May 22, 2016

Bag policies aim to help community, environment

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo

Longtime employee Nettie Cadieux helps a customer at Hunger Mountain Food Coop in Montpelier.

As the business community has tried to reduce waste in recent years, stores have taken steps to reduce the use of bags — while also helping the community.

For example, the Hunger Mountain Coop in Montpelier has paper bags only, and the store encourages shoppers to bring their own bags. Currently, it’s five cents off if you bring your own bag. Since July 1 of last year, “our customers kept 214,383 bags out of the landfill by bringing in a reusable bag,” said Stephani Kononan, the co-op’s community relations manager.

This summer, however, that credit system will go toward a local cause. In July, Hunger Mountain Coop will officially join the Montpelier Business Association’s “Bag That Bag” program, meaning the co-op will donate those five-cent credits to the Montpelier Food Pantry. Kononan said this will result in about $10,000 being donated to the food pantry each year.

“We’re excited about that collaborative effort of working with our customers and having such a big impact on a great community organization like the food pantry,” she said.

Customers were enthusiastic about the change, Kononan added. In its annual shopper survey, the co-op asked customers about joining the business association’s program, in an effort to help the food shelf through the bag credits.

“Seventy-eight percent of our shoppers who responded to the survey supported making the move from the credit to the customer to the charitable credit,” Kononan said.

Farther south in Windsor County, the Woodstock Farmers’ Market recently introduced a new bag policy. The market now charges 10 cents for each large paper bag, and five cents for each small or medium paper bag. All proceeds from those bag charges go to the Woodstock Community Food Shelf.

With this new policy, the market is looking to eliminate the use of single-use paper and plastic bags at the market — with an eye toward encouraging that trend in general. Its orange reusable Farmers’ Market bags are available for $1. They also have a “bag library,” which makes donated reusable bags available to shoppers for free. Now, the market also offers mesh bags for purchase — an alternative to the plastic bags available to carry fruits and vegetables.

Julia Shea-Pelosi, the marketing director at the Woodstock Farmers’ Market, said the response to this new policy has been “95-percent positive.” She said there have been a few negative reactions from customers concerned about the five- or 10-cent charge. However, Shea-Pelosi said those customers’ concerns were usually eased after talking face-to-face with an employee and learning that the money goes directly to the Food Shelf.

“I think it’s really valuable,” she said of the policy and its community impact.

Shea-Pelosi said the policy, which officially started on May 1, was the brainchild of Amelia Rappaport, the market’s grocery leader and co-owner.

“We started talking about (the policy) throughout the winter,” Shea-Pelosi said.

In the end, employees agreed that this was a chance for the business to “take a step and have an impact” for the environment and the community.

From May 1 to May 20, Shea-Pelosi said, the market saw 5,700 fewer paper bags leave the store than last year, as a result of the new policy. The business donated $123.70 to the Food Shelf during that three-week period.

A statement from the market further noted the global impact of the bags: “Paper bags are easy to recycle, but have a high environmental cost to manufacture, releasing heavy metals and greenhouse gasses into the environment.”

It also noted the cost to the business, stating that in 2015 the market spent $10,066 on paper shopping bags, which brought in 146,800 individual bags.

On the plastic side, the statement said, the average American uses between 300-350 plastic bags per year for an average of 12 minutes before throwing them out — adding up to 100-150 billion bags used last year in the U.S. alone.

Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Retail & Grocers Association, said there’s been a continual effort among stores to cut down on disposable bags in Vermont, which started about six years ago. Based on information from some of the larger retailers, Harrison said, there’s been about a 25-percent drop in the number of disposable bags being given away at Vermont stores.

Harrison said some stores have donated proceeds from bag programs as a way to encourage customers to change their habits and shop with reusable bags.

He noted a program by Hannaford Supermarkets as one example. Proceeds from Hannaford’s reusable bag program have benefited a number of organizations throughout the state, such as the Vermont Food Bank, local seniors’ groups, humane societies, ambulance services, community centers and children’s programs.

Harrison said a number of stores are reminding customers to bring reusable bags.

“Many of us carry bags with us and leave them in the car,” Harrison said. “It’s a matter of getting in the habit.”

He also pointed out that these bags are a large financial cost for local businesses, and reducing the cost of doing business helps keep prices low over time.

“Retailers operate on very small margins, so any time you can reduce some cost, ultimately the consumer will benefit,” Harrison said.

But the main goal of these bag policies, he said, is to keep these bags out of the waste stream.

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