A Guide to Plastic Bag Alternatives
This shop has been completely plastic bag free since January 2008.
Using actual sales figures since that time, I have calculated that this has already saved us from using well over 12,000 plastic carrier bags, a staggering figure for such a small shop (6 metres long and 3½ metres wide!).
Even more amazing, and a clear indication to us of how strong is the public support for this campaign, we have used fewer than 1,000 'plastic bag alternatives' in that same period. The reason for this massive difference is that the vast majority of my customers now bring their own reusable bags.
However, it would not be fair or appropriate for me to have assumed that every customer would be able or even willing to do this. Everybody forgets their bag at some point or maybe does an impulse shop when cycling past, so for this reason going plastic bag free has not been a simple process here, largely because of two complications to consider.
Firstly the contents of each customer's shopping basket can vary hugely in size and weight, not to mention cleanliness – I had some fabulously muddy leeks from the garden over the winter that would have horrified anyone wanting to put them in their freshly laundered organic white cotton carrier bag!
Secondly, simple economics – if every customer who wanted 5lb of freshly dug potatoes priced at less than £1 needed a sturdy 5lb capacity paper sack costing me 10p each I'd be out of business in no time!
This has meant that I have needed to come up with a whole range of cheap, easy and of course environmentally friendly alternatives. I have compiled a list here of all the alternatives I offer, along with the approximate cost to me, and how they are useful to me. Do remember though, the most important point is that I hardly need to use some of them at all. With sufficient public awareness about the campaign it's only about 5% of my customers who need to be supplied with an alternative to take away.
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A shopping basket. A customer will need a means to gather their shopping without juggling loose produce and with a suitable basket there is rarely a need for any goods to be packaged at all. more...I bought 10 strong wicker baskets, with folding handles for easy stacking, several years ago and any wear and tear in that time has been easy to repair myself. They were expensive, nearly £20 each if I remember correctly, but the only alternatives I could find were cheap and nasty (and more importantly, impossible to repair) plastic baskets or those wire–frame ones seen at supermarkets. I did consider those (about £5 each, I think) but it would have looked like I'd just pinched them from outside a mini–mart! It was this that persuaded me to steer clear – it's very important that greengrocers distance themselves as much as possible from the supermarket shopping experience because the produce we sell is such a contrast to theirs – intensively farmed, shrink–wrapped and tasteless rubbish from cold–storage facilities (which they have the cheek to call "fresh produce") can never be compared to truly fresh produce from a real field! ...less
Scoop scales. These are a staple item in any decent greengrocer's and with it I can gather potatoes, for instance, straight from the sack to be weighed, then scooped directly into the customer's own bag, without needing any sort of packaging.
100% recycled and unbleached Kraft brown paper bags. Sizes range from 20cm x 20cm (8" x 8") to 30cm x 30cm (12" x 12"). more...Because these cost from ½p to 1½p each bag, shoppers are indirectly persuaded not to use them except when necessary – just keeping them hidden from sight is enough as customers usually gather items loose in a basket and have them weighed and sorted at the till. If somebody does need a paper bag, they only have to ask. It is sometimes appropriate to point out to a customer that after all, these bags may be compostable but do impact on the environment in their manufacture and transportation, so using one just to wrap around a couple of bananas before they put them in their bag (believe it or not, this happens all the time!) can appear a bit daft. There is no customer charge for using these and they are necessary for selling loose mushrooms, grapes, etc. ...less
Large brown paper sacks, 5lb capacity. These are sturdy alternatives to a carrier bag. They are the same style as seen in American television programmes, known in the trade as "block–bottom bags". They have no handles and are designed to be carried by the base. more...These are made with some recycled paper and are compostable but are an expensive alternative. They usually cost in the region of 10p each so I only use them if a customer has made a sufficient number of purchases to warrant them. I have only used just over 200 since the beginning of the year which works out at fewer than 20 a week. Less than 35p a day is not a massive cost for me to bear and they are a useful item for some shoppers. ...less
Empty cardboard boxes. This has been my absolute favourite solution, it's so desperately simple. Most of my stock from wholesalers comes in cardboard boxes every day and I empty them to stock the display units. more...I always keep a small stack of empty boxes beside the counter now and anybody is free to help themselves if necessary. The interesting thing is that most customers had no idea that retailers usually have to pay to dispose of this packaging and if they take it away it's doing us a real favour! The strong plastic and wooden boxes are of course sent back to the growers to be reused but the cardboard ones are almost always sent to a recycling facility. So long as your local waste disposal service collects cardboard from householders for recycling it is an ideal solution for people buying a large quantity of produce. ...less
"Fish & Chip shop" style paper sheets. These are an absolute necessity for me, but maybe not for most other retail outlets. They are the quality and size of broadsheet newspaper but unprinted of course and classed "food safe". more...They are very thin and sold by weight so I can't be sure of their exact cost each but it is a small fraction of a penny. For example, I spent nearly £12 on a large pack at the start of the year and I estimate that I have used less than 10% of them in three months. I use them for wrapping up any "dirty" produce. Fresh carrots only 4 hours from being pulled from the ground taste like no other but can make a real mess of a pricey canvas bag, especially if it was a rainy morning! Again, I need to use them only occasionally but always keep a stack under the counter. ...less
Cornstarch carrier bags. Being a bit of an 'earthy' character (!), I'm not sure I entirely trust the science of these. Apparently they are 100% compostable and utterly biodegradable and our local council (Waveney) even supplies householders with a separate bin to remove all food waste for composting if it is contained in one of these bags. more...They look and feel like plastic, the only real difference I can see is the cost – 10p each, instead of less than a penny for a plastic bag. I sell these at cost price to the customers. If they desperately need a 'plastic' style carrier bag, even after all the free alternatives I have on offer, I reckon it is only appropriate that they should have to pay for them – the only other option would be that my other customers would have to subsidise the cost of these bags through higher prices in the shop. For that reason, be wary of any shop giving these away (or anything else for that matter!) for "free" – you'll pay for it in higher prices elsewhere. Do not confuse these biodegradable cornstarch bags with "degradable" plastic bags – those are made out of the same plastic as non–degradable bags but with various chemicals added to make them more brittle – it's a complete con! (see this site for more details) ...less
Cotton or jute reusable bags. These are rather more expensive to stock and it was beginning to look like I was going to have to spend hundreds of pounds at least on a minimum order of bags which I would then have to sell at, or very near, cost price. more...However, thanks to some very good relations with other businesses in the town I need only buy a few at a time because they already stock their own. They have kindly agreed that I could buy a few bags from them at full price and resell them at that same price in my shop. One of them stocks a large cotton bag (£1.50), the other a strong rectangular–based jute bag (£2.00), both with their own branding on of course. I am happy to advertise them by selling their bags – it promotes the whole 'plastic bag–free town' principle and it saves me a very large setup cost. ...less
Recycled newspaper carrier bags. As far as I am aware, I am the first retailer in the country to have this fabulous innovation! I make them myself in the spare time I have on a rainy afternoon when it's a bit quiet in the shop. more...They cost me very little, other than my own time, and provide me with a good, cheap alternative to those 'block–bottom bags'. They look trendy too! I can easily make enough for my own requirements and I'm urging everybody to get busy making their own – finally a use for all those piles of Sunday supplements! (Visit this section for full detailed instructions) ...less