Vt. Stores Ask Customers to Pass on Plastic Bags | Business | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vt. Stores Ask Customers to Pass on Plastic Bags

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BURLINGTON -- Shoppers headed to Burlington's Outdoor Gear Exchange, take note: In an effort to wean customers from disposable plastic bags, the retailer is encouraging you to BYOB. That's Bring Your Own Bag.

The move is not a cost-cutting measure -- it fits with the gearheads' environmental mission. Plastic bags cost OGE about 5 cents apiece. Each time a customer declines to carry purchases home in one, the locally owned Cherry Street store contributes a nickel to a Vermont charity.

Since November, OGE has donated more than $400 -- $182.50 in November to the Chittenden County Humane Society, and $250 in December to Crag Vermont, an organization that works to improve access to privately owned climbing areas. January's collection will go to the Northern Forest Alliance.

OGE tells each customer about the new policy at check-out, and advertises it with a small sign on the counter. "There have been a lot of people who would normally take a bag, not take one," says Manager Lew Apgar.

The charities aren't the only ones benefiting. Plastic bags, which can take anywhere from 20 to 1000 years to disintegrate, are ubiquitous worldwide. Annual plastic bag consumption can be measured in the trillions. Activist website http://www.reusablebags.com estimates that consumers in the U.S. alone go through 100 billion a year.

Some countries have taken action recently to reduce plastic bag consumption. South Africa has banned certain types of thin plastic bags, which litter so many parts of the country they've been dubbed the "national flower."

Australia has also encouraged cuts in plastic bag consumption. The government has set goals for voluntary plastic bag reduction and recycling.

Some retailers have even started taking plastic bags out of circulation. In December 2004, furniture maker IKEA opened its first plastic-bag-free store in Sweden.

Ireland has taken a different approach. In 2002, the country began requiring retailers to charge a 15-cent tax on all plastic bags. The levy has resulted in a 90 percent decline in plastic bag usage.

Signs on the counter at Outdoor Gear Exchange tout this statistic, and others, including the fact that Irish consumers have used one billion fewer bags, which has saved 18 million liters of oil. And the tax has raised nearly 10 million euros for the country's "green fund," established to aid environmental clean-up.

Activists haven't yet been able to pass a similar tax in the U.S.; attempts to institute a 17-cent plastic-bag tax in San Francisco have stalled.

No one's organizing a bag-tax campaign in Vermont, though local food co-ops have long encouraged customers to think before they bag. City Market in Burlington sells $10 reusable canvas bags, and gives customers 5 cents off their bill for using a canvas bag to cart home their carrots and couscous.

At South Burlington's Healthy Living, shoppers who bring their own bags get a stamp on a card. After 16 stamps have been earned, the customer gets a dollar off the next purchase, and is entered in a raffle for a $20 gift certificate.

The Hunger Mountain Food Co-op in Montpelier also gives a 5-cent rebate when customers bring in canvas or heavy-duty reusable plastic bags. Finance Manager Tim Wingate says the co-op refunds about $50 a week. He also notes that the co-op doesn't even offer plastic bags.

Customers can still opt for plastic at OGE, however. "We don't try to make people feel bad for taking a bag," says Apgar. But not everyone needs one. A woman buying three shirts at OGE one January afternoon stuffed her purchases into a worn, canvas tote. "I bring it everywhere," she said, noting she hadn't heard about the 5-cent donation until she checked out.

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