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Environment: Paper or Paper?

Whole Foods scrapping all plastic bags

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Organic grocer Whole Foods Market is hoping to cut back on waste by settling the eternal "paper or plastic" debate once and for all. By Earth Day, April 22, paper bags will be the only option for those seeking sacks at the checkout -- the store will no longer offer plastic bags.

Those ubiquitous plastic grocery bags -- which consumers overwhelmingly use once and discard -- can take up to 1,000 years to degrade, says a study by Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental-research organization. Americans toss about 100 billion of them each year. By offering only paper bags at the checkout, Whole Foods hopes to encourage customers to bring their own bags from home -- or to purchase a reusable bag emblazoned with the store logo for 99 cents -- or to choose the store's 100 percent recycled and recyclable paper bags.

"It's really our core value, to send a message of reuse, to take care of the environment," says Kim Wynnyckyj, marketing director for Whole Foods' Pittsburgh location. "Our customers care about the earth, they care about the environment."

But recycling is a sticking point for the change -- shoppers say they use the distinctive blue bags to distinguish their curbside recycling, as mandated by the city.

"What are we supposed to use if they don't supply us?" asked Joan DeAngelis as she shopped the store. She says she also shops at Giant Eagle, which uses blue bags as well, so she'll still have those bags to set out her recycling in.

"I think it's a great idea," says shopper Dennis Bergevin, who tries to bring his own reusable grocery bags from home. But, he says, "I think the city needs to step in," allowing residents to put their recycling out in bins, perhaps, or some other durable reusable container.

Shopper Patti Renter -- who lives in Churchill, where residents put recycling out in bins -- echoed Bergevin's statement, calling for the city to be "a bit more generous" in providing recycling options.

The City of Pittsburgh, which requires residential recycling, mandates that residents distinguish their recycling in blue plastic bags. Giant Eagle has long used the blue bags, which can serve as a free and readily available reminder to recycle. Or, says the city's Recycling Department, people can pony up for blue bags at big-box stores like Kmart or Target.

"We realize that those blue bags are very important to residents' recycling," says Wynnyckyj. "We've heard some negative comments, specifically relating to 'What am I going to do with my recycling?'" The store will offer free reusable bags on Earth Day, and will continue their bag rebates of five cents per bag on customers' bills. And the store has always collected the bags for recycling.

"The blue bags aren't the greatest alternative for recycling," Wynnyckyj adds. "They're small, and you have to use a lot of them." She says the store's regional office is working on "exciting alternatives" for customers' recycling efforts.

Public Works Director Guy Costa did not return numerous calls seeking comment for this story, and the city Recycling Department said all comment must come from Costa.

"I don't know if the city has gotten feedback from people complaining about the bag system," says Joy Smallwood, the county recycling coordinator. "There is a push to get rid of the bags." Other cities, like San Francisco, have successfully done away with plastic grocery sacks at stores because of their environmental impact. Ireland and Germany tax them, and China has banned giving them away for free.

Pittsburgh is the only place in the Allegheny County that uses the blue-bag system, Smallwood says. She doesn't think one store eliminating the bags will have an appreciable impact on compliance.

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