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Supermarket Dilemma : Battle of the Bags: Paper or Plastic?

June 13, 1986|JUBE SHIVER Jr. | Times Staff Writer

When the Vons supermarket in Long Beach runs out of plastic or paper bags, store clerk Lori Dirkx runs for cover.

"Some customers become real irate and start shouting if they can't get the kind of bag they want," said Dirkx, who has been working at the Ximeno Avenue Vons for two years. "It's amazing how they let such a little thing get them so upset. Years ago, they didn't even have a choice."

In supermarkets across the country--and especially in the highly competitive Southern California grocery market--a battle over grocery bags is brewing in the checkout line.

The plastic-bag industry has launched a new marketing effort aimed at dramatically boosting its already growing share of the $600-million grocery sack market. Meanwhile, there seems to be a backlash brewing among paper-bag partisans.

Everybody Has Squared Off

It appears everybody has squared off over grocery bags since plastic sacks were first widely introduced in the United States in 1979--from suburbanites who want paper bags so their groceries will remain upright in the trunks of their cars to urban shoppers who find plastic bags easier to carry.

And grocery bag makers are not just relying on the handiness of their products to draw converts. They are highlighting off-beat uses as well--everything from paper bags as Halloween masks to plastic bags as makeshift wind breakers.

"I think we have gotten so worked up (over grocery bags) because some of us feel we've had enough of change," said Harold Kassarjian, a marketing professor at UCLA who is editor of the Journal of Consumer Research. "It's like Coca-Cola. People can't tell the difference between the new Coke and the old Coke" but there is an allegiance to the old product nonetheless. American consumers, he said, have become "resistant to change."

Letter-Writing Campaign

The 500,000-member General Federation of Women's Clubs, the nation's oldest and largest women's volunteer organization, this month will launch a nationwide letter-writing campaign to get grocers to carry only paper bags because of the group's concern about the environmental impact of plastic bags, said Ernie Shriner of Cheyenne, Wyo. Shriner heads the organization's conservation committee.

Kassarjian said some objections to plastic bags may stem from concern about their environmental impact. Yet many consumers groups, who have had little luck marshaling support against such items as plastic garbage bags, Styrofoam egg cartons and plastic milk containers, have found that grocery bags is an issue that can galvanize us all.

"This is an issue that brings you face to face with the serious consequences of polluting the environment," said Barry Commoner, a leading environmentalist and director of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Queens College. "It raises the issue of public, democratic control of production decisions. In other words, does society really need plastic bags?"

Environmentalists generally object to plastics of all kind because the material is not biodegradable and remains molecularly intact, Commoner said. Plastic products can sometimes give off toxic fumes when burned, and plastic trash can injure birds and other animals that get entangled in it or mistake plastic for food.

Plastic Defended

The Plastic Grocery Sack Council in Washington counters that plastic's molecular integrity is good because "plastics present no leaching, bacterial or explosive gas problem," as decaying paper products sometimes can.

The battle between paper and plastic bags mirrors a larger and more important struggle between paper mills--the nation's 12th-largest industry in terms of the wholesale value of goods shipped--and the No. 13 plastic and resins industry to become the material of choice for the packaging industry.

In recent years, plastic has been winning. The amount of plastics used in packaging has roughly doubled to 12.4 billion pounds in 1984 from 5.6 billion in 1975. Nowhere is plastic's forward march more evident than in the supermarket, where everything from milk and eggs to potato chips and tofu is now packaged in plastic.

"The first big item to change from (paper) to plastic was the meat tray because it would stick to the meat when you froze it," said Ronald Schmieder, marketing manager for Mobil Chemical Co., the leading plastic grocery bag maker. Then produce bags, ice cream bags and egg cartons all succumbed to plastic, he said.

'The Last Stronghold'

"The last stronghold is the grocery sack bag," Schmieder said, "and now we are going after that."

Taking over the grocery bag market, which has been dominated by paper for more than a century, won't be easy. But the T-shirt shaped plastic bags, which have built-in handles, are said to be easier to carry as well as useful for other purposes.

The Plastic Grocery Sack Council says plastic bags can be reused in more than 17 different ways, including as a wrap for frozen foods, a jogger's wind breaker or a beach bag.

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