Making Plastic Bags a Thing of the Past

November 7, 2008

bag_stripesHere at CUESA, we’ve spent the last year making our market increasingly waste wise. First we gave away 10,000 re-usable bags and asked shoppers to pledge to use them. Then we developed and honed a recycling and composting system that diverts 90% of the waste generated at the market away from landfills (and developed a handbook to help other markets do the same). Now, we’re preparing for another vital change: the end of plastic bags at Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.*

Why ask our sellers to stop dispensing traditional plastic bags? In 2007 alone, the market dispensed 1.1 million bags. These nearly weightless, ubiquitous objects are made of polyethylene, a petroleum product. They’re not included in curbside recycling in San Francisco and they don’t biodegrade; when they do break down, they create toxic substances that leach into the soil and enter the food chain. And, despite a city-wide ban on plastic checkout bags in major chain grocery and drug stores, and a world-wide trend away from them (China, Ireland, Denmark, Australia, the UK have all banned them and many cities around the US – from Portland, to New York, Seattle are considering bans) it’s still remarkably easy to find a free plastic bag in San Francisco. We think this needs to change, so we’re starting with our own market.  

One Ferry Plaza seller, Green Gulch Farm, has already made the transition to compostable and recyclable alternatives. Last year, when Qayyum Johnson became market manager for Green Gulch, he learned that the farm was distributing 1500 bags to their customers every week. It wasn’t the cost that bothered Johnson, per se, but he says he was amazed by “the one-timeyness of it all and the way that people would unthinkingly put one item in each bag, which meant that one sale involved a person meandering off with 3-10 bags!”

Green Gulch specializes in greens and other coastal vegetables that are generally too wet to transport in paper bags, so the farm chose to offer two options: re-usable organic cotton bags and disposable biobags sold at cost.

The farm distributed informational flyers for several weeks before making the switch, explaining the effort and asking for their customers’ support. The result? Many market shoppers were surprised, but the majority of Green Gulch’s many loyal shoppers began recognizing they were using a valuable resource. Now, they are much more likely to bring their own bags and to use what they do get from the stall more carefully. Now, the farm distributes around 500 bio bags and an average of 25-35 cotton bags on Saturdays.

Farmers’ markets all over the country are beginning to put plastic bags behind them. The city of Chicago is moving toward a ban in all of its 22 farmers’ markets within the next 2 years; the Orange County Farm Bureau has begun piloting a “green market” model that began with the Irvine market, where they made a switch to biodegradable plastic bags; and the 95-vendor Old Monterey Farmers’ Market asked all its vendors to switch to paper earlier this year.  

Rick Johnson of the Old Monterey Business Association says it wasn’t as difficult a transition as he expected it might be. “The first couple weeks we had a lot of concern from vendors about where they could find the bags, etc. But they got on board because they figured out that other markets would be following suit.” Explaining the potential hazards to wildlife posed by plastic in an area known for its ocean conservation efforts made it an easy sell, Johnson adds. “We’d tell people to look out at Monterey Bay, and we’d say, ‘Because of that blue, we’re going green.’ It sounds cheesy, but it really worked.”   

* In early 2009, vendors at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market will begin offering biobags (made from biodegradable plant-based starch) and paper bags, which cost more than the cheap but environmentally unsound plastic bags most sellers currently dispense. Shoppers should anticipate paying the additional cost, or bringing their own reusable or recycled bags.

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