Now that Chicago aldermen have passed a partial ban on plastic bags, executives at Binny's Beverage Depot have to rethink how they source the tens of thousands of bags the 30-store chain runs through every month.
“We can go paper, we can go compostable, we can go many different directions,” says Dale Maple, Binny's internal auditor and sourcing manager. “We don't know yet. All I can say is that we play by the rules and we'll work to get the best cost available on the best alternative.”
Maple says a single large Binny's location runs through 2,600 bags per month. At 3 cents a pop, that means the company pays about $78 every 30 days to keep the store in bags. If Binny's were to switch to paper bags, which cost about 6 to 9 cents each depending on size and handles, the location's outlay would jump to between $156 and $234 each month.
Maple says no one at Niles, Ill.-based Binny's opposes the ban.
“As I drive into work every day and see the plastic bags floating around, I'm definitely not against it,” she says. But she notes the company has been using plastic bags for more than 15 years because even heavy-duty paper can't reliably hold wine, beer and liquor bottles.
“Plastic provided a better alternative to our customers, and they like that they can reuse them as trash bags or, if they have pets, for other purposes,” she says. “And from a retailer's perspective, plastic takes up less storage space.”
In Chicago, plastic grocery and merchandise bags make up 1.3 percent of the waste generated by single-family and smaller multi-unit residences, according to a Streets and Sanitation Department spokeswoman. That means that out of 1.09 million tons of residential garbage in 2009, some 13,909 tons — nearly 28 million pounds — were plastic bags.
The ban, which takes effect in August 2015, will apply only to chain stores — defined as three or more under the same ownership — or franchise stores larger than 10,000 square feet. Restaurants are exempt. Smaller stores and franchises will be included in the ban a year later. Those who fail to comply face fines ranging from $300 to $500 per day.
The American Progressive Bag Alliance, a Washington-based organization representing the plastic bag industry, points out that single-use plastic bags are recyclable and that many grocery stores have collection sites where shoppers can return old bags.
But Alderman Proco “Joe” Moreno, who proposed the ban, says the availability of recycling stations doesn't solve the problem. He points to city data from 2009 that found only 10 percent of plastic bags were returned to stores.
“It's a misnomer that they're recyclable,” he says. “They cannot be put in blue bins. And of the 10 percent that get returned to stores, only 10 percent of those actually get recycled.” Moreno says that many recycling firms, rather than invest in the special machinery required to handle single-use plastic bags, wind up dumping them in the trash.
Randy Christie, president of Better Containers, a plastic bag manufacturer and recycler in Hillside, Ill., says he collects about 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of plastic bags from grocers in Chicago each year. Moreno calls that figure “peanuts.”
Christie doesn't manufacture the single-use bags found in groceries—he makes heavier-duty ones used by libraries that tend to be reused four or five times and aren't included in the City Council's ban. But he believes the ban does more harm than good.
A survey commissioned by the American Chemistry Council shows that 65 percent of Americans reuse their bags for trash disposal. Christie argues that banning carryout bags will lead to increased sales of plastic garbage bags.
Biodegradable alternatives exist, including Chicago-based Better Bags. Made of cornstarch, Better Bags look like grocery bags but break down in about 10 months and are compostable. At 21 cents apiece, they're also more expensive than plastic or paper.
Moreno acknowledges that widespread use of compostable bags would require curbside composting and other infrastructure the city doesn't currently possess. He says that is one reason, in addition to concern for the cost to retailers, that the ban won't take effect until August 2015. And he says that once Chicagoans change their habits, reusable bags will prove best for both the environment and for companies that no longer will have to pay for thousands upon thousands of bags.
“Change is hard, but this is ultimately better for the economy,” he says. “Besides: Who cleans (the plastic bags out of) the sewers and the trees? It's taxpayer money.”