On a drizzly Wednesday afternoon, Estela Loaiza, a 28-year-old nurse, does some shopping at a downtown San José Más x Menos supermarket and heads for her bus stop. Her groceries hang from her arm in several white-and-blue plastic bags.
Once home, her food will go into cupboards and the refrigerator and the bags will be folded neatly, origami-like, into triangles and put into another plastic bag in her drawer.
“I have bags filled with bags,” said Loaiza. She is not alone in her dilemma. Around the world, cities and nations are grappling with what to do with all those plastic bags, which are hard on the environment.
Some governments have begun banning or taxing the bags. That idea doesn’t seem to be on the horizon here, but Costa Ricans are beginning to see some more environmentally friendly options.
Supermarket chains Auto Mercado and Más x Menos have launched programs this year that reward shoppers for using reuseable cloth bags.
In addition, Auto Mercado says the plastic bags it offers have been treated to break down within three years of being manufactured, while Más x Menos is selling biodegradable plastic bags in a pilot project in a limited number of stores.
“The situation with the environment is chaotic,” said Javier Bouza, Auto Mercado’s head of marketing. “Supermarkets are one of the entities that pollute the environment the most because tons of merchandise are packed in plastic.”
In the United States, consumers use an estimated 100 billion plastic bags a year. British retailers reportedly give away 13 billion plastic bags each year.
Beginning this month, China banned free, ultra-thin plastic bags in an attempt to fight what the government there has dubbed “white pollution.” According to Reuters, China uses 37 million barrels of crude oil a year to produce more than 1 trillion plastic bags.
Australia introduced legislation this week that would ban light-weight plastic shopping bags. Ireland, Rwanda and Bangladesh have passed similar laws.
In Costa Rica, where roadside litter and a lack of recycling programs cause many visitors to question the country’s ecological credentials, shoppers have taken to switching to cloth bags by the thousands, say representatives of Auto Mercado and Wal-Mart Central America, the owner of the Más x Menos chain.
“The response has been exceedingly good,” said Auto Mercado’s Bouza. “We have sold 10,000 (cloth) bags in one month.”
According to Bouza, the bags have already been used 19,000 times at Auto Mercado locations.
“They are definitely not being bought as souvenirs,” he said.
Yolanda Fernández, Wal-Mart Central America’s Corporate Affairs Manager for Costa Rica, said the reaction to the cloth bags in the Más x Menos stores has been “a super boom.”
“We did a release for three months, and in the first month the clients bought them all,” Fernández said. Wal-Mart is currently buying more bags, Fernández said, which should be in stores next week.
Both supermarket chains’ programs work similarly. The bags cost 1,499 colones (about $2.90) at Más x Menos and ¢1,900 (about $3.70) at Auto Mercado.
Both supermarkets say the cloth bags are produced by companies in Costa Rica, and Auto Mercado’s Bouza said his store has just found a manufacturer that can produce more bags for less.
“At this moment, the bags are not producing any profit for Auto Mercado.We are selling them at cost,” he said. The new bags will be 10 centimeters taller, he added, and the price may drop slightly as well.
Auto Mercado and Más x Menos have also launched programs hoping to coax the potentially wary Costa Rican consumer into the cloth bag habit.
Once a member of either chains’ frequent buyer program (free at both stores), clients who flash their membership card each time they use the bag earn rewards.
At Auto Mercado, customers are entered into a sweepstakes for a weekend trip to one of a few hotels with sustainable tourism certification from the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT), such as the OsaPeninsula’s Lapa Ríos and Manuel Antonio’s Rincón del Mar, with air travel provided by Nature Air.
At Más x Menos, customers earn points for using the cloth bags, or for asking for their groceries to be packaged in a cardboard box – another option – that can later be exchanged for prizes, Fernández said.
Más x Menos has also put a biodegradable, compostable plastic bag out for sale at a limited number of locations, but has had less success. The bag is made from a corn-starch-based plastic, and the increasing cost of corn world wide is pushing costs for that bag upward. Fernández said Wal-Mart is still measuring the success of the program.
According to one cashier at the downtown San José Más x Menos, the transparency of the bag is an issue.
“People didn’t like them. They said they were too transparent, that you could see everything inside the bag, and they were embarrassed,” said cashier Gabriel Fallas.
Auto Mercado has invested ¢30 million (about $58,000) this year to convert its shopping bags into more environmentally friendly ones. All of the store’s plastic bags now have an additive called D2W, Bouza said, which allows the plastic to decompose naturally, without leaving pollutants behind.
As for those old plastic bags, Auto Mercado also receives those at its locations, and donates them to a company that uses the plastic to create souvenirs and trinkets.
Also, at the Auto Mercado location in the Plaza Mayor shopping center in western San José, the company has begun sorting and recycling all its internal waste, the majority of which is organic waste like orange peels left over from the store’s orange juice production.
Bouza said the recyclables sorting may be extended to other Auto Mercado stores, creating neighborhood recycling centers, including a compost drop-off.
Why You Should Bag the Plastic Bag
–They are a major source of litter, often ending up in rivers, lakes and oceans
–Animals can ingest them, or become entangled, suffer and die
–They are made from petroleum
–They take dozens of years to break down in the environment
–When they do break down, they leave behind toxic chemicals
–Recycling plastic bags is usually not efficient