There’s a new message on carry-out plastic bags from Wegmans stores: “Return To Sender. (Don’t Trash It!)” It’s a little reminder to customers that the best thing to do with the bag that carried home the groceries is to bring it back to the store on a return trip. Customers who put the bags in collection areas at entrances to all Wegmans Food Markets are preparing their used bags for a second life as brand new bags, with 40 percent recycled plastic content.
“People have been recycling for years, but it’s still not easy to know what you’re supposed to do,” says Wegmans Sustainability Coordinator Jason Wadsworth. “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 says, 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. In fact, every Wegmans store now uses on average 4,000 fewer plastic carry-out bags per day compared with 2007, the year Wegmans introduced reusable bags and began reformulating its carry-out plastic bags. That’s 120 million fewer bags each year!
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 says. An example 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 to 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 store’s entrance to educate customers about other similar types of plastic bag materials the store will accept for recycling and those not accepted. Examples:
- Accepted: 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.
- Not Accepted: wet or dirty bags and plastic film, frozen food bags, cups, takeout food packaging.
Forming practices that best protect the environment is always a work in progress, Wadsworth says. “We discover new solutions as we go along, but even if we think some options are better than others, it’s still important to meet customers where they are and give people choices.”
When it comes to bags, customers have lots of choices at Wegmans. The section on wegmans.com titled “We have a bag for that” shows different reusable bags available. “Using reusable bags every time you shop probably comes out best among choices, environmentally,” Wadsworth says. “Yet some customers do prefer plastic or paper, or don’t always remember to bring the reusables along. So the frequently asked questions section nearby answers common questions about plastic and paper bags.”
This is an environmental issue more complicated than it looks at first, he says. “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. But if you ban plastic, what usually happens is that 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,” says Wadsworth, “the most important thing is to recycle those bags, so they don’t end up in landfills or become litter.”
One thing Wadsworth says he’s learned over the years he has worked on sustainability issues is that little steps do add up and make a difference over time. “When you can say truthfully that customers and employees working together recycled over three million pounds of plastic in one year, that’s impressive – and we can do even more!”