Supermarket Dilemma : Battle of the Bags: Paper or Plastic?

Times Staff Writer

When the Vons supermarket in Long Beach runs out of plastic or paper bags, store clerk Lori Dirkx runs for cover.

"Some customers become real irate and start shouting if they can't get the kind of bag they want," said Dirkx, who has been working at the Ximeno Avenue Vons for two years. "It's amazing how they let such a little thing get them so upset. Years ago, they didn't even have a choice."

In supermarkets across the country--and especially in the highly competitive Southern California grocery market--a battle over grocery bags is brewing in the checkout line.

The plastic-bag industry has launched a new marketing effort aimed at dramatically boosting its already growing share of the $600-million grocery sack market. Meanwhile, there seems to be a backlash brewing among paper-bag partisans.

Everybody Has Squared Off

It appears everybody has squared off over grocery bags since plastic sacks were first widely introduced in the United States in 1979--from suburbanites who want paper bags so their groceries will remain upright in the trunks of their cars to urban shoppers who find plastic bags easier to carry.

And grocery bag makers are not just relying on the handiness of their products to draw converts. They are highlighting off-beat uses as well--everything from paper bags as Halloween masks to plastic bags as makeshift wind breakers.

"I think we have gotten so worked up (over grocery bags) because some of us feel we've had enough of change," said Harold Kassarjian, a marketing professor at UCLA who is editor of the Journal of Consumer Research. "It's like Coca-Cola. People can't tell the difference between the new Coke and the old Coke" but there is an allegiance to the old product nonetheless. American consumers, he said, have become "resistant to change."

Letter-Writing Campaign

The 500,000-member General Federation of Women's Clubs, the nation's oldest and largest women's volunteer organization, this month will launch a nationwide letter-writing campaign to get grocers to carry only paper bags because of the group's concern about the environmental impact of plastic bags, said Ernie Shriner of Cheyenne, Wyo. Shriner heads the organization's conservation committee.

Kassarjian said some objections to plastic bags may stem from concern about their environmental impact. Yet many consumers groups, who have had little luck marshaling support against such items as plastic garbage bags, Styrofoam egg cartons and plastic milk containers, have found that grocery bags is an issue that can galvanize us all.

"This is an issue that brings you face to face with the serious consequences of polluting the environment," said Barry Commoner, a leading environmentalist and director of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Queens College. "It raises the issue of public, democratic control of production decisions. In other words, does society really need plastic bags?"

Environmentalists generally object to plastics of all kind because the material is not biodegradable and remains molecularly intact, Commoner said. Plastic products can sometimes give off toxic fumes when burned, and plastic trash can injure birds and other animals that get entangled in it or mistake plastic for food.

Plastic Defended

The Plastic Grocery Sack Council in Washington counters that plastic's molecular integrity is good because "plastics present no leaching, bacterial or explosive gas problem," as decaying paper products sometimes can.

The battle between paper and plastic bags mirrors a larger and more important struggle between paper mills--the nation's 12th-largest industry in terms of the wholesale value of goods shipped--and the No. 13 plastic and resins industry to become the material of choice for the packaging industry.

In recent years, plastic has been winning. The amount of plastics used in packaging has roughly doubled to 12.4 billion pounds in 1984 from 5.6 billion in 1975. Nowhere is plastic's forward march more evident than in the supermarket, where everything from milk and eggs to potato chips and tofu is now packaged in plastic.

"The first big item to change from (paper) to plastic was the meat tray because it would stick to the meat when you froze it," said Ronald Schmieder, marketing manager for Mobil Chemical Co., the leading plastic grocery bag maker. Then produce bags, ice cream bags and egg cartons all succumbed to plastic, he said.

'The Last Stronghold'

"The last stronghold is the grocery sack bag," Schmieder said, "and now we are going after that."

Taking over the grocery bag market, which has been dominated by paper for more than a century, won't be easy. But the T-shirt shaped plastic bags, which have built-in handles, are said to be easier to carry as well as useful for other purposes.

The Plastic Grocery Sack Council says plastic bags can be reused in more than 17 different ways, including as a wrap for frozen foods, a jogger's wind breaker or a beach bag.

Not to be outdone, paper bag advocates boast that paper sacks can double as a book cover, as a covering for mailing packages, as a trash bag or--with the help of scissors and a little creativity--as a Halloween mask.

Commoner said he uses "whatever they give me" at the supermarket. Although he opposes plastic, Commoner said he has "better things to do than argue with a checkout person" about paper versus plastic.

Consumers Hold Deep Opinions

Most other consumers appear to hold deep opinions about grocery bags. Store clerk Dirkx said she prefers paper bags because they remain upright in the back seat of her car and because they "fit my trash can."

Yvette Roland, a law clerk in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, once preferred paper, too, but recently switched to plastic. "I used to prefer paper because it carried more but now I prefer plastic. Plastic is stronger," Roland explained. "Paper bags always seem to tear just when you reach the top of the stairs."

"I prefer plastic because I had a friend in my building that told me when you use paper it attracts roaches," said Brenda Dillon, a Los Angeles free-lance writer. "Ever since I heard that, I have always asked for plastic."

Bill Lawrence, a retired construction worker from Hawthorne, said he asks for paper because they fit his trash can. He also saves the bags for his grandchildren to use to make book covers and other school-related projects.

'Offer Both Bags'

Due to the deeply held consumer preferences, a 1983 study of Los Angeles shoppers conducted by a University of Southern California research team advised that "retailers will have to offer both bags, plastic and paper, to satisfy the majority of their shoppers' needs."

