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Earth to shoppers: Bag the plastic sack

As stores devise ways to cut back on the environmental hazard, IKEA is charging 5 cents each. Not everyone is warming to the idea.

July 05, 2007|Leslie Earnest | Times Staff Writer

When it comes to sacrificing to help the environment, IKEA shoppers are like everybody else: conflicted. Even if what they're sacrificing is a nickel.

The home products retailer charges 5 cents per plastic checkout bag, and customers are either happy that IKEA is doing something positive for the planet or irritated that they would have to fork over anything for a flimsy little sack or some combination of both.

"It's pretty ridiculous," said Will Sisto, balancing 12 drinking glasses and two glass coffee pots in this arms as he headed to his car in the Costa Mesa store's parking lot last week, nursing a nasty sprained ankle. "I'm not going to pay any money to get a bag."

In the big business crusade to be greener than the other guy, IKEA gets kudos from environmentalists who recognize the Swedish chain as the first major retailer in the U.S. to put a price tag on the bags made of thin, flexible plastic film that clog landfills, don't readily decompose and can suffocate wildlife.

The infamy of the nonbiodegradable plastic shopping bag is recent, but the war against it is moving fast. The bags will be banned altogether in San Francisco this fall, and similar embargoes are being considered by other jurisdictions. A state law that went into effect Sunday requires large grocery stores and pharmacies to recycle plastic bags returned by customers and to offer reusable bags for purchase.

Plastic bags are so reviled that reusable conveyances for groceries are the rage. Trader Joe's sells a canvas sack for $2.99, while luxury retailer Hermes asks $960 for one made of silk. IKEA's oversize tote, called Big Blue Bag, goes for 59 cents.

Even with prices like that, some people won't give IKEA a break, griping that the store is charging for something that ought to be free. The company tries to be understanding.

"It's a change; it's a new way of thinking," spokeswoman Mona Astra Liss said. "Any change has a certain level of uncomfortableness to it."

She added: "We're hoping that people will make wise choices."

To encourage them, IKEA, which started charging for its bags in mid-March, placed signs near registers that say: "The world uses a trillion plastic bags a year. Unfortunately most end up in the trash or in the ocean or in trees ... and they take forever to disappear."

The signs recommend that people buy the reusable tote rather than drop 5 cents on plastic but note that every nickel spent on the latter is donated to American Forests, a nonprofit group in Washington, for the planting of trees to offset carbon dioxide emissions.

Asking people to ante up for the plastic "makes you aware of waste," said Kim Russo, 38, a design consultant.

"If you have to buy the bags, you're going to think of creative ways to bring your things out," said the Laguna Niguel resident, who bought a plant basket and used it to carry her other purchases to her car. "I think it's great."

So does Pat Smith of Long Beach. Smith, 51, an airport ground operations supervisor, said his family had developed a plastic bag habit that fell somewhere short of admirable.

"We save them until we get this big pile of empty bags and then we pitch them because we're not going to use them," he said, praising IKEA's effort to better life on planet Earth. "We've got a pretty nice green and blue ball here that we're hanging out on."

Americans toss about 100 billion polyethylene plastic bags a year, and fewer than 1% of them are recycled, according to IKEA, and the company's goal in the U.S. is to cut its customers' annual plastic bag consumption by at least 50% in the first year of the program to 35 million.

Liss said IKEA was on track to achieve that goal. (After IKEA introduced its program in Britain last year, bag use plunged 95%.)

The U.S. is behind the curve compared with other countries. In many places, shoppers carry reusable bags as a matter of course, said Dan Jacobson, legislative analyst for Environment California in Los Angeles.

"Our society has to get used to what they do in other countries.... The decision at checkout lines has always been: paper or plastic? ... The best answers are reusable bags."

In Ireland, stores charge 15 cents per plastic bag, said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, a Sacramento environmental group that focuses on waste production and recycling.

That, almost certainly, would pitch Americans into a tizzy.

"I think some people will swallow 5 cents," Murray said, "but 15 cents at some point starts to add up."

It doesn't seem to take much to disgruntle a shopper.

At the IKEA in Costa Mesa last week, Reina Verdusco grabbed a Big Blue Bag and didn't waste any time putting it to use, stuffing it with a trash can, a floor lamp, a shower curtain, a box of knives and an oven mitt. But she wasn't entirely happy, calling IKEA's policy "a little strange."

"We're already purchasing the product," the 26-year-old administrator from Irvine said, "and then they want us to buy the bag to carry the products out of the store."

Her friend Raquel Perez, a 25-year-old clerical worker from Corona, threw a trash can, mixing bowls, a cutting board, Tupperware, a knife set and a shower curtain into her reusable bag and said, "I think it's ridiculous."

Terra Wolf, on the other hand, said she appreciated what IKEA was doing, especially considering waste she sees at grocery stores.

"I go into a supermarket and I buy three items and I come out with six bags," the 60-year-old teacher from Santa Ana said. "How do they do that? They put one item in a bag and then they double bag it."

But at IKEA, Wolf hauled her loot of sheets, curtains, vases and cookies out to her car on a cart.

"I don't want to pay the 5 cents," she said, "and I think it's a way to help the environment."


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