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Folsom Walmart to start reusable bag trial

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2009 – 12:00 am | Page 1B

Here’s a new crinkle in the fast-changing politics of plastic sacks: Walmart is going to see what happens if shoppers don’t have the option of free bags at the checkout counter.

In a long-term trial starting this Sunday at the company’s store in Folsom – and a few other locations around California – Walmart shoppers can either bring their own bags or buy reusable ones, with prices starting at 15 cents.

In the last few years, local governments from California to Connecticut have enacted various restrictions on plastic bags, and now major retailers are taking their own steps. Target on Monday announced it would give customers a 5-cent discount for every reusable bag they utilize at checkout. Drugstore chain CVS recently said it would give $1 to customers for every four times they check out without taking a bag.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, last year set a goal of cutting plastic bag usage 33 percent by 2013. Now, at selected stores around the world, the company is testing ways to deliver that reduction, from retraining baggers to pack sacks fuller to giving shoppers who bring their own bags access to designated checkout lines.

Experts say that experimental approach is essential, because it’s not clear what strategies deliver a meaningful reduction in plastics usage. Toughest of all is figuring out how to get shoppers to bring their own bags.

“There’s a customer engagement piece that still hasn’t been figured out,” said Michelle Harvey, project manager for corporate partnerships at the Environmental Defense Fund, which is working with Walmart on its environmental programs.

“For myself, I know I need a big flashing sign in the parking lot that says ‘Remember your bags,’ ” Harvey said.

Walmart’s 15-cent reusable bags were already on sale at the checkout counter of the Folsom store Monday. They’re royal blue and made of a lightweight polypropylene fabric that feels like cloth. Harvey said the bags hold up through dozens of washes and can be recycled.

Signs in the store alert customers to the coming change. Heavier-duty reusable bags – black, selling for 50 cents – are also on sale at the checkout counters.

Walmart spokeswoman Amelia Neufeld said the test likely would run through 2011. She wouldn’t say if other stores in the Sacramento region will also be pilots.

Outside in the store parking lot Monday, Valerie Dawson of Folsom was loading a 15-cent bag into her car. She carries reusable bags, but this time had left them in the car.

“Today I paid my 15 cents,” she said. “Hopefully in the future that’ll remind me to bring my own.”

Dawson and several other shoppers Monday said they support Walmart’s policy.

Other shoppers were annoyed.

“You mean San Francisco’s influence has already drifted this far?” said shopper Jerry Kolterman, referring to that city’s 2007 decision to ban plastic bags from supermarkets.

Edith Moore of Folsom said she would miss the free plastic bags at Walmart because she finds uses for them at home. She’d rather not have to buy bags to line her garbage cans, she said.

The policy on trial in Folsom is one of many efforts to rein in the use of plastic bags. Recent proposals in the state Legislature would have charged a 25-cent fee for any checkout bag at supermarkets and large drugstores.

While those bills haven’t passed, the debate has pushed bag makers to propose alternatives.

Last month, bag makers and the nonprofit Keep California Beautiful launched a “Got Your Bags?” promotional campaign designed to encourage recycling and reuse.

The industry is also backing a proposal that would impose a 0.7-cent per bag tax on manufacturers to boost bag recycling and fund litter cleanup. The tax would raise about $100 million a year, according to Stephen Joseph, attorney for Californians for Extended Producer Responsibility, a bag manufacturers group.

“I can’t imagine the state turning down $100 million per year,” Joseph said via e-mail.

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