Attention Shoppers: Bring Your Own Bag

Apparently BYOB translates a little differently in Sweden. At least for IKEA, the privately held assemble-it-yourself furniture chain and Swedish-meatball purveyor, the acronym now means "bring your own bag." Beginning March 15, all of its U.S. stores will start charging five cents for each plastic bag that customers take their purchases home in. The idea is to encourage the masses to bring their own bags with an eye toward reducing litter—an explicit reminder that what was once free to the customer did not necessarily come without a greater cost.

"We're strangling our planet with plastic," says Mona Astra Liss, a company spokesperson. IKEA will also be selling 59-cent reusable polypropylene "Big Blue Bags" for customers to bring back on subsequent shopping jaunts (or use elsewhere in their daily shopping adventures). "We're just asking our customers to seriously think about all the plastic bags they use on a daily basis." With 29 big-box stores across the United States, the program's impact could be significant: when IKEA instituted a similar tax in Great Britain, plastic bag use fell by 95 percent, according to the spokesperson. The company projects that the number of plastic bags used by their U.S. customers could be cut in half—from 70 million to 35 million—in the first year.

"We applaud this," says Allen Hershkowitz, a solid-waste-management expert at the National Resources Defense Council in Washington, who points out that plastic bags are made from either petroleum, coal or natural gas. "Does it make sense for us to use an increasingly valuable raw material for throwaway plastic bags? I was recently by the shore and a plastic bag in the water looked just like a jellyfish. You could see a turtle come up and snatch it and that would be it for the turtle. But the upstream impacts are so much more substantial than downstream: the production of plastic generates lethal gases, phosphine and greenhouse-gas emissions."

If Americans were aware of those facts, maybe it would have more of an impact on their behavior. As a country, the United States throws away approximately 100 billion polyethylene plastic bags a year—less than 1 percent are recycled, the Worldwatch Institute reports. Despite the fact that just about any plastic bag brought home from the supermarket is reusable (and can take 1,000 years to degrade, according to the Environmental Protection Agency), the average family accumulates 60 of them in just four trips to the grocery store, according to (IKEA's 59-cent Big Blue Bag is made of plastic, but "it would take 1,000 uses for it to be unusable," according to their spokesperson.)

Still, not everyone loves the IKEA plan. "To say that you're more green because you force your customers to bring in the reusable bag makes little sense," says Rob Krebs of the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council, which "represents leading manufacturers of plastic resins," according to its Web site. "Only 4 to 5 percent of all fossil fuels produce all the plastics annually consumed in the U.S. Now, 29 percent of those plastics are used in packaging. So if you follow the reasoning, 29 percent of 5 percent of all fossil fuels is about 1.5 percent. So plastic bags are a miniscule percent of our resources," a statistic that environmental groups do not refute. Krebs continues: "The idea that plastics end up in landfills is a shibboleth of the environmental movement. It's not like we're running out of landfill space." (According to the EPA, the number of landfills in the United States plummeted from 8,000 in 1988 to 1,654 in 2005. But since new landfills are much larger than in the past, the capacity has remained relatively constant.)

IKEA isn't the first retailer to propose "greener" shopping-bag options. For at least a decade, Whole Foods Markets, the Texas-based natural and organic grocery chain, has been giving customers a nickel or a dime back (depending on the store) for every bag they bring in and reuse. In recognition of Earth Day, for the entire month of April that will bump up to a dime in each of the company's 192 stores. In the past two years they have also sold more than 2 million reusable bags made from recycled plastic, according to a spokesperson.

In 2005 Wal-Mart began switching from petroleum-based to biodegradable corn-based plastic packaging. The plastic comes from NatureWorks, a division of Cargill Dow—whose parent company, Cargill, has come under fire for its distribution of genetically engineered corn. The giant retail chain also claims to have diverted "1,100 tons of plastic from landfills" on its Web site. (Wal-Mart representatives declined requests for an interview).

Meanwhile, local governments are trying to influence shoppers' behavior. San Francisco's Commission on the Environment attempted to mandate a 17-cent surcharge on each plastic and paper bag a shopper takes home in 2005, but Mayor Gavin Newsom ultimately rejected the plan. Now the city is considering an ordinance that plastic bags used in the 60 main chain stores in San Francisco be compostable, made from corn or potato starch, according to the commission's Jared Blumenthal. "It's likely that will pass, and of the city's 181 million plastic bags, that will probably add up to 150 million."

On a smaller scale, Brooklyn's $27.5 million Park Slope Food Co-op has been discouraging its 12,800 members from using plastic bags for two decades and asks that they volunteer a few coins in return for their use, according to the co-op's Joe Holtz. "We say, 'We want you to pay for them, but we're going to leave it up to the honor system'," he says. When people join the market, they are given a cotton mesh bag, which the co-op also sells, along with reusable 54-cent plastic sacks like IKEA's Big Blue Bag. "They're plastic but much better for the environment if people use them every week," says Holtz. "You use a lot less plastic overall if you use them 200 times. I've been using some of mine four or five years." When was the last time you could say that about the bag you brought your groceries home in?