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Three Calif. Wal-Mart stores to stop providing free bags

Posted December 3, 2009

WASHINGTON (Dec. 3, 4:50 p.m. ET) — Starting Jan. 1, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. will no longer provide single-use plastic bags at three stores in California. The pilot program will test whether consumers accept the concept of stores with no free bags.

Wal-Mart is one of the largest dispensers of disposable plastic bags worldwide, handing out an estimated 27 billion in 2007. The company has set a goal to reduce plastic shopping bag waste in the U.S. by 25 percent by the end of 2013. Its plastic bag reduction goal for its international operations by the end of 2013 is 50 percent, and its overall combined goal is a 33 percent reduction.

All Wal-Mart stores in the U.S. sell polyester reusable bags for $1 and reusable non-woven polypropylene bags for 50 cents.

Since October, the three test stores in Ukiah, Citrus Heights and Folsom, Calif., have also been selling a third alternative — a 15-cent PP bag that Wal-Mart says is both reusable and recyclable. The 15-cent bag is only available at those three stores.

Wal-Mart had initially planned to start the concept of no free bags at the three stores in October, but felt that the Christmas shopping season was the wrong time to start the experiment.

“The goal of the test program is to gauge customer reaction to low-cost reusable bags,” said Amelia Neufeld, media manager in Sacramento, Calif., for Wal-Mart. “This is about our commitment to zero waste. We think this can help us achieve that.”

She did not say how long the pilot program would last.

“We believe that being an efficient and profitable business goes hand-in-hand with being a good steward of the environment,” Neufeld said. “By offering our customers the option to bring groceries and purchases home in reusable bags, we are reducing the amount of plastic we use and the amount of waste that ends up in the home of our customers.”

Keith Christman, senior director of market advocacy for plastics at the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Va. said ACC supports Wal-Mart’s effort to reduce the number of bags it hands out, but that it is too early to assess where the pilot program will lead.

“Nationwide, they are strongly committed to recycling plastic bags,” Christman said. “We completely support that goal and their comprehensive approach to reducing bag waste.”

Neufeld said the company is “hearing positive comments from customers and will continue to seek their input.” But Christman thinks Wal-Mart will limit the no-free-bag approach to communities that impose bag bans or fees.

He noted that there has been “a lot of push-back from consumers online” in newspaper blogs in the cities where the pilot program will take place, adding that he would not be surprised to see the program postponed.

“This is a pilot program and you shouldn’t make any conclusions” about what might occur next, he said. “We expect they will continue to recycle nationwide.”

Wal-Mart estimated that in 2008 it reduced global plastic bag waste by 38.5 million pounds, the equivalent of 2.5 billion bags, since 67 bags weigh roughly one pound. It estimated that since the end of 2006, it has redirected more than 97 million pounds of plastic from landfills.

Neufeld said the company is reducing plastic bag waste by both offering reusable bags and by continuing to offer bag recycling options. In addition, “We are educating our employees on packing merchandise more efficiently. We are creating materials for stores to use to educate customers on how to minimize bag use. We are offering incentives to the cashiers to decrease bag use,” she said.

The blue 50-cent reusable bags have been sold in Wal-Mart stores since November 2008. Wal-Mart said each bag will hold up to 22 pounds in merchandise and has the potential to eliminate the need for up to 50 disposable bags over its estimated one-year lifetime.

Neufeld said the 15-cent bags have the potential to eliminate approximately 75 single-use bags in a year.

Christman said the use of PP in those reusable bags underscores the value of plastics. “Plastics is a great material for both reuse and recycling,” he said.

Neufeld said both types of reusable PP bags can be recycled in Wal-Mart recycling bins.

The Bentonville, Ark., retailer would not disclose details about its sales of either the polyester or PP bags. But it said that since it began selling reusable bags in October 2007, it has sold enough reusable bags to eliminate the need for 1 billion plastic shopping bags.

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