Cleveland — Plastic shopping bags are everywhere: Blowing down city streets, emerging from garden soil, clogging sewer grates and washing up on beaches. Yet the bags, used by retailers for decades, are a cheap and effective way to take home our groceries and can be recycled or reused.
People around the world are trying to figure out how to deal with the bane and boon that is the single-use plastic shopping bag.
On Jan. 1, Ohio's Cuyahoga County imposed a ban on the bags in the form of a fine, suspended until July 1, on retailers who use them.
Soon after the county's announcement, cities such Cleveland, Strongsville and North Olmsted opted out, saying the ban was too costly for retailers, especially for grocery stores that operate on thin profit margins. Earlier this year, Cleveland said it would develop an alternative plan to charge customers a small fee for each bag while exempting low-income people.
Even the Ohio Senate has joined the debate, considering one of two bills that would bar counties and cities from banning plastic bags.
John Zagara, owner of Zagara's Marketplace in Cleveland Heights, points to Ireland's plastic bag environmental levy as the "gold standard" for dealing with the problems posed by single-use plastic bags.
In 2002, Ireland imposed a 15-cent levy (since raised to 22 cents) on each bag shoppers use (much like the solution Cleveland has proposed), according to The Irish Times. The levy reduced use of plastic shopping bags by 95 percent, the country's minister for the environment, Dick Roche, told the Times. Annual per-capita use of the bags dropped from 328 to just 21.
It seems that Irish shoppers got used to paying for their plastic bags.
"This is not a new argument. All sorts of communities around the world are making it work," Zagara said, noting that many of those communities face a variety of socioeconomic issues.
If local governments had started charging shoppers a fee for using disposable plastic bags a decade ago, "the whole market could have been converted by now," Zagara added.
The makers of single-use plastic bags also have missed an opportunity, he said.
"When we want to purchase reusable bags to sell … we've got to go to China to get them," Zagara said. "All the bag manufacturers have missed the boat on producing a reusable bag."
While Cleveland is in the process of adopting a fee for shoppers who use single-use plastic bags, the county's plastic bag ban is a problem for many grocers.
Jeff Heinen, co-owner of Northeast Ohio's Heinen's chain, said he recognizes the environmental problem posed by single-use plastic bags, but in an online blog said banning the bags is not the answer.
"Most experts believe that paper bags have an equal or greater negative impact on the environment, so making a switch from one type of bag to another does not accomplish the overall goal of reducing the environmental impact, especially since plastic bags account for less than 1 percent of all plastic waste," he wrote in a May 30, 2019, blog post on his company's website.
Moving from plastic to paper bags also is costly for grocery stores.
"A plastic bag ban is concerning to us as a business because paper bags cost five to six times more than plastic bags, which results in a $2 million to $3 million increase in our overall costs — an expense that many of our competitors in the online grocery retail and restaurant industry will not incur," wrote Heinen, whose company recycles 100,000 pounds of plastic bags every year, among other recyclables.
Heinen's company representatives didn't return calls seeking comment for this story.
Late last year, Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle announced that it planned to eliminate single-use plastics companywide by 2025 as part of its sustainability strategy.
The plan launched in January at more than two dozen stores in three markets: Cuyahoga County; Bexley, near Columbus; and Pittsburgh. To help persuade customers to opt for reusable bags, Giant Eagle is offering one perk for its Fuelperks+ savings program for each reusable bag customers use during a purchase in its Cuyahoga County stores.
"In a few short weeks, we have given out more than 3 million perks across all of our stores chainwide, which equates to more than 3 million plastic bags that have been removed from landfills in our communities," Giant Eagle spokesman Dan Donovan said in a statement.
Target stores in Cuyahoga County offer alternatives to plastic bags, including paper bags or reusable plastic bags for purchase, the company said in a statement.
"Target gives guests a 5-cent discount for each reusable bag used at all of our stores," the company said.
Heinen and his company supported 2017 legislation that proposed a 10-cent fee on both plastic and paper bags, according to his blog post.
"This solution makes the most sense to us, as it gives shoppers a choice on whether or not to use a reusable bag rather than make the decision for them," he wrote.
Zagara is taking a wait-and-see approach. He started depleting his store's supply of plastic bags last year around the time the Cuyahoga County ban was announced. But when the county postponed until July 1 fines on stores that continue using the bags, Zagara ordered another truckload of unbranded plastic bags.
"We'll see how the state legislation moves through the system," Zagara said. "The governor seems to be in favor of home rule, but the [plastic bag manufacturer] lobbyists are working against the plastic bag ban."
Getting more paper bags may be difficult for retailers.
"My suppliers are telling me there aren't enough paper bag mills anymore for us to go back to using paper bags," Zagara said.
The mills already have backlogged orders because of bans in cities like Chicago and Seattle, he noted.
Zagara started giving shoppers a 5-cent credit for using their own bags 25 years ago.
"I'll keep the 5-cent credit in place for customers who bring their own bags," he said.
Why doesn't Zagara impose a 5-cent fee on each customer who wants a single-use plastic bag from his store?
Zagara is a single-store operation and it would be difficult to implement a ban on his own, he said, adding that most of his customers would vehemently oppose a self-assessed plastic bag fee.
"I need the county and the state to lead the charge," he said. "I support them in these efforts."