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

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

Not to be outdone, paper bag advocates boast that paper sacks can double as a book cover, as a covering for mailing packages, as a trash bag or--with the help of scissors and a little creativity--as a Halloween mask.

Commoner said he uses "whatever they give me" at the supermarket. Although he opposes plastic, Commoner said he has "better things to do than argue with a checkout person" about paper versus plastic.

Consumers Hold Deep Opinions

Most other consumers appear to hold deep opinions about grocery bags. Store clerk Dirkx said she prefers paper bags because they remain upright in the back seat of her car and because they "fit my trash can."

Yvette Roland, a law clerk in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, once preferred paper, too, but recently switched to plastic. "I used to prefer paper because it carried more but now I prefer plastic. Plastic is stronger," Roland explained. "Paper bags always seem to tear just when you reach the top of the stairs."

"I prefer plastic because I had a friend in my building that told me when you use paper it attracts roaches," said Brenda Dillon, a Los Angeles free-lance writer. "Ever since I heard that, I have always asked for plastic."

Bill Lawrence, a retired construction worker from Hawthorne, said he asks for paper because they fit his trash can. He also saves the bags for his grandchildren to use to make book covers and other school-related projects.

'Offer Both Bags'

Due to the deeply held consumer preferences, a 1983 study of Los Angeles shoppers conducted by a University of Southern California research team advised that "retailers will have to offer both bags, plastic and paper, to satisfy the majority of their shoppers' needs."

Women, for example, tend to favor paper bags, according to the USC study that interviewed 205 shoppers in Southern California. Men prefer plastic by a slight margin.

The study also found that people who drive to the store are more likely to request paper bags than people who walk or take the bus. For instance, 45% of those who drove to the store use paper bags, only 41% of those who walked did so, and just 12% of those who took the bus to the store liked paper, the study found.

Ethnic origin also was found to be a factor in bag choice. By a large margin, Latino shoppers preferred plastic bags. Black shoppers were split, with 40% preferring plastic and 40% favoring paper, while whites and Asian-Americans preferred paper by a small margin.

Owners Run Risk

Caught in the middle of the consumer preference battle are exasperated supermarket operators who run the risk of incurring the wrath of their customers if they try to drop either paper or plastic.

Several years ago, Ralphs Grocery Co. changed to plastic grocery sacks only to encounter such an outcry that the chain, which has 128 stores, dropped plastic altogether. That, however, upset plastic partisans. "So we decided to go 50-50, paper and plastic, to make everybody happy," said Byron Allumbaugh, chairman of Ralphs.

At Safeway, the nation's largest grocery store chain, regional managers are given wide autonomy to decide which bags to carry. About 75% of the 60 million grocery bags carried out by Safeway customers last year were paper, said Safeway spokeswoman Felicia del Campo. Consumer acceptance of plastic seems to have grown more slowly at Safeway than at Ralphs, Vons and many other West Coast grocery chains where plastic's share is higher than its 25% national market share.

Trade Group Established

To improve plastic's fortunes, the industry established a Washington-based trade group of 26 plastic bag producers this spring called the Plastic Grocery Sack Council. It also set up a toll-free telephone line and is distributing thousands of "informational" pamphlets in order to trumpet plastic bags to retailers and consumers.

"What it boils down to is this," said S. Edward Weary, director of technology and data for the council. "The consumer wants something that is strong, attractive and convenient. Our product has it, theirs doesn't."

Countered David Carlton, spokesman for the American Paper Institute: "Paper is an all-American product that means jobs and profit right here . . . not over in some (foreign) oil field." After all, Carlton added, "you brown-bag your lunch; you don't talk about plastic-bagging it."

In most of Europe, where plastic bags hold more than 80% of the market, shoppers have long embraced plastic grocery bags, primarily because many European shoppers walk to the store and therefore find them easier to carry.

Bags Banned in Italy

Although at least one country--Italy--has banned plastic bags in an effort to curtail litter, plastic bags also hold a majority of the market in Japan and Australia.

Plastic grocery bags have evolved more slowly in the United States. Early plastic bags here were expensive and too fragile to carry heavy items such as cans, meats and large bottles.

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