Will U.S. Retailers Kill the Plastic Bag?

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Plastic bags have a bad reputation as wasteful and harmful to the environment. The argument is that they're usually made with petroleum products, animals can choke on them and they litter landfills. 

I can testify to that last point -- I once wrote an article about where Seattle's trash goes, and followed the train out beyond The Dalles, Ore., to the dump. The plastic bags are the first thing you see, rolling like tumbleweeds out of every dumpload and sticking in clumps to the fences.

Still, most American retailers continue to hand them out to customers. But some forecast that tradition may soon come to an end.Europe is often ahead of us in eco-trends, and many plastic-bag laws are already in place there. Ireland started charging customers 15 cents a bag back in 2002, with the result that their use plummeted. China joined in 2008.

Last month, Italy banned the bags outright, joining Mexico City. Stores can use up their supply, and then that's it. GreenBiz.com reported other European retailers are in an uproar and fear they may have to make the switch next. 

Several U.S. cities have banned plastic bags, including San Francisco; Brownsville, Texas; Westport, Conn. and Edmonds, Wash. When Washington D.C. instituted a 5-cent-per-bag fee last year, use fell by 85 percent in a month.

The question is, will U.S. retailers fight this trend to the bitter end and wait for regulations to force them to change, or will they voluntarily move toward paper and sturdy reusable bags? I've seen many stores switch to offer reusable bags. Others credit customers for each reusable cloth bag they bring to the store to incentivize their use and cut their plastic-bag use.

Whatever your feelings about the environment, plastic bags are a cost for retail stores, large and small. Many are issuing branded reusable bags instead -- which seems like a good marketing move. Retailers have a chance to take the high road now and win customer loyalty. At the same time, the plastic bags can be convenient, as the paper bags can rip, use trees, and it's harder to carry many bags all at once.

This battle may be fought on in the U.S. for a long time, with laws differing from city to city. That makes problems for regional or national chains, which may have to offer different bags in different stores.

The thing that sticks with me is, somehow, everyone in the world got their marketing done without these bags for centuries. They've been in common use perhaps 50-60 years at most. Retailers don't have much to lose by getting rid of them, and stand to gain much in positive vibes, especially from eco-conscious customers.

If you're a retailer, how do you handle the paper-or-plastic issue? Leave a comment and let us know.

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