A Brand New Bag
Rita Papazian
Norwalk-Citizen News
  April 10, 2007

A Brand New Bag

Customers may not have noticed, but the Stew Leonard's shopping bag is one inch shorter in height and the cashiers are bagging the groceries in a compact manner.

I learned this recently when I called Stew Jr. to ask him if the company had plans to eliminate the plastic bags to join the groundswell of support to "green" America. You see, for some reason I love to go shopping in supermarkets, and with three children living in two different states and my frequent traveling while working among Fairfield, New Haven and Middlesex counties, I shop in a lot of supermarkets. I love food shopping. I love organizing my refrigerator every week, and I love cooking fresh for myself. I buy only fresh produce, nothing canned or frozen, except cans of tomato for my tomato sauce.

The point here is that during my travels to different markets, such as Hannaford and the Market Basket in Massachusetts, Whole Foods in New Jersey, and Stew Leonard's, Stop & Shop, IGA and Bishops Orchards Farm Market in Connecticut, I have noticed a variety of changes taking place.

There are the markets that offer a few pennies for returning the plastic bags to be reused or recycled, and the stores that offer cloth bags for purchase to carry your groceries. Of course, judging by the size of these cloth bags and the way I and others shop, we would need to take a lot of them to the store. The small cloth bags are fine if you live in a city and walk to the store frequently. And, of course, there is always the choice "plastic or paper?"

Getting back to Stew Jr. A few inches off the bag and retraining cashiers is the company's short-term approach to helping in the greening of America. The goal short-term is to reduce the number of bags the company uses in its stores, which now include Newington. The amount of plastic used has been reduced by 7 percent with the smaller bags and by 10 percent with the training, Stew said. He has introduced cloth bags in the company's Yonkers store and is expected to have them available for sale soon in the Norwalk store. He realizes that the public needs to be educated and convinced to start using cloth bags.

"They do it in Europe," said Stew, noting that Europe seems to be ahead of the curve went it comes to change. Europeans started drinking more wine than hard liquor and the United States followed, just as Americans did with drinking more water.

One way to jump-start the elimination of plastic bags is to do what San Francisco has done: ban bags that are not biodegradable. Other cities, including Boston and New York, are contemplating bans.

The paper-or-plastic issue is a complex one. For example, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, paper bags are biodegradable and recyclable and are made from trees, a renewable resource. Yet the production of paper bags generates more air and water pollution than the production of plastic, and manufacturing and recycling them requires more energy than plastic. Paper bags take up more space in landfills and are slow to degrade.

Plastic bags made of polyethylene are nonbiodegradable and are made from crude oil and natural gas, both nonrenewable. It can take up to 1,000 years for a high-density polyethylene plastic bag to break down in the environment

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, reusable bags.com and the Ocean Conservancy, 2,000 plastic bags weigh 30 pounds; 2,000 paper bags weigh 280 pounds and take up more landfill space. Also, it takes 91 percent less energy to recycle a pound of plastic than it takes to recycle a pound of paper. It takes more than four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic bag.

Paper or plastic?

All I know is that those Stew Leonard's bags make great garbage bags and those other plastic bags are great for discarding dirty diapers, and I keep changing plenty of those from my grandchildren.

Personally, I do agree with Stew Jr. that Americans have to start adapting to change and follow the European pattern of taking cloth bags to the supermarket. On many occasions, I've observed how the Mexicans bring their own shopping bags to their local street markets, even their supermarkets. Yes, I admit they are large colorful plastic bags. But remember, they keep using the same bags. I know; I brought one home from Mexico and use it to carry many items, including my favorite pots and foods that I transport to my children's homes to cook the family dinners.

It's interesting to watch what changes Stew Leonard's will make. For years we have looked to this local family company, which has grown so remarkably to be a strong competitor in a very competitive business, for innovative ideas and solutions in the marketplace.

As its shoppers continue to travel the globe and take photos holding up Stew Leonard's bags, maybe it will indeed be cloth, not plastic, this time to add to the "Bags Around the World" in-store display.

Rita Papazian is a free-lance journalist who has covered Norwalk issues extensively. E-mail can be sent to her at ritapap@comcast.net.


Copyright 2007 Rita Papazian All rights reserved.