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Paper or plastic? That is the question


Photo By: Courtesy of GreenTown Los Altos
Photo Courtesy Of Greentown Los Altos

Reyna Hulett and her fellow Girl Scouts helped GreenTown Los Altos survey shoppers on reusable and single-use bags.

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors was scheduled make a final decision on its Reusable Bag Ordinance Tuesday, after the Town Crier’s press deadline.

Los Altos is one of 24 cities in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties evaluating the ordinance, which would prohibit disposable plastic carryout bags at all retail establishments and mandate a minimum charge of 10 cents per recycled paper bag or reusable plastic bag provided by the retailer at checkout.

To understand reusable bag use in Los Altos, Girl Scout Reyna Hulett worked with GreenTown Los Altos on her Gold Award – the highest award in Girl Scouts – surveying shoppers in town about their reusable and single-use bags.

Hulett discovered that although more than 90 percent of shoppers surveyed at Los Altos stores own reusable bags, the number of shoppers who brought them shopping and took them into the store averaged only little over 20 percent and never exceeded 30 percent.

With volunteers from her troop and school, Hulett stationed surveyors for two-hour stints outside Los Altos groceries (eight times), pharmacies (three times) and downtown retail establishments (three times), tallying paper, plastic and reusable bag use. Hulett and her team asked a random sample of customers additional questions about their bag use to better understand the barriers to bringing their own bags.

Plastic bags, which account for 80 percent of bags used at the grocery stores and pharmacies that offer them (and most do, e.g., Safeway, Lucky and Walgreens), don’t biodegrade. According to GreenTown, they stick around for millennia, littering streets and waterways, and leaching toxins, such as bisphenol A and polystyrene oligomers, into the environment. These toxins interfere with hormone regulation in animals and humans.

More environmentally conscious stores, such as Draeger’s and Whole Foods markets, prefer paper bags, which account for 75 percent of containers distributed by these locations because they are biodegradable and come from a renewable resource, i.e., trees.

But don’t give paper a free pass. The production and transportation of paper bags (particularly paper bags produced from virgin fiber) use five times as much energy and release 10 times the greenhouse gas emissions as those of plastic, according to GreenTown research.

In contrast to both plastic and paper bags, reusable bags are durable and long lasting, which means less litter, pollution and waste.

Then why the gap between current bag use and the sustainable ideal?

Several shoppers worried about reusable bags being unsanitary. However, food that is not sold in a sealed container, such as some produce, ought to be washed before it’s eaten anyway. If sanitation remains the concern, reusable bags can be thrown in the wash.

Many shoppers indicated that although they own reusable bags and know they should use them, they’re not in the habit. The bags are forgotten at home, in the trunk or in their other car.

So Hulett worked with volunteers to create reminders – in the form of mini-reusable bags and door hangers for the car and home. Shoppers offered the samples indicated that either the reminders or the interview itself would help them improve their habits in the future.

Two final suggestions for reducing the use of single-use bags: Reusable bags aren’t just for grocery stores. Take them to pharmacies, toy stores, department stores and any other retailers. Or, just say no. If you only have a few items, forgo the bag and hand-carry, as 20 percent of Los Altos shoppers are already doing.

Reusable bags and Hulett’s reminders will be available at GreenTown meetings 7 p.m. Nov. 7 and Dec. 6 at Neutra House, 181 Hillview Ave.

For more information, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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