You may have heard that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. plans to cut back its plastic bag waste by one-third by 2013. It should come as no surprise that some people don't think that's fast enough. It's interesting that Andrew Winston, a nationally recognized expert on green business, counts himself among that group. He wrote about the decision on Oct. 15 on the Harvard Business Review's Leading Green blog. Winston isn't a radical environmentalist (not that there's anything wrong with that...) -- he's the type of expert who companies like Wal-Mart hire to give them advice on how to deal with sustainability issues. So his opinions carry a lot of weight with many in the business community. Here, in part, is what Winston had to say:
I'm generally a fan of doing something now and getting moving. But I found myself thinking at the Wal-Mart announcement about much larger goals. Instead of targeting one-third of plastic waste by 2013, why not eliminate all plastic bags by then, or eliminate half by next year? It's been done before. IKEA put a small charge (a nickel) on bags and eliminated 90% in one year in multiple countries. ... In the case of bags, Wal-Mart and other retailers are setting up recycling programs in stores. The efforts strike me as a bit onerous and expensive. It seems possible that going for a much larger change -- through, for example, an IKEA-like charge to signal to customers the behavior change desired, or a Whole-Foods-like rebate for bringing your own bag -- may actually save a ton of money and effort. It may be counterintuitive that a larger initiative could be cheaper, but it's worth pursuing. Of course charging customers has some downsides, but Wal-Mart could make the shift more palatable by funneling proceeds to good causes in the community.I imagine that some plastics industry folks would disagree, since setting up in-stores bag recycling is the centerpiece in most efforts to save plastic bags from being taxed or banned. Winston will focus on plastics more on Nov. 6, when he gives a keynote speech at the Sustain 08 conference in Chicago. The event is sponsored by Plastics News and the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. It will be interesting to see how Winston spins the get-rid-of-plastic-bags message in front of that crowd.