Women, for example, tend to favor paper bags, according to the USC study that interviewed 205 shoppers in Southern California. Men prefer plastic by a slight margin.

The study also found that people who drive to the store are more likely to request paper bags than people who walk or take the bus. For instance, 45% of those who drove to the store use paper bags, only 41% of those who walked did so, and just 12% of those who took the bus to the store liked paper, the study found.

Ethnic origin also was found to be a factor in bag choice. By a large margin, Latino shoppers preferred plastic bags. Black shoppers were split, with 40% preferring plastic and 40% favoring paper, while whites and Asian-Americans preferred paper by a small margin.

Owners Run Risk

Caught in the middle of the consumer preference battle are exasperated supermarket operators who run the risk of incurring the wrath of their customers if they try to drop either paper or plastic.

Several years ago, Ralphs Grocery Co. changed to plastic grocery sacks only to encounter such an outcry that the chain, which has 128 stores, dropped plastic altogether. That, however, upset plastic partisans. "So we decided to go 50-50, paper and plastic, to make everybody happy," said Byron Allumbaugh, chairman of Ralphs.

At Safeway, the nation's largest grocery store chain, regional managers are given wide autonomy to decide which bags to carry. About 75% of the 60 million grocery bags carried out by Safeway customers last year were paper, said Safeway spokeswoman Felicia del Campo. Consumer acceptance of plastic seems to have grown more slowly at Safeway than at Ralphs, Vons and many other West Coast grocery chains where plastic's share is higher than its 25% national market share.

Trade Group Established

To improve plastic's fortunes, the industry established a Washington-based trade group of 26 plastic bag producers this spring called the Plastic Grocery Sack Council. It also set up a toll-free telephone line and is distributing thousands of "informational" pamphlets in order to trumpet plastic bags to retailers and consumers.

"What it boils down to is this," said S. Edward Weary, director of technology and data for the council. "The consumer wants something that is strong, attractive and convenient. Our product has it, theirs doesn't."

Countered David Carlton, spokesman for the American Paper Institute: "Paper is an all-American product that means jobs and profit right here . . . not over in some (foreign) oil field." After all, Carlton added, "you brown-bag your lunch; you don't talk about plastic-bagging it."

In most of Europe, where plastic bags hold more than 80% of the market, shoppers have long embraced plastic grocery bags, primarily because many European shoppers walk to the store and therefore find them easier to carry.

Bags Banned in Italy

Although at least one country--Italy--has banned plastic bags in an effort to curtail litter, plastic bags also hold a majority of the market in Japan and Australia.

Plastic grocery bags have evolved more slowly in the United States. Early plastic bags here were expensive and too fragile to carry heavy items such as cans, meats and large bottles.

But in 1978, scientists developed a resin that allowed the sack to be made with a thinner, yet stronger, plastic. With that technological boost, plastic's share of the market grew dramatically--from a 5% market share in 1982 to a 25% market share now. By 1988, the industry predicts that plastic bags will hold 50% of the market.

"At first plastic sacks couldn't compete--they were like the Gucci bag, they were so expensive," said Schmieder of Mobil Chemical Co. "But the stronger resin allowed us to compete with paper. It was a tremendous breakthrough."

Difference in Cost

Safeway's Del Campo claimed that plastic bags still can cost more than paper in some parts of the country. But plastic and paper industry analysts generally agree that today plastic is about 10% to 15% cheaper than paper.

On the West Coast, 1,000 plastic bags cost about $24, contrasted with $26 to $30 for paper, said one supermarket executive who did not want to be identified. Plastic also takes up less space under the checkout counter, and is cheaper to transport than paper.

Even the forest products industry is concerned that paper grocery bags may not be an affordable option over the long term.

The paper industry is slowly losing capacity as mills that produce material for brown paper grocery bags--so-called unbleached kraft paper--are closed or converted to manufacture more profitable products, such as office and computer paper.

In February, for example, Champion International Corp. of Stamford, Conn., sold its kraft paper operation to Stone Container Co. for $428 million. Champion is also spending more than $200 million to convert a kraft paper plant in Pensacola, Fla., to make more lucrative bleached paper products for office supplies and other use.

Companies Converting

Another large forest products company, Atlanta-based Georgia Pacific, recently finished converting its kraft paper mill in Crossett, Ark., to manufacture bleached paper products. Meanwhile, Gilman Paper Co. of New York shut down its grocery sack division in December after losing more than $10 million since 1980, said John Giblin, the company's marketing manager.

"There's no massive impact yet," said Lawrence Ross, a paper industry analyst at Paine Webber. "But the paper companies know the writing is on the wall. The paper companies have already provided for a reconfiguration to produce other grades of paper."

Yet the leading manufacturer of kraft paper, Stone Container Co. of Chicago, which had net income of $3.78 million on sales of $1.23 billion in 1985, believes that there is still money to be made in supplying paper grocery bags.

Samuel Posner, vice president of Stone's retail packaging division, said it was the strength of the dollar against most foreign currencies in 1985 that hurt the kraft paper industry more than competition from plastic bag producers. He said many mills were converted simply because they had become outdated. "They wanted to convert their mills to make them state of the art," he said.

But Posner acknowledged that the long-term outlook for paper is not bright. "The paper market is not a growing market," he said. But for the time being, he said, "there's a place for both items. I think the consumer will see to that."

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