Foods, and account for 75% of bags used at these locations because they are biodegradable and come from a renewable resource, i.e. trees.  But don’t give paper a free pass. The production and transportation of paper bags (particularly paper bags produced from virgin fiber) uses five times as much energy and releases ten times as much greenhouse gas emissions as those of plastic.

In contrast to both plastic and paper bag use, reusable bags are durable and long-lasting, which means less litter, pollution, and waste.

Why the gap between current bag use and the sustainable ideal?

Several shoppers worried about reusable bags being unsanitary.  However, food that is not sold in a sealed container, such as some produce, ought to be washed before its eaten anyway, and if sanitation remains a concern, reusable bags can just be thrown in the wash.

Many other shoppers indicated that, while they own reusable bags and know they ought to use them, they’re simply not in the habit; the bags get forgotten at home, in the trunk, or in their other car.  So Reyna worked with volunteers to create reminders – in the form of mini reusable bags and door hangers — for the car and home. Shoppers who were offered the reminders indicated that either the reminders or the interview itself would help them improve their habits in the future.

Two final suggestions for cutting back on single-use bags:

  1. Reusable bags aren’t just for grocery stores! Take them to pharmacies, toy stores, department stores, and any other retailers.
  2. Alternately, just say no.  If you only have a few items, forgo the bag and hand-carry, as 20% of Los Altans are already doing.

GreenTown Los Altos has Reyna’s reminders for your home and car as well as reusable bags to give away. You can email or pick them up at an upcoming GreenTown meeting: Wed., Nov. 7 and Thurs., Dec 6, at 7pm at Neutra House, 181 Hillview Ave.

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