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Wegmans' New Plastic Grocery Bags Shine a Light on Recycling Benefits

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January 30, 2014

There’s a new message on Wegmans’ plastic grocery bags: “Return To Sender. (Don’t Trash It!),” as a reminder for customers to recycle the bags at their neighborhood stores.

Customers who put the bags in collection areas located at the entrances of all Wegmans Food Markets are preparing their used bags for a second life as brand new bags, the Rochester, N.Y.-based grocer said in a statement.

“People have been recycling for years, but it’s still not easy to know what you’re supposed to do,” said Jason Wadsworth, sustainability coordinator for Wegmans, operator of 83 supermarkets in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland and Massachusetts. “Many communities have curbside recycling for paper, cans and bottles, but beyond those items, it’s not always clear what can be recycled. One way for Wegmans to make a difference is by helping to make recycling easier to understand and easier to carry out, with strong, simple messages and convenient drop-off spots for the items we can accept.”

The new bags, Wadsworth said, are the latest step in that direction. One side tells what happens after customers return bags to the store. They’re made into new plastic bags of 40 percent recycled materials. The bags also include a How2Recycle logo, spelling out where to take them: Store Drop-off. A Wegmans video offers more detail about the journey bags take after collection, and tells how employees and customers can keep millions of pounds of plastic out of landfills.

Every Wegmans store now uses on average 4,000 fewer plastic carry-out bags per day, translating into 120 million fewer bags annually compared with 2007 when Wegmans introduced reusable bags and began reformulating its carry-out plastic bags.

Wadsworth, who also serves on a Food Marketing Institute committee for sustainability practices in the retail food industry, sees momentum for recycling picking up as partnerships emerge between different sectors. “Private companies and not-for-profits are now working together toward better recycling solutions,” he said.

An example, he noted, is the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), an environmental advocacy group focused on packaging and recycling. That group created the How2Recycle labels starting to appear on products from food and toys to cosmetics. The labels make it easier to tell whether a product can be recycled and where to bring it to be recycled.

Wegmans is also placing new signs next to plastic bag recycling bins near the entrances of stores to educate customers about other similar types of plastic bag materials the store will accept for recycling and those not accepted.

Accepted plastics includes clean plastic bags – including bread wrappers, cereal box liners, newspaper bags, bath tissue wrap, plastic outer wraps, shipping pillows, dry cleaning bags, food storage bags, produce bags, grocery bags, and bags from other retailers.

Plastic not accepted include wet or dirty bags, plastic film, frozen food bags, cups and takeout food packaging.

“Using reusable bags every time you shop probably comes out best among choices, environmentally,” Wadsworth said. “Yet some customers do prefer plastic or paper, or don’t always remember to bring the reusables along.”

The grocer’s website also outlines the different bag options available to customers and has a Frequently Asked Questions section addresses the pros and cons of plastic versus paper bags.

“Want bags to be biodegradable? Unfortunately, most biodegradable plastic only breaks down into smaller particles of plastic, rather than into elements that are reabsorbed into the chain of life on earth,” Wadsworth said. “But if you ban plastic, what usually happens is there’s a switch to paper. Paper bags are not a better step, if your environmental analysis includes the impacts of manufacturing and shipping paper bags, and the fact that they don’t biodegrade in landfills.”

“Whether customers use plastic or paper,” he added, “the most important thing is to recycle those bags, so they don’t end up in landfills or become litter.”


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