For environmentalists, the ubiquitous disposable plastic shopping bag epitomizes America’s wasteful, consumerist society. For businesses, the bags represent an affordable product that cannot be easily—or cheaply—replaced.
Cities and towns across the country are starting to ban plastic bags from their checkout counters, and are—as in Westchester, where both the City of Rye and the Village of Mamaroneck have passed plastic-bag bans—requiring stores to use paper or reusable bags instead. Sara Goddard, chair of the City of Rye’s Sustainability Committee, which drafted the controversial legislation, says she also has advised Larchmont, North Castle, New Castle, Pelham, Scarsdale, and Rye Brook, and some are considering bans.
Goddard maintains the bans offer much environmental gain without economic loss. “I interviewed business owners and city officials in a number of towns that had passed bag legislation. None had suffered financially, and no one had heard of a business that was suffering.” More than 70 Rye businesses signed a petition in support of the initiative, she notes.
Jay Peltz, vice president of public affairs for the Food Industry Alliance of New York (FIANY), a grocery-industry interest group, takes issue with Goddard’s stance, arguing that paper bags cost three times as much as plastic bags and tear more easily. He also notes that paper bags take up more room than plastic—increasing shipping costs and causing logistical problems. Peltz, adds that grocery stores have very low profit margins compared to other types of stores, and so any cost increase has a significant impact on their bottom line.
Still, Ken Giaquinto, business manager of Rye Beach Pharmacy, says both the pharmacy and its customers are experiencing almost no problems with the ban. “The customers have been happy with it overall,” Giaquinto reports. “The exception has been when it’s raining, or when they are riding their bikes.” And even though the pharmacy “goes through a lot of bags,” the extra cost of each paper bag is not prohibitive, he says, because bags comprise only a tiny fraction of the pharmacy’s total operating costs.
Norman S. Rosenblum, mayor of the Village of Mamaroneck, says he was very cautious when he considered imposing the ban. The mayor, who eventually voted for the ban for environmental reasons, says he did not want to impose undue financial burdens on either supermarkets or shoppers. “There is a direct effect economically; it affects those who can least afford it.”
Peltz says that the ban can affect consumer choices and supermarket competitiveness. “If I own a store in neighborhood A, which is covered by a ban, then my customers cannot avail themselves of the free plastic bags that they have always gotten but they can get those bags a mile down the road, so it creates an unlevel playing field and a competitive advantage for the other store.”
Peltz, Rosenblum, and Goddard all agree that the best solution is to encourage the use of reusable bags. It is not only much better for the environment, but it’s obviously cheaper for businesses if their customers bring their own bags. “The village would like to see more reusable bags,” Rosenblum says. “How effective the ban is in doing that remains to be seen.”