This week, Hannaford began charging shoppers at five of its Maine supermarkets a nickel for every paper bag provided to pack groceries at checkout. Two stores in Vermont and Massachusetts soon will follow suit.
Last week, the Northeast grocer, with the bulk of its New York stores in the Capital Region, also started charging a nickel for every plastic or paper bag provided at its Lake Placid store.
The Maine fee is due to local laws that ban single-use plastic bags for retail purchases,leaving paper as the fallback; the Lake Placid fee had no municipal spur. But the surcharges show how one supermarket chain is trying various tacks to get to the ultimate goal: nudging customers toward more eco-friendly carryout options.
Spokesman Eric Blom said Hannaford “has long encouraged the use of reusable bags; they are a more sustainable choice than single-use bags” of either paper or plastic.
But in communities that have passed plastic-bag bans, “we have seen people move to single-use paper bags and not seen as large an increase in reusable bags,” he said. Hence the new nickel charge at stores in Maine, since paper bags have an environmental impact, too.
While a dozen communities in New York have enacted plastic-bag bans, Hannaford has no stores in any of them. Warren County currently is considering a ban, though, and bills proposing a ban statewide have been introduced at the Capitol for years.
Asked, then, about the rationale for the nickel fee in Lake Placid, Blom described it as “a learning opportunity.” Pressed on what that meant, he declined to call it a “pilot” but seemed to suggest it was an experiment to gauge reaction.
“We’re not putting a label on it,” he said. “We will be listening to customer comments, to understand how they view the charge as an effort to increase reusable bag usage.”
Encouraging such a behavior shift is not easy.
Mona Golub, a vice president at competing supermarket chain Price Chopper/Market 32, has called trying to wean shoppers off paper and plastic “a pretty heavy lift.”
In a June webinar, hosted by the New York State Association of Counties and focused on the environmental costs of plastic bags, Golub described Price Chopper’s effort as ongoing for 20 years.
But fewer than 10 percent of customers today use reusable bags, she said. Because that means that the remaining 90 percent still must be persuaded to shift away from plastic and paper, the Schenectady-based company is not opposed to bag bans, she said.
Price Chopper also regards bag surcharges as “a good way to jump-start” behavior change. Fees are “less about collecting nickels than it is about discouraging reliance on disposable bags,” she said.
Golub said Price Chopper sees the development of solutions to the plastic bag problem as best addressed by government, retailers, consumers and environmental advocates working together.
Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her
own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at email@example.com.