In April 2009, a consortium of companies that make more than 80 percent of the plastic bags used by major U.S. retailers announced plans to increase the amount of recycled content in their bags to 40 percent by 2015.
The news, which was made public in a press conference on Earth Day and featured prominently in an article in USA Today, was met with widespread excitement by environmentalists, who heralded the promise as “a significant commitment by the plastic bag industry to reduce waste.”
But for the growing segment of U.S. retailers who have turned to German-based Mettler Packaging to produce their plastic bags, all the hullabaloo seemed to be much ado about nothing.
Mettler’s ecoLoop bags, after all, already contain at least 80 percent post-consumer recycled (PCR) materials and have for years. In fact, as early as 1992, when recycled content was nothing but a pipe dream for American bag makers, Mettler had already reached the 50 percent threshold.
“Germany started going green more than 20 years ago,” says Wolfgang Trossen, director of U.S. operations for Mettler. “So with the market share that we have had here in Europe, we became a real leader in this field very quickly…especially when compared to the U.S. manufacturers.”
Mettler, which is based in the German town of Morbach (approximately 90 miles west of Frankfurt), also sets itself apart from many major American bag manufacturers by producing its own PCR material—more than 66 million pounds every year—at its company-owned recycling plant.
And while most other companies import PCR materials from overseas, typically from the Far East, Mettler’s recycled content is produced from plastic scrap collected by Mettler from throughout Europe, allowing the company to achieve what it describes as an unprecedented level of quality control. In the end, Mettler’s bags are manufactured at the company’s own state-of-the-art factories, which are spread throughout western Germany.
“We have more than 2.4 million total square feet of manufacturing space,” Trossen says. “This enables us to produce the large volume of bags required by top companies—all with a level of quality control not achievable when outsourcing the process, as many of our competitors do,” he adds.
Still, while ecoLoop bags have become ubiquitous throughout Europe, they have, for a variety of reasons, been relatively slow to catch on here in the United States and in the rest of North America.
Because of their high-quality construction, ecoLoop bags cost roughly 50 percent more (about 10 cents versus 5 cents) than the thin “T-shirt bags” commonly found in most U.S. grocery stores, according to Mettler. In Europe, this cost is passed along to consumers, who pay anywhere from 15 to 25 cents for these bags at the register. The bags can then be reused repeatedly and, in some cases, are replaced for free by the retailer once they wear out.
This process not only removes millions of disposable plastic bags from circulation, it also reduces the overall number of bags required in the first place by eliminating the need for “double-bagging,” a wasteful practice necessitated by the poor quality of some T-shirt bags.
Mettler calls its reusable, for-sale bag concept the “Everlasting Bag,” and it has become commonplace in Europe during the past two decades. In the U.S., a small number of higher-end retailers, typically in major urban areas, have introduced a similar concept, but with bags that retail for between 79 cents and $2. (Many environmentally conscious consumers also have begun to incorporate their own canvass or cloth bags into their regular shopping routine.)
The vast majority of retailers, however, continue to offer free T-shirt bags or paper bags as options to their customers, even if they do provide higher-quality bags for sale.
“Frankly, we’ve found that the U.S. stores—grocery stores in particular—are very scared right now to stop giving plastic bags away for free,” Trossen says. “They see the environmental benefits, but, especially as the economy continues to struggle, they’re worried that their customers will simply go to another chain if they’re forced to pay for the bags.”
CASH AND CARRY
Legislation requiring retailers to switch to the “Everlasting Bag” concept, would, of course, solve this problem. While progress in this area has been relatively slow, a wide variety of legislatures, city councils and other government bodies throughout the U.S. have begun taking positive steps in this direction in recent years in Mettler’s view.
In Washington D.C., for instance, the city council passed a law in January 2010 requiring all shoppers to pay for plastic bags. The new regulation applies to all retailers selling edible items, including supermarkets and convenience stores, as well as book stores, clothing shops and small gift boutiques. Other lawmaking bodies are following suit. Similar legally mandated fees have been proposed in various forms in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Virginia and now Texas, to name a few.
Mettler executives, meanwhile, say they are hopeful that lawmakers on Capitol Hill will respond to such initiatives by taking action of their own. A recent study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which found that Americans use a staggering 90 billion retail bags every year, might be another impetus to action.
“We are very hopeful that with [President Barack] Obama in office, there will be a lot more attention given to the ‘green’ issues than in the past,” Trossen says. “If they gave this idea a chance, I think Americans would really get used to this very, very quickly.” He continues, “It didn’t take long for it to become normal, daily business in Germany and the rest of Europe.”
In turn, the environmental impact of the “Everlasting Bag” concept in Europe has been nothing short of remarkable.
A GROWING TREND
Ireland, for example, enacted a country-wide law in 2002 that levies a 15-cent surcharge on all plastic bags. This has reduced the annual plastic bag consumption by more than 93 percent—from an estimated 328 bags per person per year to just 21.
The trend is also spreading to Asia, where a ban on T-shirt bags in China has resulted in the use of 40 billion fewer bags, reduced plastic bag usage by 66 percent and saved that country more than 1.6 million tons of petroleum—all in just one year.
In the U.S., meanwhile, plastic bags are a major contributor to landfills and contribute to unsightly debris found on urban or rural streets. Alarmingly, the amount of plastic that is polluting American cities is miniscule compared to what is found in the world’s oceans. Oceanographers have identified the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” as a “plastic soup” of trash floating in the Pacific Ocean—its size measures twice that of the continental United States. In 2006, the United Nations Environment Program estimated that every square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of plastic, and it is now believed that plastic constitutes 90 percent of the rubbish drifting in the oceans.
To combat this issue, Mettler has initiated “The Closed Loop” cycle in Europe. Through this program, Mettler collects old, unusable plastic bags, processes the material at its recycling plant and then produces new carrier bags.
CLOSING THE LOOP
According to Julia Hailes, an environmentalist and sustainability consultant, plastic is the smartest option when it comes to retail bags. Both paper and plastic use the same amount of oil in production, but, compared to paper, plastic is much more durable and lightweight, she says. Paper bags take up 10 times more space and are six times heavier than plastic bags, significantly raising the cost of fuel that is required to transport the bags. In addition, people are able to continually reuse plastic bags compared to paper, which can tear and become unusable more quickly, Hailes finds.
Not only do Mettler’s ecoLoop bags use a large percentage of recycled material, they also reduce carbon emissions during production by 60 percent compared to conventional plastic bags, according to the company. What’s more, Mettler says retailers don’t have to sacrifice quality for sustainability. Mettler says its bags are noted for their high quality and sharp print. The company’s flexographic printing was awarded first prize of the Grand Prix Cyrel awards for excellence in the international carrier bag category.
As more and more companies here in the U.S. continue to learn about the many advantages of the “Everlasting Bag” concept and, in particular, Mettler’s products, the company is confident that its market share here will continue to grow exponentially over time.
“As time goes on, attitudes about plastic shopping bags will only continue to evolve,” Trossen says. “And if Americans, in particular, begin to limit their use of disposable bags and increase their use of recycled, reusable bags, they have the opportunity to make a very significant impact on the environment.”
The author is a writer based in Chicago. This article was submitted on behalf of Mettler Packaging.
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